MANCHESTER, N.H. — Michelle Obama described a roundtable here the other day as "our version of The View," then proceeded to play moderator and questioner on a serious, political version of the ABC chatfest.
Stump speeches and get-out-the-vote rallies are so yesterday.
"This election is not about Michelle Obama and it's not about Barack Obama and it wasn't about Hillary Clinton," she says. "It's about people needing universal health care and really wanting this war to end."
This summer, the primaries finally over, Obama is filling in her schedule with events that underscore her roles as girlfriend and working mom.
Some recent activities — the roundtable, an appearance on The View, a speech to an advocacy group for children and families — are similar to what she's been doing for months. But there are more events like that now, since the schedule has loosened up. And they're getting more attention now that her husband, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, is the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The result, by accident or design, is that Obama's softer side is on display when she needs it to be: after a winter of edgy remarks that made her a lightning rod and gave ammunition to Republican John McCain and his allies.
At the discussion here, as an audience of 300 looked on, Obama heard from a hard-pressed theology student with three children, a YWCA director lamenting a decline in social services and a teacher who said kids are coming to class too hungry to learn.
"These roundtables are where the information comes, where the stories come from," Obama says later in an interview with USA TODAY. She says she'll do more of them, especially with military families whose tales are often "heartbreaking."
In a wide-ranging session around a snack-laden table at a hotel here, Obama previewed the style and substance she would bring to the White House. She talked about motherhood and what it's like to be a political target. She was jokey and friendly and not shy about challenging questions she didn't like.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, Obama is on leave from her job as an administrator at the University of Chicago hospital, where she was charged with improving relations between the hospital and the community around it. She campaigns for her husband on day trips, returning to Chicago at night to be with their two daughters, ages 7 and 9.
Expect to see more of her and the kids this summer, Obama says, when they'll turn on-the-road-time into "family time." That will stop when school starts.
"We don't pull them out of their world," Obama says. "Our kids thrive on stability and consistency, and they like their routine."
In the interview, Obama talks about keeping fit, her wardrobe and other details of daily life. Some tidbits:
• How she relaxes. She takes her daughters to soccer, tennis, swimming and play dates. "That tends to relax me," she says. "I'm usually doing it with other moms who have been friends, and we gossip and catch up and watch the kids play."
• Her workout routine. It's 90 minutes long, and she does it up to four times a week depending on her travel schedule. It includes cardio, free weights, treadmill, stair-walking and other activities. "Nobody's asked that," she teases. "This is a scoop."
• What else she does when she's not campaigning. "I sleep."
• Fashion tips. "Wear what you like," advises the 5-foot-11 Obama, who is wearing a low-cut gray and white dress with an elegant gray sweater. On The View, she said she never wears pantyhose, but she'd like to clarify that: She wears them "for special occasions or for cold weather."
• Date nights. "Barack and I don't have interesting lives, never did. We're basically family people. When we go on a date, it's either dinner or a movie because we can't stay awake for both," she says. Dates now include the Secret Service. "They give us our space," she says.
Discussing her life as a mother and wife, Obama sounds nothing like the woman conservatives describe as whiny (Peter Schweizer in National Review) and her husband's "bitter half" (Michelle Malkin on her blog).
Evelyn Simien, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, says the stereotype of black women is that "we're angry, even if we have a smile on our face." She says Obama is wise to stress her "Suzy Homemaker side" because "it's the side that married women can relate to. She's got to be strategic."
Will it work? John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Art of Political Warfare, says Obama "invited some of this scrutiny" with her comment about not being "really proud" of her country until now. "That was catnip to opposition researchers," he says, and has defined her image so far.
Her current activities play more to her strengths, he says, and her husband's defense of her — "lay off my wife," he said on ABC in May — could also help.
Obama says her campaign plans do not include worrying about what people say about her.