As her time in the White House draws to a close, historians note that First Lady Michelle Obama leaves behind an unprecedented legacy, not just as the nation’s first Black first lady and fierce defender of her husband’s policies, but as a champion for a healthier nation and access to educational opportunity.
“What strikes me about Michelle Obama is how much she made the position her own,” Allida Black, the first ladies’ historian at the White House Historical Association, told NBC News. “She not only became increasingly comfortable but also increasingly influential as first lady in ways that really were her own, and they were ways that were different.”
One thing that never changed as she found her footing on the national stage was conserving a private life for herself and her two young daughters, Sasha and Malia, McBride said.
One of her first highly visible projects was a new garden on the South Lawn of the White House in April 2009. “She tied that issue directly to what was the biggest domestic agenda item of the Obama administration, and that was health care reform,” McBride said.
The following year, Obama became one of few first ladies able to get legislation passed, Black said. The first lady called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act “a cornerstone” of her work during the first year of Let’s Move. The act served to update school meal nutritional standards, offer healthier meal options for students and increase the number of students who had access to school lunch at little or no cost, according to the first Office of the First Lady.
Alongside her lifestyle initiatives, Obama began to highlight the importance of education and the role it played in her own life.
Obama launched her Reach Higher initiative, and Let Girls Learn, her international initiative to draw attention to lack of education for girls around the world, in 2015.
As a near closing act, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she coined on of the signature phrases of the 2016 campaign, imploring: “When they go low, we go high.”
“She upstaged everybody, because she spoke from her heart and it rang true to everything the country saw her do for the last eight years,” Black said, calling Obama “really the most dynamic force on the campaign trail of any person in either party.”
She grew adept at using social media and popular culture to help shape public perception, including her “Carpool Karaoke” video and dancing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Aside from her likeable social media presence, Black says that Obama played an important role as a fashion and lifestyle icon.
“I think her fashion statement was as important and as striking as Nancy Reagan’s, but in an entirely different way,” she said. “She really let the country see her in a way that not only opened the White House up, but had a major impact on American culture.”