Her husband calls her spectacular. Her gym friends call her a gladiator. Her mother calls her often (they're very close). She' driven, determined, and not easy to impress, but also warm, wry, and unpretentious. Meet the woman Barack Obama couldn't run without.
Of all the stories I've heard about Michelle Obama, the most telling might be one about her mother, 70-year-old Marian Robinson, a tall woman with impeccable posture, a vivid smile, and excruciatingly high personal standards. On the far side of her 50th birthday, Robinson took up running. She was good, she had speed—she even competed in the national Senior Olympics—but after a fall a few years ago left her unable to hit her stride, she dropped the sport without hesitation. "If I can't do it fast, I'm not doing it," she says. "You don't run just to be running—you run to win."
The mother is evident in the daughter every time Michelle Obama, 43—Ivy League graduate and possible First Lady—works out at the gym, where she is, according to her close friend Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker, "one of the women who leave you in the dust. She's a gladiator. She jumps rope 200 times without messing up. We talk in the beginning, but once the workout gets going, she is all business."
And there is this: In high school, Michelle once had a typing teacher who started the class by handing out a chart showing students what grades they could expect based on how many words per minute they typed. According to the formula, Michelle earned an A, but when the time came for grades, the teacher said she didn't give A's. Michelle was outraged: How dare she set forth the rules and then not abide by them? "She badgered and badgered that teacher," Marian says. "I finally called her and told her, 'Michelle is not going to let this go.'" Michelle 1, typing teacher 0.
No election in this country's history has featured a slate of First Spouse contenders who bring as much to the table as the partners of the current Democratic front-runners. Bill Clinton lends star power and unprecedented authority to Hillary's campaign. Elizabeth Edwards's candor and outspokenness have injected a thrilling urgency into John's presidential bid. But only Michelle Obama brings the competitive zeal of an Olympic athlete and the exacting nature of a student who would hold her teacher's feet to the fire—and prevail. For Barack Obama—the former state senator and first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, a virtual unknown until three years ago—the endorsement of this demanding, driven woman is priceless.
The daughter of Marian and Fraser Robinson grew up in an apartment rented from her mother's aunt, the top floor of a brick bungalow in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Marian was a stay-at-home mom until Michelle, the younger of two children, was in high school. Fraser, who died in 1991, a year and a half before Michelle married Barack, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 30 but managed to get to his job at a city water filtration plant every day. "He got up, he went to work, he was never late, he never complained, and he was always, always focused on his family," Michelle says. "If he was disappointed in you, it was the worst thing that could happen in your life," says her older brother, Craig.
The Robinson kids were good students; both skipped the second grade. ("If you aren't challenged, you don't make any progress," Marian says.) They were also athletic, as their father had been before MS; indeed, Fraser's disability seems to have encouraged extra motion in his children. Michelle competed with her brother in running and boxing, softball and swimming, checkers and cards. But she shied away from organized sports, and bristled at the assumption that she would follow Craig onto the basketball court. "Tall women"—she's 5'11"— "can do other things," she says. "I wasn't going to be typecast that way." Instead, she stayed busy with student government, singing in the choir, and organizing talent shows and school plays. She did, however, follow Craig to Princeton.
In her day, Marian had dropped out of college, not interested in being a teacher as her family thought she should. (She wanted to be a secretary and eventually became one, retiring this summer.) Fraser didn't finish college, either; he went to work so his family could send his younger brother to school. And so while the Robinson children were raised with the standard belief that they could do whatever they put their minds to, the exhortation came with a twist: You should do what you want to, not what the world might expect. Which is what they did. Craig left Wall Street after 13 years to coach basketball and is now head coach of the men's team at Brown University. Michelle gave up a job at a prestigious law firm to work in public service.
"My husband and I taught them not to take whatever people say as gospel, even us," says Marian. "Boy, did they run that into the ground."
The belief in marching to your own beat may explain why, in the past, Michelle has been, as her husband tells me, "a reluctant participant" in politics. "I generally have shielded her from most of my campaigns," Barack says. Her disinclination was born of a deep dislike of politics per se, and deeper worries about how campaigns and elected office might affect the couple's two young daughters.
