Michelle Obama strolls through the campaign headquarters on the eleventh floor of a nondescript downtown Chicago high-rise like a queen. Long-limbed and striking, she is not dressed like a candidate’s wife. No jewel-toned knits or demure knee-length skirts. It’s hot outside, so her shoulders are bare. Campaign workers fall silent as she glides by, more awed than intimidated.
Michelle Obama, wife of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, does not act like a candidate’s wife, either. When standing on stage by her husband’s side, there is none of that dutiful head nodding. Her gaze is fixed on him but there is not an ounce of subservience in it. Still it is clear that when they are together he is the person commanding the stage.
But as her husband continues to turn heads in his bid to become the nation’s first African-American president, Michelle Obama just might be the campaign’s secret weapon.
ON THE ROAD WITH MICHELLE
It is the early days of this campaign, so covering Michelle Obama is not yet the mob experience it soon will be. This is my sixth presidential campaign, and it feels downright peaceful. Part of this comes from traveling with the spouse, not the principal. The other part comes from being in the presence of Michelle Obama herself. In years of watching candidates negotiate long campaign days, I’ve seen a lot of them sweat. Not Michelle. Cool and certain, she makes it clear that she has embarked on this adventure on her own terms.
When campaigning solo, as she was at an awards luncheon in New York City recently, Michelle is apt to scribble her own remarks, and then toss them aside if the occasion warrants it. That sort of flexibility comes in handy when the lawyer you married decides he wants to be president of the United States. Her role is key to the plan to pull this off, because with the loyalties of women voters in the balance, the hope is that Michelle will help Barack tip the scales. On the stump, her studied warmth is a contrast to her husband’s brainy cool. More than one person in the Obama camp whispers that she, in fact, is the more compelling speaker.
“We need to change the face of the conversation, ladies,” she tells the mostly female audience at a rally in Las Vegas. “We sat back too long, suffering in silence, avoiding these challenges. We can’t do that any longer. We need a man”—she stops and edits herself—”a person who happens to be a man, who is ready to help us turn the page to bring a new conversation to the table, to change the lives of women and children across America.”
I first encountered the Obamas in the most public of ways: onstage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, minutes after he had completed a raucously received speech about hope and unity. With the sheen of the moment still bouncing off them both, they waded through the applause over to my NewsHour camera position. I asked him one of those awful broadcaster’s questions: How did it feel?
“You’re just trying to make sure you don’t screw up,” he responded.
It wasn’t until two years later, in his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope, that I discovered where those words came from: Michelle. Her final words to him before he went to the podium that night—delivered with a hug —were, “Just don’t screw it up, buddy.”
Since then, Michelle has been both admired and criticized for being a successful working mother who decided to take a backseat to her husband’s ambitions. But she is not listening to the critics. “I know who I need to be,” she tells me as she cools her heels in a borrowed conference room between campaign appearances in New York. “I’ve come to know myself at the age of 43. Now maybe if I were 23 or 33, I’d still be struggling with that. But I’m a grown-up. And I’ve seen it up, and I’ve seen it down, and I know who I need to be to stay true to who I am and to keep my family on track. We don’t always figure that out for ourselves as women.”
Barack Obama, chatting by phone from the trail, says, “There’s no doubt that a lot of women identify with Michelle, because she’s prototypical of women who came of age when they had career opportunities that didn’t exist in the past, yet they continue to cherish and value their family lives.” Still, Michelle admits it’s not easy.
“I think my generation of professional women are sort of waking up and realizing that we potentially may not be able to have it all—not at the same time,” she says.
FROM THE SOUTH SIDE TO PRINCETON
As the nation figures out who Michelle Obama is, she could well end up being this year’s big Rorschach test. How will Americans react to an educated Black woman who adheres to no widely accepted stereotype?
