She is down-to-earth—"grounded" is the word you hear most—and she tries to keep her husband that way, too. It's become part of Barack Obama lore that backstage at the 2004 Democratic convention, minutes before he gave the keynote speech that would put him on the political map, Michelle told him, "Just don't screw it up, buddy!" In the early days of the current campaign, she got in the habit of ribbing him about his domestic failings—not picking up his socks, not putting away the butter—in full public view. This is the kind of behavior she's alluding to when she says, "My parents weren't very optimistic that I was going to find anybody who would put up with me." But she makes no apologies for her remarks. After New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd characterized the wifely chiding as "emasculating," Michelle countered, "We need leaders who have their feet on the ground."
What she didn't mention was that errant socks and butter dishes run counter to a deep craving for order instilled in her as a child (the same craving that, in college, would lead to a personal ban on all–nighters). Fraser Robinson's MS gave his family a desire to plan and organize, to make life go as smoothly as it could. "When you have a parent with a disability," Michelle says, "control and structure become critical habits, just to get through the day."
"I think she would acknowledge that I'm more easygoing than she is," says Barack. "She worries. I say, 'Calm down, it will be fine.' I don't get as tense or stressed. I'm probably more comfortable with uncertainty and risk. Partly, that has to do with our upbringings. But some of it just comes down to wiring. She has a strong perfectionist streak, though I think she has learned to be more forgiving of herself. Of course, she is also very competitive, which is why she gets upset when we play Scrabble. I usually beat her, and I tend to gloat."
The son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, Barack Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, where his white grandparents helped raise him. His search for identity and a place in the world ultimately took him to Chicago.
Michelle was a first-year associate at Sidley & Austin when Barack—fresh off his own first year at Harvard Law—showed up for a summer job. The staff was atwitter about the new guy (smart! cute!), but Michelle was pessimistic. "I lowered my expectations because I thought this was probably just a black man who can talk straight," she told the delighted crowd at a Women for Obama fund-raiser in Washington, D.C., a few days before her trip to South Carolina. "I did what most people do—I made assumptions based on the bio. Then I found out that he was biracial. I didn't know what to do with that." The story ends happily, of course. They had lunch. On their first date, they saw Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. And she got to know "who he was, not what he was."