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. 


Next Story