It's all about priorities for Michelle Obama

Times Staff Writer

The young professional woman was in a bind. She had a job interview scheduled with a prospective boss, but she didn't have a baby-sitter. Not even her Harvard law degree could help her.

So Michelle Obama -- still in maternity clothes -- strapped her newborn daughter, Sasha, in the stroller and headed out to meet Michael E. Riordan, president and chief executive of the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Luckily, Sasha kept her little mouth shut, but her presence that day in 2001 "was more than symbolic. It was significant," Riordan said in a recent interview. Obama "had her priorities in line. She really wanted to make that known to me. . . that family came first."

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 43, is not your mother's political spouse.

She is 5-feet-11 in her stocking feet, earned more than $300,000 last year -- husband's paycheck not included -- has two Ivy League degrees and was just named to Vanity Fair's 68th annual international best-dressed list.

But on the campaign trail, she has carved out a niche connecting with women over shared daily struggles: to get the kids up, their hair brushed, their lunch packed and out the door; to have a job and a family and not go crazy; to hope for better things for their daughters when they grow up and are off on their own.

As she crisscrosses the country on behalf of husband, Barack, Obama reaches out to and embodies a new generation of American women -- those much-studied multitaskers who hope to change the workplace but, in the process, inspire headlines like "Damned or Doomed," "Opt Out or Pushed Out," "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired."

Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, said the Obamas "capture absolutely perfectly what's going on with their generation."

"In my generation, our challenge was just getting our foot in the door on men's terms," said Williams, 55. When Obama brought her baby to a job interview, Williams said, she expressed "in a very self-possessed fashion, 'I'm a professional, and here's my infant.' "

Obama is a woman who has ratcheted her career up and down to accommodate both campaign and children, but she never leaves home without two BlackBerrys, one for the job and one for the campaign.

"I don't know about you," Obama told women at a recent fundraiser near Austin, Texas, "but as a mother, wife, professional, campaign wife, whatever it is that's on my plate, I'm drowning. And nobody's talking about these issues. In my adult lifetime, I felt duped." Emphatic nods all around.

"People told me, 'You can do it all. Just stay the course, get your education and you can raise a child, stay thin, be in shape, love your man, look good and raise healthy children.' That was a lie." Rueful laughter swept through the room.

America, Obama says, needs universal healthcare, access to child care and better schools. And she, herself, is looking "for someone -- not just a woman -- but someone who understands my struggles."

So is Deborah Roberts, also 43, who found Obama "inspirational." It was the first time, the Austin artist said, that she had heard someone say what she has silently believed for many years: "We can't do it all."

It's worse, Roberts figures, for African American women like herself, who often "have to be the mother and father and the breadwinner. There's so much pressure. . . . I applaud her for just stating that fact."

Applause is nice, but votes are nicer. And that's where the Obamas have a steep climb ahead. Roberts, for one, wavers between the junior senator from Illinois and the junior senator from New York.

Although Barack Obama has raised more money than any primary candidate in presidential history, he has made little headway against Hillary Rodham Clinton in national polls. While he does relatively well among younger voters, women belong to his chief rival, and the two split the African American vote pretty much down the middle.

Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, says Barack Obama has a lock on Democrats with an idealistic strain, who "love what the concept of voting for [him] would mean for the party and the country." But pragmatic voters who worry about tangibles like paying the bills right now are solidly in Clinton's camp.

Which means that Michelle Obama could be a potent weapon in her husband's campaign precisely because she is addressing the practical, particularly when it comes to the struggles of America's working families.

Obama got the job at the University of Chicago Medical Center and has since been promoted to vice president for community and external affairs, a position heavy on strategy and persuasion. The baby in the stroller, Sasha, is now 6 and older sister Malia is 9.

She regularly tells audiences that raising children is her top priority: In Austin's suburbs, she said: "If we can't keep our family whole and healthy, and we can't raise sane children, then how on earth can we expect you to trust us with the rest of the world?"

To that end, three months after her husband announced he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama cut back her hours at the medical center. Logical? Sure. Controversial? That too. In fact, Obama set off a cybersquall of second guessing when she announced that she would work only 20% of the time and she would play her continued employment by ear as the campaign heats up.