Nettie Harrison, a retired Black educator who braved the heat to see Michelle in Las Vegas, says she expected to hear more about the political than the personal, but was pleased it was the other way around. “So many times we have people who are born with that spoon in their mouth,” she says, as Michelle shook hands a few feet away, “and they have no concept of where a lot of us have come from, or where we are going.”
Where Michelle LaVaughn Robinson “came from” is the storied South Side of Chicago. She grew up with her older brother, Craig, in a modest bungalow owned by working-class parents. Their father, Fraser Robinson, who died in 1990, worked as a pump operator most of his adult life. Even though he suffered from multiple sclerosis, he managed to send his children to Princeton and leave a pension for his widow.
Craig is now a men’s basketball coach at Brown University in Providence. “What you see when you see my sister is my sister,” he tells ESSENCE. “You don’t see someone pretending to be someone else or someone who thought she was going to grow up to be a first lady.”
After graduating from Princeton with honors in 1985, Michelle earned a Harvard law degree in 1988, and went home to work in the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, where she met Barack. She was initially assigned to supervise her future husband.
“I thought, This is probably just a Black man who can talk straight. That’s why they’re excited about him,” she tells audiences. So she lowered her expectations. But he was cuter than she expected. And Barack took her to church basements, where he spoke to groups of inner-city women who were more worried about making the rent than marching on City Hall. “He connected with me and everyone in that church basement, just like he is connecting with you,” she tells the women in Las Vegas. “He was able to articulate a vision that resonated with people, that was real. And right then and there, I decided this guy was special. The authenticity you see is real, and that’s why I fell in love with him.”
Michelle Obama’s career since then has been a blend of public service and public and private practice. Her experience, she says, influences her latest risky role: stepping out onto the political ledge to grasp for an elusive brass ring. There is a chance they might slip, a chance they might fall, but in her down-to-earth way, Michelle says it’s a risk they will take. “Our challenges get publicized, and I see that as a gift to let people know there is no magic to this,” she says. But observers want to know what kind of first lady would Michelle Obama be? The Hillary Clinton model—a power behind the throne? Or the Laura Bush model—a demure partner who does actually invite people to the White House for tea?
Whatever it takes, she says. “If that means that the country needs a more traditional first lady, well, I can do that. It would not emasculate me,” she says, leaning forward in the Chicago conference room. “But it wouldn’t look like everybody else’s; it would have a Michelle Obama flair to it, right? Because I am who I am.”
Michelle likes to remind audiences her husband is just a man—at once extraordinary and quite ordinary—a man who forgets to pick up his socks. Her intent is to humanize the man many see as the Great Black Hope. She is untroubled by early critics who have said she is too dismissive of her husband, or that she should not have scaled back her career to serve his presidential ambitions. “I know that I can’t do it all,” she offers flatly as we chat in Chicago. “I cannot be involved in a presidential campaign, hold down a full-time senior-level position, get my kids to camp, and exercise and eat right. I know I can’t do it all. So forgive me for being human, but I’m going to put it on the table. You’ve got to make trade-offs in life. I’m okay with that. I’ve come to realize I am sacrificing one set of things in my life for something else potentially really positive.”
That “something” is the vision of her husband in the White House as the nation’s first African-American president. If that sounds audacious, that’s because it is. And in her own way—she works out every morning and tells her audiences they should too, she’s raising two girls while running a major health-care system, and her nails and hair are never unkempt—Michelle Obama is audacious, too. But, just as an assertive woman is so frequently labeled aggressive, an audacious Black woman runs the risk of appearing—well, there is not another way to say it—uppity. In the political world, where the spotlight shines especially bright, perception is everything. So there is no talk in the Obama campaign of a “two-for-one” presidency, as there was when Bill and Hillary Clinton ran in 1992. And Senator Obama says he doubts his wife would even want a White House policy gig. “That tends not to be the role Michelle likes to play,” he says. “She knows she’s got influence with me and doesn’t need to be overt to let her opinions get known.”
