Yet if being married to a politician has in some ways gotten easier, the presidential campaign has nevertheless required significant adjustments. The early assignment of Secret Service protection, while welcome, has forced the family to live with what the girls call "the secret people." And parenting is trickier. "My sister wants her kids to be raised sort of like she was raised," Craig Robinson says. "That's completely impossible, given the situation." So, on the one hand, there is Michelle at a Washington fund-raiser, vowing that the Obama daughters will never be seen dancing on tabletops. On the other hand, she's had some trouble with the strict button herself. The demands of the campaign are such that expediency sometimes trumps parenting ideals; Michelle refers to this phenomenon as the four-ice-cream-cone day—and yes, there have been a few.
Meanwhile, Michelle and Barack are largely living apart. They manage to talk every day—usually about happenings at school or at home—after he does a video conference over the family Mac with the girls. Campaign staffers say he is noticeably happier and more at ease on the rare occasions when his family hits the trail with him. "It's harder for him, being on the road," Michelle says. "I've got my girls and our routine. I am feeling their love. He is missing that."
Earlier this year, it was widely reported that, as a condition of running for president, Barack finally agreed to his wife's demand that he quit smoking. But the campaign has forced concessions from her, too—most significantly, the interruption of her career. If Barack Obama has chosen politics as the best way to assure opportunity for all, Michelle Obama, in her work at Public Allies and the University of Chicago, has, on a smaller scale, been staunchly devoted to the same ends. For her, the drive toward inclusiveness is personal. "I grew up five minutes from the university and never once went on campus," she says. "All the buildings have their backs to the community. The university didn't think kids like me existed, and I certainly didn't want anything to do with that place." In an effort to change that dynamic, Michelle has boosted the number of employees who volunteer in the neighborhood, handled complaints about minority hiring at a hospital construction project, helped people find primary care providers so they don't have to rely on the emergency room, helped recruit top African-American plastic surgeons to the faculty.
Her boss, Susan Sher, says, "I have seen her in a meeting with the board of trustees giving a presentation. I have seen her with angry patients and community residents. I have seen her talking down a 2-year-old in the middle of a temper tantrum. She can handle them all." It's not just that she is confident, or adept at giving comfort, or skilled at putting other people at ease. It's her ability to get her message across in any situation. It's the skill of a woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, then went to Princeton and Harvard, and found her way in both worlds.
The decision to put her career on hold for the campaign was not one Michelle made lightly, and I suppose I expected some residual sense of torment. But she surprised me with the sanity of her perspective. "It's a big deal," she says of her work. "It's just not as big as running for president."
It's hard to describe how odd campaigning can be for a candidate's wife. One minute you're the star attraction at some huge event, the singular object of the crowd's and cameras' desire; the next minute, you're being asked to pack a cooler of food for yourself and your daughters because the day is going to be hectic and there won't be time for a proper meal. Michelle Obama takes both extremes in stride.