With this campaign, the worries for the girls have, if anything, deepened. And the dislike of politics hasn't dissolved. Michelle can't bring herself, for instance, to watch the debates; she's too frustrated by their focus on 60-second solutions to what are really 10-year problems. And she's happy to keep her distance from the campaign office fray; when she calls the office—which isn't often—it's usually with a scheduling question. (Barack's top political strategist, David Axelrod, sounds thankful when he says, "She doesn't play the Bigfoot role on a regular basis.")
What's different this time around is Michelle's sense of a real opportunity: the convergence of a national need for change and a man who can deliver it. Her ardor in supporting Barack for president has surprised even Barack himself. "She has been much more enthusiastic than I expected," he says. "Much more engaged and involved."
This doesn't mean that her support is entirely conventional—as I saw when I tagged along this summer the day she gave a speech at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina. Wearing a bold print dress and big pearls, she was at ease behind the preacher's podium, but as she neared the end of her lunchtime remarks, something was bothering me.
In the cavernous multipurpose room usually reserved for gospel concerts, basketball games, and overflow church crowds, she had told the mostly African-American audience of 350 women and a handful of men how hard she's working to make sure her daughters have a "regular life" while their father runs for president. She spoke about the importance of exercising and eating right (her admonition too late to protect the strawberry cheesecake that had followed the baked chicken, rice pilaf, green beans, and sweet tea). She complained about the demands of a modern woman's life: juggling work and family, a sick child and an overflowing toilet with the added pressure to be an "attractive, charming, and delightful" mate. "I know I can get an amen on that. I'm tired just thinking about it," she said. She told the story of a trip to Kenya, where, in the district of Siaya, she and her husband met a group of grandmothers who'd come together to care for their grandchildren orphaned by AIDS.
But as the clock wound down on her half-hour talk—a talk whose purpose was, after all, to round up votes, volunteers, and contributions—she wasn't bringing it back around to Barack Obama's run for the White House. Surely she wasn't planning to leave the stage without the pointed call to action known on the campaign trail as "the ask"? Yet now she was using those grandmothers of Siaya to launch into still another idea: that women cannot afford to neglect one another. "My ability to get through my day greatly depends on the relationships that I have with other women," she said. "We all need that kind of community in our lives, but it is difficult to create if we are unable to sustain meaningful relationships with other women. Y'all know what I'm talking about. We have to be able to champion other women. We have to root for each other's successes and not delight in one another's failures." The crowd was clapping along, totally on her side. "If there is anyone who has a broken relationship with another woman," she continued, "if there was a woman in your life that you have not communicated with because of ego or embarrassment or jealousy or fear of rejection, a sister or a friend or a mother or a child who could or should be a part of your community, I ask you to reach out to that woman today."
There it was—the ask, Michelle Obama style. And really, I should have seen it coming; the girl-power pitch has become one of her central themes. A cynic might say that this makes good political sense: Hillary Clinton, presumptive leader of the Democratic primary field, has built her campaign on the support of women, and if anyone is to snatch the nomination from her, they must make inroads here. But Michelle is playing a more basic role, introducing her husband to the American public. To do so, she is introducing herself, using her biography and beliefs to help explain who he is and what he cares about.
Though she sometimes takes on President Bush, lamenting lives lost to "a senseless war" and noting that Barack—a former civil rights attorney and constitutional law professor— "knows the Constitution better than this administration," her stump speeches don't mention the other Democratic candidates. Nor does she talk much about policy or politics. Instead, she focuses on the causes she's championed in her professional life. "I am still living in the real world, seeing mothers and professionals and women who are really barely making it," she told me when I spoke with her in Washington. "That's got to stop. We've got to lighten the load and give people more support. I'm trying to shake people into understanding that point."
The message seems to be connecting; Michelle has quickly become one of the most valuable tools in the campaign—impressive fund-raiser, popular speaker, bridge to women and African-Americans, whose votes will be decisive. She trusts her audience to understand that what matters to her husband is what matters to her, never mind if she leaves out the Vote for Barack Obama part. Her cardinal rule of engagement is to be herself. "Anything else would be too hard, and I couldn't sustain it," she says. "If folks don't like who we really are, then they shouldn't vote for us." David Axelrod gives her an amen on that: "It's not her nature to be a political huckster out there."
She is comfortable in her own skin, if not always in her shoes, which she feels no compunction about slipping off when the mood strikes. She keeps up with celebrity gossip (Tom and Katie, Brad and Angelina) and enjoys a good margarita (straight up, with salt). Though she moves with the confidence of an athlete, her friend Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker calls her a girl's girl. She has a weakness for handbags and manicures. She's the rare woman in American politics who likes to wear a dress.
