Unlike her husband, the first lady had a good year

Michelle Obama blew past Carla Bruni, former model and wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to grab fashion magazine Elle’s first place in the “political chic” category of its annual “best-dressed” list. Probably not one of our first lady’s key goals for her first year in office, but for the American designers shown off by Obama — like Naeem Khan, who provided the gown for last week’s U.S.-India state dinner — the attention from the Paris arbiters of style is very welcome.

As has been, generally, Obama’s first year as first lady. Her husband and the large Democratic majorities in the Congress have struggled to get anything right. The sole significant legislative accomplishment they are close to is a nightmare of taxes and rationing.

But Michelle Obama has had a very good year since her husband won the presidency in November 2008.

Because of Obama’s often-passionate and sometimes very ill-considered rhetoric on the campaign trail, many wondered how she would organize the East Wing. Would she take a cue from Eleanor, Jackie, Nancy or Hillary, or some combination of all of the above?

Turns out that, like the wonderful Laura Bush, Obama has become a largely apolitical, powerfully positive figure in public life. She has embraced child nutrition as a key cause, and this is a fight worth fighting.

The incidence of obesity among children has skyrocketed in recent years: For 2- to 5-year-olds, its prevalence increased from 5 to 12.4 percent; obesity in children ages 6-11 increased from 6.5 to 17 percent; and from 5 to 17.6 percent for those ages 12-19.

Some mocked the White House garden that Obama installed as part of her campaign to encourage healthy eating, but a sustained effort to use her glamour and position to drive home the lifelong handicaps of obesity is to be applauded.

Obama also has set a great example as first mom, with the girls carefully and rightly screened from the peril of becoming unwilling pop icons and minicelebrities. Her public appearances have been graceful and full of good humor.

With the president, she tried to bring the Olympics home to Chicago. And while the collapse of the American bid seems to have been preordained in retrospect, her willingness to do what she could to help in a high-risk, very public way was gutsy and admirable. A willingness to take some risks is a fine characteristic to model.

Throughout, she has been a fashion statement and as stylish as any first lady since Jackie Kennedy. Her embrace of classic American brands like J. Crew and Talbots is a welcome boost to American retail, and there isn’t a label that wouldn’t love to have the first lady engage in a big public event wearing its new line.

Mostly though, Obama’s avoidance of high-profile politicking has been greatly appreciated. Especially when the first lady’s husband is engaged in some of the most controversial and divisive domestic and foreign policy arguments of the past 40 years, it is very good for the first spouse to remain out of the fray and be part of the country’s bipartisan package.

Here’s the test: Are the nation’s school kids looking at the first lady and seeing an example of class, style and learning? Are people from around the world seeing in the first lady as a warm and welcoming representative of the country?

The answers throughout 2009 have been yes and yes, and that is a great thing as well as a fine beginning for Michelle Obama.

Examiner columnist Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at www.HughHewitt.com.

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