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Michelle Obama’s New, Tougher Public Image

First lady Michelle Obama plays soccer during her visit to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex
Photo: Orlando Sentinel/MCT

Michelle Obama can probably kick your ass. Maybe you’ve long suspected that, ever since her remarkably buff arms first began getting so much attention they inspired their own Tumblr. But mostly, the First Lady seemed content to use her arms publicly as an accent, the pièce de résistance for a sleek, sleeveless, celebrated look. Lately, though, she’s been actually using them in public — and recasting her public persona as a woman who relishes a bit of competition.

Two years into the First Lady’s “Let Move!” campaign, she’s been on a very high-profile PR blitz of late. The usual talk about healthy eating, along with the charming dancing that has become a hallmark of the campaign, have been augmented by some fierce action on the tennis court and the soccer pitch, as well as some nationally televised feats of strength, including a White House tug-of-war with Jimmy Fallon and a push-up contest against Ellen DeGeneres.

Those last two were reminiscent of another unguarded Obama moment from last year, in which she competed in a push-up contest with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She not only creamed him, but took obvious delight in doing so, with a Michael Jordan-esque tongue taunt. It’s a side of her personality she seems willing to reveal more often now. Her commitment to fitness has been extensively written about, but it’s the playfully aggressive spirit that we’ve seen less of. As Jessica Grose put it on Slate, “her presentation has become edgier, more authentic” than in the early days of the Obama administration when “it seemed like Michelle was tamping down her personality to fit into some cookie cutter role.” Perhaps part of it is that Obama feels more comfortable in the spotlight several years in. Or maybe she’s realized that this more authentic version of herself — of which the obvious joy she takes in her physical strength is a big part — might actually play better with voters, even if it’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen First Ladies do much of before.

The new version of Michelle comes close on the heels of Jodi Kantor’s book about the White House, which committed the apparently grave sin of portraying Michelle as strong and opinionated. Obama, worried that the portrait wasn’t a flattering one, went on CBS’s Early Show to complain about being labeled as an “angry black woman.”

But now, instead of trying to look docile in the wake of Kantor’s book, Obama went the opposite direction. Perhaps the episode was freeing for her in some way; or maybe she took a second look at the news coverage and realized that not many people were actually equating strength with anger. Ann Romney (or Karen Santorum or Callista Gingrich) better watch out — look what she did to Desmond Tutu, smiling all the while.

Michelle Obama’s New, Tougher Public Image