But despite the love of frills, she is hardly frivolous. After Princeton, she went to Harvard Law School, then returned to Chicago to work at the law firm of Sidley & Austin. Next came a stint at city hall—first as an assistant in the mayor's office, then as assistant commissioner of planning and development; many of her closest friends and deepest political ties come from those days (though some go even deeper; one of her best friends in high school was Santita Jackson, daughter of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who has endorsed Barack Obama for president). In 1993 she left to launch a new branch of Public Allies, a leadership training program that prepares young people for careers in public service. Working there, she says, helped her realize she "had something to offer." Vanessa Kirsch, the woman who hired her, agrees: "She had incredibly high expectations and was constantly asking questions, making sure we were using her time well. There were days when, even though she worked for me, I definitely felt like I worked for her."
In 1996 the University of Chicago hired Michelle to coordinate student volunteer efforts; in 2002 she moved to the school's medical center to handle community and external affairs, and in 2005 she became a vice president there. At some point, as the campaign intensifies, she will be forced to take a full-fledged leave of absence from her job. But for now she has resisted, still attending important meetings when she can and BlackBerrying from the road.
Likewise—for now—she is limiting her time on the campaign trail. "Early on," says Barack, "she made a very smart decision by telling our staff that she would campaign vigorously on certain days, but certain days were off-limits. There was a structure around her schedule that has helped her feel good about the campaign." The off-limits days mean that while Barack is on the stump or at work in Washington, Michelle can be home in Chicago for ballet recitals and birthday parties. She squeezes campaigning into day trips so she can see Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6, in the morning and be back again by bedtime. (When she misses dinner, the girls sometimes eat with Marian, though Michelle can't help noting that her mother has lost her "strict button," caving in to Sasha's demands for macaroni and cheese.) Occasionally, the girls join her on the campaign trail. More often, she takes a friend along for the ride.
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."
I first talked with Michelle a short while after that Washington speech. When we met, instead of shaking my hand, she hugged me—the first hug I've gotten on the campaign trail in 15 years of political reporting. She was wearing a sleeveless black dress, her arms slender and toned. Her black Jimmy Choo pumps sat neatly at her side. Looking at her peach-painted toenails, I found myself thinking of recent First Wives. Hillary Clinton, the Bushes Barbara and Laura, Nancy Reagan—I can't imagine them going barefoot in front of a reporter. Or hugging me. For all her discipline and self-control, Michelle is looser, more open than the women she hopes to succeed.
I asked her if the Obama campaign was changing how we think about race. "I hope so," she said. "What we lose sight of, when we separate ourselves along race lines, is how connected we are. There are definitely different experiences you have if you are black, but when I met Barack's grandmother, a little old white lady from Kansas, she reminded me more of my family than a lot of people I meet. It was her Midwestern values, how she prepared food, her pragmatic nature—no high highs, no low lows, you just do what you have to do. That's how I was raised. I connected with her immediately. But there are still communities in this country where you can live without ever seeing anyone different from you. We live with a level of isolation when it comes to other cultures."
One of the goals of the campaign, she says, is to "break down some of those walls." Yet in a race that could end with the election of someone other than a white male, it's hard to get away from identity politics. I reminded her about an exchange I'd witnessed in New Hampshire, when she was approached by a woman named Nancy Carter, who brought up one of the recurring challenges facing the campaign. Carter said she'd worked for years to get women into public office. Now, she wanted to know, with the first real chance to elect a female president, why should she support Barack Obama instead?
"I told her to vote for the best candidate, for the person who is needed at this time, and I deeply believe that it's Barack. I respect Hillary Clinton and all that she has accomplished, but I don't think there is anyone better suited to unite the country," Michelle said. "Don't make a knee-jerk reaction because you are black or because you are a woman. Really get to understand the candidates and understand what we need as a country."
It was a fine answer, but I had to ask: It doesn't thrill her to think that she could wake up someday soon and find herself married to the first black president in U.S. history? She looked at me and, with a slight shake of her head, said, "He's Barack."
In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama recalls how unhappy Michelle was when he decided to run for Congress in 2000—a race he would go on to lose. "My wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained," he writes. "'You only think about yourself,' she would tell me. 'I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone.'"
