First Ladies: Picking Their Causes

First lady Michelle Obama, left, and former first lady Laura Bush during a panel discussion during 'Investing in Our Future' at the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

First lady Michelle Obama, left, and former first lady Laura Bush during a panel discussion during ‘Investing in Our Future’ at the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Updated at 10:53 am EDT

As the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington concludes today with diplomatic discussions among President Barack Obama and African heads of state, First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush were hosting a forum of their own today.

Moderator Cokie Roberts asked them how, as first ladies, they choose the issues they want to spotlight in their unofficial yet influential roles.

“I think you look at yourself and see what your expertise is,” Bush said, speaking of her interest in health care. Her own interest in Africa started with her first trip there with her husband in 2003, as he was launching the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

“The importance of Africa is very personal to me,” Obama said, noting her husband’s toast at the White House dinner for African leaders last night. “Africa is home for us.”

“I stand before you as the president of the United States and a proud American,” the president said in his toast. “I also stand before you as the son of a man from Africa.  The blood of Africa runs through our family.  And so for us, the bonds between our countries, our continents, are deeply personal.”

It’s “also where your passions lie,” Obama said, speaking of her interest in education. “I’ve found I’ve been most effective when I’m uniquely authentic… That means I have to believe passionately in the causes I take on.”

Sometimes, they acknowledged, their advocacy draws public criticism.

“I have always realized, when George ran for president, that you’re… going to be criticized and a target for criticism,” Laura Bush said.

“You just… get back in the game,” Obama said.

“Being president doesn’t change who you are — it reveals who you are,” Obama said. “That’s true for first spouses, too.”

“And women are smarter than men,” Obama said.

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