09/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Michelle Obama And The First Ladies Club

NORFOLK, Va. -- Although it was ninetysome degrees and thick with humidity, Michelle Obama appeared at a roundtable for military spouses here Wednesday in a black cardigan and leggings.

"She's cuter than I expected," said one pastor. He'd been among the dozen or so faith leaders who'd met with Ms. Obama before the roundtable. She'd also visited an early childhood center and read a book aloud to some kids. Except for the layered clothes, which suggested less a pre-packaged outfit and more a self-styled ensemble, the topics she would address and the itinerary she would follow -- focused on women, children, and church -- were classic First Lady. If the Obama campaign's strategy is partly to have Barack Obama simply act presidential -- visiting foreign heads of state; unveiling an energy policy -- then his spouse appears to be doing her part.

Of course, who knows what's really going on inside Ms. Obama's head. In an auditorium at Old Dominion in front of roughly 300 community members and 40 journalists, Michelle Obama read a speech about the importance of military families. Whereas her husband's speeches have the feel of an extemporaneous performance, Ms. Obama's eyes kept returning to the page. She recited key Obama platform items designed to improve the lives of military families:

• predictable deployments
• expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover Reserve families
• improved veterans' services, to include counseling, mental health care, and employment assistance
• a "21st century V.A." that treats more than combat injuries, but also those sustained in training and other areas
• increased chances for veterans returning home to afford a college education and for service members to share their education benefits with family members

The audience received these points as sincerely as they were delivered, occasionally applauding (especially at the line on affordable education), but little seemed to punch through the fourth wall. Occasionally, a glimmer of what seemed to be Ms. Obama's own personality flashed on stage. When she began discussing the policy pamphlet she was drawing from for her talk, she held up the slick blue paper and said "See? Isn't it pretty? And it's for Virginia, too!" Was that a jab at the obsessive marketing of presidential campaigns?

When it was time to take questions, she seized on the person who had raised his hand first. "First outta the block," she said. One had the sense that fairness matters to her. Later, when she selected other audience members to speak, she let her hand hover in the air as if above a box of assorted chocolates. "I'm trying to balance it out," she said.

If these observations are only small hints at her character, it is because there's little else to grab. As a potential first lady, Michelle Obama is being measured against previous first ladies, within the long-established parameters that place a premium on her appearance and personality. She's not in a position to break news, but to offer herself as a national symbol and a conduit to her husband. In fact, the bulk of the talking at the event was done by other people. Seven military spouses -- all women -- detailed their particular concerns. A breast cancer survivor worried over what she would do about insurance when her husband retired from the service; the "proud wife" of a Marine Lieutenant Colonel wanted to be able to hand-carry her child's medical records. It was unclear what Barack Obama -- let alone Michelle Obama -- was expected to do about these problems; indeed, the concerns were so idiosyncratic that one speaker even introduced her remarks with, "My issue is..."

For the most part, Ms. Obama simply listened. Twice she took the microphone to respond, offering a larger perspective. Universal healthcare, she said, was Barack's top priority. The "universal" seemed deliberate, as the candidate has drawn criticism for a plan that isn't mandatory and therefore may allow some Americans to remain uninsured. Universal healthcare is a must, Ms. Obama insisted, to serve as a safety net for Americans who don't fit neatly into the system.

Later, she said that there was nothing to be embarrassed about in raising concerns. Throughout her travels, she explained, what she'd heard from most military spouses -- and many Americans -- was that they felt "blessed." Of course we are blessed, Ms. Obama said. Still, "sometimes things still aren't right, and we should be able to talk about it." The fear of complaining, she said, risked getting in the way of making our country better.

Again, the remark seemed both personal and political -- Mrs. Obama has been accused of being critical of the U.S., and she appeared to be trying to set the record straight. As is often true with campaign events, the subtext proved more meaty than the text.

Campaign events can also provide unexpected social commentary. As the military wives took turns speaking, a theme emerged around their need to balance the entire domestic load -- including sick and aging parents, spotty public education, children with special needs, children with regular needs, birth, death, illness, trauma, loneliness, fear, depression, and real estate. Often, they had to manage their family's affairs alone, with not enough money and caught in a web of red tape.

"I always say the U.S. Marine Corps has the best bargain in the world," said one woman. "They get two for one. The spouse is expected to serve alongside the solider as a volunteer."

Although most wives acknowledged they'd willingly given up their careers for a life of public service, the lack of power and authority they experienced as dependents seemed to be getting in the way of making the contributions they believed they could make. Although they were turning to Ms. Obama for help, her position seemed not much different than theirs. If her husband is elected, she will become a volunteer public servant whose work will be largely in support of her husband's career and bound by the constraints of popular opinion.

"I'm gonna keep taking these conversations to my husband," she promised in her speech. In one of the few slips of the tongue I heard, she referred to the privilege he might have of being "your president" and she as "his first lady."

The switch in pronoun was minor but telling. Along with a 21st-century V.A., isn't it time we have a 21st-century first spouse, who belongs either to the country or to herself, but who serves some purpose other than whispering in the ear of the powerful to plead on behalf of the weak?