It seems logical to assume that if things were that bad in their marriage before, a presidential run would make them exponentially worse. But Michelle says that's not so. "There was an important period of growth in our marriage," she tells me, as matter-of-factly as if she were discussing her morning commute. "He was in the state senate, we had small kids, and it was hard. I was struggling with figuring out how I was going to make it work for me." It was during this period that Michelle started going to the gym before dawn. "This was the epiphany," she says. "I am sitting there with a new baby, angry, tired, and out of shape. The baby is up for that 4 o'clock feeding. And my husband is lying there, sleeping." That's when it struck her that if she weren't there, he would eventually have to wake up. It worked. "I would get home from the gym, and the girls would be up and fed. That was something I had to do for me."
But even as she was getting out of her own way, making room for her husband to step up, she was realizing that it wasn't his job to make everything perfect. "The big thing I figured out," she says, "was that I was pushing to make Barack be something I wanted him to be for me. I believed that if only he were around more often, everything would be better. So I was depending on him to make me happy. Except it didn't have anything to do with him. I needed support. I didn't necessarily need it from Barack."
She gets the support from her own version of those grandmothers of Siaya, the girlfriends, the neighbors, the other moms at school. Above all, she gets it from her own mother, who still lives in the house where Michelle grew up, just 15 minutes from the Obamas' Hyde Park home. (When someone told Marian that, if the family ends up in the White House, she should move there with them, her response was a firm no-thank-you: "That, I can do without. When you move in, you just hear a little bit too much." But presumably the White House is big enough? "It's never big enough for that.")
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.
She knows how to get a laugh on stage, how to fire up a room, how to hammer home a point. She is utterly unflustered when a crowd mobs her after she speaks. I've seen her linger for more than an hour, handing out those hugs, smiling as supporters squeeze close, wrapping an arm around their shoulders as others move in to snap photos with cell phones and ask for autographs. Much of her appeal is based on how regular she seems—just one of the moms on the sidelines of a soccer game, talking about weekend plans and lining up carpool duties. And yet she conducts herself with a poise that makes me think she was destined for this life long before she met the big–eared cute guy.
After lunch at the Baptist church in South Carolina, she was driven a few miles down the road to a community center in Greenville, a cinder block oasis of after-school music and sports for children from nearby housing projects. There were no television cameras or local reporters—just a few dozen kids and their parents, and staff members eager to show off their charges. Yet it was the kind of campaign stop that reminded me of the way a single person—a gifted student, a special teacher, a dedicated politician—can change lives.
"Nice to meet you, First Lady," said a member of the chorus who welcomed her with a song as he rushed forward to shake her hand. She walked through the gym (where basketballs were flying through the air) and the cafeteria (where cheese crackers and oatmeal cream pies were ready for snack time) and into a windowless dance studio, where she quickly jumped into a salsa lesson, hips and all.
But the real Michelle Obama moment came in a small conference room, where she perched on the edge of a chair and worked hard to get a conversation going with a dozen girls who wanted to meet her. "What's going on?" she said. "What are you all doing here? How is school going?"
"Good," they said in tentative unison.
"What does 'good' mean?"
"Does everybody here want to go to college?" She looked around the room, at an empty bulletin board leaning against one yellow wall, a ragged magazine rack against another. "What do you think it's going to take to get from here to college?"
The girls mumbled about getting good grades and making good choices, and slowly loosened up, asking what she had wanted to be when she was little (a pediatrician, but she didn't do well enough in math and science) and if she'd had to deal with bullies (not much). After about 15 minutes, though, the questions and answers stopped coming, their tween reticence winning out.
"All right, we're losing energy here," Michelle declared, suddenly slapping her hand on the table. A campaign aide quickly declared that it was time to continue her tour. But then Michelle decided she had a little more to say.
"You've got to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. All right?" she told the girls with sudden sternness. "Trust me, I was right where you guys are. I grew up in the same kind of neighborhood. The thing that made me different from a lot of other kids who didn't have opportunities was that I tried new stuff and I wasn't afraid to be uncomfortable. You guys have got to do that, because the things you want in life will not get handed to you. There is a lot of opportunity out there. But you've got to want it."
If there was any doubt that Michelle wanted it, it's vanished. Like her mother, she is running to win.
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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