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Michelle Obama in spotlight's glare

It is one of Barack Obama's most reliable laugh lines. At the close of his stump speech, he often says, "I am reminded by every day of my life -- if not by events, then by my wife -- that I am not a perfect man."

These days, after catching grief for calling her husband "snore-y and stinky" and speaking about his bad habits in the manner of a loving but exasperated wife, Michelle Obama only sings his praises.

"You go, 'OK, I've got to be careful not to be the story,' " she said during an interview recently aboard her campaign bus. "Because it becomes a distraction to the broader issues."

Unwittingly, Michelle Obama became the story again this week, telling an audience in Wisconsin on Monday that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."

It may have been nothing more than a little hyperbole in a season that has seen plenty. But as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has narrowed to Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the spotlight is shining much brighter now on Michelle Obama, a 44-year-old hospital administrator.

While Clinton's husband, the former president, has been in hot water regularly for his verbal jabs at Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, whose tongue can be as barbed as Bill Clinton's, has received less scrutiny. With her husband's increasing success, that has changed. And with so much at stake, even minor gaffes are being blown into full-fledged campaign issues.

On Wednesday, according to the Associated Press, she clarified her Monday remarks in an interview with a Rhode Island TV station. "What I was clearly talking about was that I'm proud in how Americans are engaging in the political process," she said. "For the first time in my lifetime, I'm seeing people rolling up their sleeves in a way that I haven't seen and really trying to figure this out -- and that's the source of pride that I was talking about."

Still, her comment was in keeping with the generally bleak view of the country that is the heart of her stump speech, a departure from the usual chauvinism of the campaign trail. There have been rumblings about her portrait of a man who is lowering himself to politics. She talks about how brilliant he is and often implies that voters would be crazy not to vote for her husband, calling him "the only rational choice." She calls his candidacy a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to be graced with a man like him."

"The question," she often says, "is not whether Barack Obama is ready. The question is, are we ready for him?" Her impolitic statement in Wisconsin was not the first uncomfortable moment for Michelle Obama on the campaign trail. Earlier this month, she was criticized after telling ABC's "Good Morning America" that she'd have to think about whether to support Clinton if the former first lady became the nominee. A transcript provided by the Obama campaign, however, showed that the second part of her quote, in which she said she would support Clinton, had been edited out.

Like her husband, Michelle Obama is a masterful public speaker who can easily talk for an hour without notes. But unlike her husband, she tends to dwell on the negative. America, in her telling, is a place where "regular folks," meaning the working class, can't get ahead because, as she said at Ohio State University, "folks set the bar, and then you work hard and you reach the bar -- sometimes you surpass the bar -- and then they move the bar!"

Americans, she says, have become "cynical" and "mean" and have "broken souls." For regular folks, life is bad and getting worse.

People can't raise a family on one salary anymore, she says. They can't afford to get sick even if they have insurance because of deductibles, premiums and the high cost of medication. They can't confidently send their kids to neighborhood public schools because so many of them are so bad. Young people can't afford to attend college to become teachers or nurses or journalists because those jobs don't pay enough to repay college loans.

"We don't need a world full of corporate attorneys and hedge-fund managers," she told a crowd in a Baptist church in Cheraw, S.C., last month. "But see, that's the only way you can pay back your educational debt!

"The life that I am talking about that most people are living has gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl. And this is through Republican and Democratic administrations. It doesn't matter who was in the White House. . . . So if you want to pretend there was some point over the last couple of decades when your lives were easy, I wanna meet you!"

Her rhetoric is jarring given that the Obamas themselves are a stunning embodiment of the American dream. Michelle Obama and her brother, Craig Robinson, the men's basketball coach at Brown University, attended Princeton University. Barack and Michelle Obama both earned law degrees from Harvard, another of the nation's most prestigious schools, and are facing the possibility of raising their two daughters in the White House.

The couple's combined salaries were more than $430,000 in 2006, according to their tax return. In addition, Barack Obama earned $551,000 in book royalties. The family lives in a $1.6-million home in Chicago.

Despite their Ivy League pedigrees and good salaries, Michelle Obama often says the fact that she and her husband are out of debt is due to sheer luck, because they could not have predicted that his two books would become bestsellers. "It was like, 'Let's put all our money on red!' " she told a crowd at Ohio State University on Friday. "It wasn't a financial plan! We were lucky! And it shouldn't have been based on luck, because we worked hard."

When challenged during an interview about how her rather bleak view of America is at odds with her own life, she said she is not talking about herself. "I start the stump speech talking about regular folks, and I define them using the story of my father -- a regular working-class guy [who] didn't have a college education. . . . The folks in that room that I was talking to have had it hard for a long time."

Chicago real estate developer Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of the Obamas and a senior advisor to the campaign, said she thinks Michelle Obama is simply stating a reality. "I think her point is that when she grew up, with a blue-collar job and the right principles, you could provide for your children," said Jarrett, who once hired Michelle Obama to be her assistant when she was deputy chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. "That's not possible anymore."

Lately, Michelle Obama's crowds have numbered in the many hundreds, so there is less opportunity to hug and chat with supporters after her speeches. But earlier, in places like South Carolina, she sometimes popped into barbershops or beauty parlors.

At Glori Glori, a hair salon in Florence, S.C., she said she'd bumped into a young man earlier in the day who said he'd voted for Clinton. "Who on Earth will help you?" she said she told the young man. "If Hillary Clinton gets into office, I can envision what's gonna happen, and you can too!"

Later, in an interview, she wouldn't elaborate on the exchange, saying only that "it had a lot to do with fear. I am still surprised that there are people who make decisions because they're afraid of what might not work."

It is clear that the Clintons -- with their derisive talk of fairy tales and soaring rhetoric versus action -- have gotten under Michelle Obama's skin.

Last month, she referred to Bill Clinton in a fundraising appeal. "In the past week or two, another candidate's spouse has been getting an awful lot of attention," she wrote.

Now, it would appear, it's Michelle Obama's turn.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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