A few weeks after meeting in New York City, we are in Las Vegas, where it is 100 degrees outside. A couple of hundred women have crowded into a community center to see Michelle. She looks as fresh as ever, but this is not her normal comfort zone. She has stepped back from her $213,000 salary as vice-president of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals to step up to the unpredictability of the trail.
“I’m here not just because I’m the wife of a candidate,” she tells the attentive audience, most of them middle-aged women, many of them Black. “Because this is hard,” she says with a hint of weariness in her voice. “This is really a hard thing. This isn’t a natural choice to be made in your life. It’s strange, all this.”
So why bother?
“I’m here as a woman, as a mother, as a citizen of this country,” she goes on, smiling as she connects to the crowd. “And I am so tired of the way things are.” When Michelle speaks like this, a little of the South Side comes out. She has a matter-of-fact delivery that is familiar to Black women——less so to others.
While her husband’s campaign may have been embraced by many convinced he can somehow “transcend race,” one of those people is not his wife. While in New York City, we walk past a television tuned to CNN. Barack Obama, the newscaster reports, is about to become the first candidate in the race——other than Hillary Clinton—to get Secret Service protection.
When I visit with her at the campaign’s Chicago headquarters weeks later, I ask if any of this scares her. “Something might happen,” she concedes. “But you know what? Something really powerful might also happen. And you might grow and learn and benefit others.”
Older African-Americans worry about Barack’s safety, but she says we must let go of fear. “We’ve let fear squash us for real legitimate reasons,” she says. “But if you focus on fear, you do nothing.”
Senator Obama acknowledges his wife was resistant at first to the idea of his running for president two years into his first Senate term. “We haven’t had a lot of peace and quiet over the last four years,” he says. “Michelle’s always had veto power, and always will, over decisions that have a direct impact on her.”
David Axelrod, the campaign’s chief strategist, says Michelle’s veto power played out in the weeks leading up to the campaign. “She was interested in whether it was a crazy, harebrained idea,” he says over coffee in Chicago. “Because she’s not into crazy, harebrained ideas.”
Ultimately, Michelle concluded Barack had to go for it. And so did she. “I took myself down every dark road you could go on, just to prepare myself before we jumped out there,” she says. “Are we emotionally, financially ready for this? I dreamed out all the scenarios. The bottom line is, man, the little sacrifice we have to make is nothing compared to the possibility of what we could do if this catches on.”
For Michelle, the campaign is a particularly intricate juggling act. In Las Vegas, she began her day scarfing down a veggie frittata at a breakfast for selected supporters. Her daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6, were back in the hotel playing with the remote control and preparing for an afternoon at the pool.
The girls, and sometimes Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, travel with her when they are not attending private school in Chicago. Back home, she explains, “I’ve got my community, family, neighbors, girlfriends, my parents, people who have known us forever. And it’s easier to stay grounded if the people you are surrounding yourself with really know you. You can’t get too big or too taken if your mother’s looking at you thinking, I know who you are.”
A METHOD TO THE MADNESS
As the campaign has come to demand more and more of her time, it’s fallen to Michelle to hit the trail by day and be mother by night. That is a big part of the story she tells on the stump.
“I get them to a neighbor’s if I can’t get them to school,” she says of her children, as women in the audience nod. “I get on a plane. I come to a city. I do several events. I get on a plane. I get home before bedtime. And by doing that, yeah, I’m a little tired at the end of the day, but the girls, they just think Mommy was at work. They don’t know I was in New Hampshire. Quite frankly, they don’t care.”
The Obamas could not possibly have any idea what awaits them. The white-hot spotlight of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is like no other. Everything, from how she dresses and where they choose to send the kids to school, will become fodder for every pundit and blogger with a laptop. Her solution? Put other people’s outsized expectations aside, and take it as it comes. “I tell myself all the time, we’re supposed to take the risk,” she says. “In the end, I think we have an obligation to give it a shot. To do our best. To give people a choice.”
Gwen Ifill is the moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent for The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.