Rupert Cornwell: Michelle Obama steps out on the world stage

Out of America: Already a national role model, the First Lady arrives in London with her husband this week as a superstar in her own right

Maybe we won't have another Kennedy moment this week. When the Obamas meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the American President is unlikely to introduce himself as "the man who accompanied Michelle Obama to London", reprising JFK's quip in Paris in 1961, about how he had been eclipsed by his young, beautiful and French-speaking wife. In truth, of course, Kennedy wasn't outshone. Back then, he had glamour and charisma to match Barack Obama's today.

Still, the thought isn't that farfetched. Two months into her husband's term, Michelle is a superstar in her own right. Her every appearance is a major news event; her every move is tracked by an army of bloggers. Her fashions, her hairdos, not to mention her choice of presidential pet, command headlines worthy of Jackie in Camelot's heyday – and not only on the gossip pages. So much so that you wonder how anyone could put up with such scrutiny.

"I have a more fun job than he does," Michelle Obama told a group of teenagers the other day, when she visited a Washington DC high school. And true, she's not having to save the global financial system, fend off demands for the head of the Treasury Secretary, or come up with a strategy for Afghanistan.

But she must bear crosses enough of her own. A few weeks ago, after she wore a sleeveless dress for her husband's address to Congress, a debate erupted over her well-honed arm muscles. New York Times columnists were at each other's throats over the issue: "The only bracing symbol of American strength right now is the image of Michelle Obama's sculpted biceps," wrote Maureen Dowd. Please, no, responded her colleague David Brooks, a First Lady "should not be known for her physical presence, for one body part".

If you're interested, it emerged the other day that a Chicago stylist named Johnny Wright will be Michelle's White House hairdresser. Fashion designers grovel for the honour of being selected to provide outfits to adorn the First Lady's comely form. And, inevitably, there have been rumours about a new little Obama on the way, à la Leo Blair. Not so, Michelle told Oprah Winfrey last week, she's "not pregnant," and "not planning it".

For the cynics, the transformation is merely a triumph of the image-maker's art. After all, wasn't this the woman who made patriotic Americans seethe during the campaign, when she ventured that her husband's success had for the first time made her feel proud of her country? There was talk of a video doing the rounds in which she referred to white people as "whitey". The rumour was nonsense, but its existence told a story.

A year ago, her approval rating was 32 per cent. Now it's doubled. If anything, she's even more popular than Barack; only 8 per cent of Americans say they don't like her. Big deal, maintain cynics who argue that Michelle is benefiting from a husband who everyone hopes will rescue the economy, from two enchanting daughters, and from a grace period accorded every incoming First Family. The argument has a grain of truth. But there's no avoiding the fact that since 20 January, she hasn't put a foot wrong.

Each First Lady has her own style. Nancy Reagan was Ronnie's adoring and super-protective guardian. Barbara Bush was the nation's grandmother; her daughter-in-law Laura was the sweet librarian homebody, at least until she blossomed out in George W's second term, her popularity soaring as her husband's plummeted.

The omission from this list of presidential spouses is, of course, Hillary Clinton, and deliberately so. For hers is the shade that haunts Michelle Obama's handlers – the example that this White House is determined to avoid. In many respects, the two women are alike. Both are educated and highly accomplished. When their spouses became President, each had just turned 45. Both of them had managed to combine motherhood with a demanding job. Hillary was one of the most highly rated lawyers in America; Michelle trained as one before deciding the law was not for her, becoming instead a community organiser and hospital administrator.

But there the similarities end. "Elect me, and you get two for the price of one," Bill would say, and he was as good as his word. For a while, they operated as a partnership of power, with Hillary in charge of healthcare reform. But America did not take to her. By this stage of the first Clinton term, in early 1993, the heavens were already about to open over the pair: first "Travelgate" – the purge of the White House travel office, allegedly to make way for pals – and then the convoluted but near-fatal Whitewater affair. Soon, the partners in power had metastasised into partners in scandal.

But some couples lend themselves to scandal. The Obamas are the opposite. They may be products of Chicago's infamously sleazy political system, but nothing sticks: neither their association with the convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko, nor the antics of Rod Blagojevich, Illinois's disgraced former governor. Inevitably in these grim times, her husband has hit political headwinds, but the breezes for Michelle could not be fairer. She has emerged as a precious national role model – as anyone who watched her at the DC school could testify.

It was in Anacostia, a poor and crime-ridden part of Washington, where the city's well-heeled white residents rarely venture – let alone an occupant of the White House. You could say it's the capital's equivalent of the South Side of Chicago, where Michelle grew up. If anyone can sell the virtues of a stable family and hard work to the children of disadvantaged black America, it is a descendant of slaves who made it to Princeton.

She has visited soup kitchens and homeless shelters in DC, sending a message to America's deprived and often forgotten inner cities. Less noticed, she has made a personal cause of improving conditions for military families and veterans, something of which George W Bush, for all his warmongering, was oddly neglectful.

Some will say all this is just politics. Every White House since Reagan has been obsessed with image and presentation. For Democrats who have yet to entirely shake off a reputation for being anti-military, Michelle's endeavours are an obvious and major plus. What better way, for a woman who once said she was not proud of her country, of proving patriotism than to go out of her way to help those at the sharp end of her country's wars?

But this week little of this will matter. The Michelle stories will be about her dresses, her hairstyle, her body language with the Queen and similar matters of global import. And with the world in the shape it's in, it's probably just as well.

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