DARLENE SUPERVILLE
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first lady had come to visit.

Hundreds of people who work at the Education Department had waited for hours to be sure they got a coveted spot in the auditorium.

And as soon as Michelle Obama stepped onstage, the place roared to life with applause, cheers and cell phone-cameras held high to document what, for the crowd, was a historic moment.

"Well, this is a good thing to see this department fired up and ready to go, right?" the first lady said in response.

Education was the first stop on an ongoing tour of the government by Mrs. Obama, a Washington outsider who is visiting large Cabinet departments and small agencies to "meet my new neighbors."

To the civil servants throughout government who keep it humming, the visits are so much more. They're a source of rare recognition and inspiration for an often neglected and even maligned part of the government.

Federal workers could be forgiven for feeling underappreciated.

Politicians love to make campaign promises to streamline the "bloated federal bureaucracy." President George W. Bush worked to shift government jobs to private contractors. Bill Clinton dispatched Vice President Al Gore on a mission to "reinvent government" that included cutting the federal work force and trimming layers of management. Ronald Reagan famously declared that "government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem."

Barack Obama, by contrast, has said he wants "to make government cool again."

Enter Mrs. Obama.

"Her presence here sent a message that she was concerned about the people here," said Frank Sanders of College Park, Md., who has worked at the Environmental Protection Agency since it was created in 1970. "We were just pleased that she came."

Juliette Rizzo, a 10-year Education Department employee, said she was encouraged when Mrs. Obama told that audience that the public schools had nurtured and helped her along.

"I am a product of your work," Mrs. Obama said. She said it twice.

Rizzo, a director of exhibits and events who lives in North Bethesda, Md., said: "It reinforced the value of why we do what we do every single day for all those millions of children and adults around the country."

Richard Trinidad, an Arlington, Va., resident who has logged 38 years at the Postal Service, EPA, Secret Service and the Interior Department, where he is an associate inspector general, said the visits are a mark of good leadership.

"It is a recognition of these long-term employees, these people that have dedicated their lives to public service. These are the folks that lead us," he said, "and they care enough to stop by."

None could recall another first lady visiting their work places to meet with the staff.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said what Mrs. Obama is doing is important because the 1.9 million-member federal work force gets little reward or recognition.

Stier's group promotes the federal work force, and he says no one has a bigger impact on morale than their leaders.

"Her visits ... are a powerful symbol to the work force. The message is 'You matter. We care about you. Your work is not being overlooked.' And that's really important," he said.

Mrs. Obama promises to visit every agency — "however long it takes."

She's made 10 trips to date: Education, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Agriculture, Transportation, EPA, State, Homeland Security, the Office of Personnel Management and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that connects people to volunteer opportunities.

Her visits carry the energy and buzz of a campaign event.

At the Transportation Department, employees were peeking out of windows from the floors above her appearance in a ground-floor atrium. At the Agriculture Department, she brought along a seedling from a historic magnolia tree on the White House grounds. At Interior, she came away with Native American gifts including a handmade shawl designed to honor a woman of high achievement.

At each stop, Mrs. Obama congratulates a group of longtime workers who stand behind her on stage — those on the job 30 or 40 or more years — and makes brief remarks, often highlighting specific initiatives the agency is involved in. The message she most often hears is simply "thanks for coming."

"That's actually something that was in some ways a little surprising to us, that people seem to be genuinely touched by just coming and being there," said Jocelyn Frye, the first lady's policy director.

The agency visits are part of Mrs. Obama's larger goal of getting out of the White House and getting to know Washington. Federal workers factor into that, since they live in the city in large numbers.

Anya Smith, special events director at the Education Department, said people feel more inspired coming to work since Mrs. Obama visited. She got a hug and had her picture taken with the president's wife.

"She just had this energy about her that made you feel like you could do anything," said Smith, of Bowie, Md. "I know I feel more inspired coming to work now."