When Michelle Obama turned 50 in January, she made a seemingly innocuous statement, saying she wanted to be more like her mother. But then the first lady explained: "She (Mrs. Marian Robinson) does exactly what she wants to do every single day without apology."
Being First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) almost rules that out. But, increasingly, Mrs. Obama is pushing the envelope and her upcoming trip to China on March 19-26 may yet be the test. Some FLOTUS watchers are already predicting that Michelle - who is making this trip without the president - but with her mother and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, will "likely steer clear of controversy."
In some ways, it is easy to pick on China and first ladies have done so in impressive ways in the past. If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, it will probably come up again how Clinton, in a pale pink First Lady's suit, issued what editor Tina Brown called "a battle cry for women" in Beijing in 1995. It was then that Clinton made famous the phrase: "human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."
Laura Bush, as first lady, took the lead on Burma policy in the White House. She was known to speak directly to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who had been under house arrest in Burma since 1989 and, on the Thai-Burmese border in August 2008, she spoke directly to China:
We urge the Chinese to do what other countries have done, to sanction, to put a financial squeeze on the Burmese generals so that they will reach out to the people in the country of Burma.
No one really knows how bold or not Michelle Obama will be on this upcoming family trip. In a recent blog, she urges young people in the United States to check out her daily travel postings, which will feature videos and photos. She points out that she will be talking to students - at a university and two high schools in Beijing - about "the power and importance of education" and "about their lives in China."
That sounds safe enough. And since China continues to play a critical role on three of the top issues facing her husband - Ukraine, Syria and Iran - that may be the better course.
Still, when Mrs. Obama says in her blog that she wants to talk to young people in China about "the values and traditions we hold dear," it is hard not to weigh in on issues of human rights and freedom of expression in their own country. While, as first lady, Michelle is lauded as a fashion and fitness model, and, with her Let's Move campaign and emphasis on nutrition, is changing our attitudes about health, she has also stepped out of that comfort zone at times.
Most notably, Mrs. Obama attended the funeral just about a year ago of 15 year-old Hadiya Pendleton, an honors student and drum majorette, who was shot in a Chicago city park on her way home from school. A few months later, the first lady spoke at a youth violence conference in the "Windy City," asking Congress to pass common-sense reforms to stem gun violence. She did it her way.
The popular first lady says that she wants to "keep figuring out ways to have an impact." She has the opportunity to do that in China. Will she?
Eileen Shields-West is board chair of Refugees International. Shields-West is author of The World Almanac of Political Campaigns (1992), and edited and contributed to Choosing the Right Educational Path for Your Child (2008).