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What Comes After First Lady?

Experts' unsolicited career advice for Michelle Obama

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Michelle Obama turned 50 on Friday, and The New York Times marked the occasion with a front page feature about how the first lady—"the embodiment of the contemporary, urban, well-heeled middle-aged American woman"—is "finding her own path." The story is of the same breed as the People celebrity profile from which the Times lifted several details—including Obama’s comment that, when it comes to Botox, she would "never say never." Fifty may or may not be the new 40 or 30 or even 20, but it's certainly a nice round age for Gray Lady speculation about a not-quite-yet-gray lady.

So let's play along. In three years, thanks to the Constitution, Michelle Obama will be out of work—but with an impressive resume. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, a practiced lawyer, and a former hospital executive, she’ll have spent eight years shadowing the most powerful man in the world and spearheading national initiatives—not to mention schmoozing with celebrities and world leaders. She’s also an admired mother who's charismatic, fashionable, and beautiful. Obama won’t be asking "Who will hire me?" so much as "Where should I work?"

Many Americans—even contemporary, urban, well-heeled middle-aged women—turn to career counselors when they hit a midlife crisis and decide to switch careers. So I put that question to a few experts on Obama’s behalf.

Jim Weinstein, a Washington life consultant, said Obama’s talent doesn’t matter as much as her friends in high places. “We talk about the U.S. being a meritocracy, but it’s really not,” Weinstein said. “If you have superb connections, you can find great jobs, even if you’re of mediocre talent.” One of Obama’s first steps, he said, should be to talk to “people like Bill Gates” about where they envision her going—they might have good ideas, not to mention money to finance her projects or hire her as a spokeswoman.

It would be a mistake, according to Pathfinders’ Anthony Spadafore, to fall back on her law degree: “I get a good number of what I call seasoned professionals who are in their 50s or 60s and are reinventing themselves.” He said lots of lawyers come to him and say, "I can’t believe I chose this." (Nor should we expect Obama to follow in the footsteps of the first lady who forever changed post–White House expectations for first ladies: Obama has insisted she, unlike Hillary Clinton, has no interest in running for office.)

Obama and her husband will not lack for money; the speaking fees alone will be enough to live on, if they so choose. And she won’t need a big law firm’s prestige, either. So the most important question facing Obama will be how she can best promote the causes she cares about. As Spadafore put it, “it’s more about choosing something meaningful that [she’s] going to be good at and enjoy doing.”

Rockport Institute founder Nick Lore, who's currently working with a member of President Obama's cabinet (though he wouldn’t say which one), imagines the first lady throwing herself into a new project. “The things that she does, she does very well,” he said, “but in many ways she’s hampered from full self-expression because she’s the first lady. You’re an example to everybody. You have to kind of pull your wings in a little bit to do that. The most outrageous thing would be for her to go full tilt, like Bill Clinton’s doing, like Bill and Melinda Gates are doing. Where they’re just nonstop, completely, totally committed to not just working on something—anybody can work on an issue—but committed to actually solve it. That’s different from movie stars. All the movie stars have their cause, but it isn’t the center of their lives.”

That's all well and good. But Obama’s adulating fans aren’t interested in self-help methodology. How about some specific proposals?

“When you hear her speak on TV, don’t you get the sense that she’s kind of like a mentor?” Spadafore said. “She has an analytical sense of presenting information. So I would say professor.” He suggested Obama become a spokesperson, researcher, and reformer in education policy.

Weinstein likes the spokesperson idea—perhaps in the diet-product business. The job would pay well and demand little. After all, Obama might not want a full-time job, given that one of her daughters will still be in high school.

I'm not sure Obama would stoop to that—no offense, Jennifer Hudson or Janet Jackson. But the award for the most unusual suggestion goes to Lore, who, asked to propose some more "surprising" options for the first lady, mused that Obama could launch a music-and-dance TV show. Lore saw Obama dancing on an episode of Jimmy Fallon and was inspired.

“He’s dancing with her and they’re doing this mom’s dance and she is fabulous!" he said. "She is so good!”