"Damn it all, Michelle Obama has quit her $215,000 dream job and demoted herself to queen," ranted an article in Salon.com, whose author described herself as "in a feminist fury."

While political spouse is probably one of America's toughest unpaid jobs, Obama said in a recent interview that she was not surprised by the current debate's ardor, because "we're still struggling with these images of what it means to be a woman." She is comfortable with her choices, she says -- and "God help" those who don't feel the same about their own.

"I know who I am," she said. "I'm a grownup now. Maybe if I were 20 going through this, it would be hard. But these discussions aren't about me. I know why I made my choices. I know what I need to sustain myself, and Barack is the same way."

Obama says she is grounded by her working-class upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, where her father, a Democratic precinct captain, kept track of the boilers for the city's water department until his death from complications of multiple sclerosis in 1990. Her mother stayed at home until Obama was in high school.

Obama's mother still lives in the small brick apartment where her children grew up -- a one-bedroom unit whose living room was trisected by fake wood paneling into bedrooms for Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, and a separate space for homework.

Except for Robinson's years at a Catholic high school, the two were products of the Chicago public education system. Their parents never attended college, and Obama often talks on the campaign trail about what a revelation it was when her brother was admitted to Princeton University as a basketball-playing scholar-athlete.

"That was really my first exposure to the possibility of the Ivy League," she said. "It wasn't that I couldn't get in, or I couldn't thrive, or I couldn't survive. I didn't know to want that. That wasn't the vision that I could see for myself because I couldn't see anybody around me doing that."

Obama followed Robinson to Princeton -- a place that "made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," she wrote in her undergraduate thesis "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community."

"No matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus."

Princeton roommate Angela Acree, now a Washington public defender, describes the university in the early 1980s as the kind of place where white students passed by black classmates without a shred of recognition.

"They didn't mean to be rude," she said. "Because they didn't even think they might know a black person, they'd just walk by. All of those things reminded you every single second that you're black, you're black, you're black."

Just as the issue of race was inescapable at Princeton, it is an integral part of campaign 2008.

Barack Obama is the biracial son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, and he has been dogged by questions of whether he is "black enough" on the one hand, and whether America is ready for an African American president on the other.

What his wife brings him is "legitimacy. . . as far as the African American audience" is concerned, said Myra G. Gutin, professor of communication at New Jersey's Rider University and author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century."

And her public comments -- from the bald-faced to the subtle -- seek to dispel racial questions from all sides.

"What are we saying to our children if a man like Barack Obama isn't black enough?" she asked at a Chicago event this month. "Then who is?. . . We have to cut that nonsense out, because it is not helping our children."

There is very little in a Michelle Obama speech that isn't somehow about race, in a presidential contest in which her husband is the most serious African American contender ever to seek the White House.

Race "resonates all through the comments about education," she said in an interview. "It resonates throughout the comments about my upbringing, my childhood, my access to college. It is there. Because it is me."

Time an issue

The Obamas live in a $1.65-million brick mansion with big white columns, multiple chimneys and Secret Service agents parked at the curb in Chicago's storied Hyde Park neighborhood.

In October, they will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary, just as the run for the Democratic presidential nomination swings into higher gear.

One question is just how much time Michelle Obama will spend on the campaign trail in the months ahead. Her public appearances to date have depended on her children's whereabouts -- school, camp or home.

At this point, she limits political travel to two days a week and doesn't stay overnight unless the girls come along. She tries to return home in time to kiss them good night, but it's a struggle.

And the meticulous planner may have met her match in the bustle of a presidential campaign. "It's not proving as structured as she originally wanted," says longtime friend and mentor Valerie Jarrett.

Nor has it been entirely smooth. She has been criticized for serving on the corporate board of TreeHouse Foods Inc., a condiment maker that closed a Colorado plant during her tenure and supplies Wal-Mart.

Obama has since resigned from the board, citing time constraints. The Barack Obama campaign declined to comment.

And Obama received mixed reviews early on, when she brought her famous husband down to earth in public. "He's a wonderful man, he's a gifted man," she said at an April event, "but in the end, he's just a man." Lately, however, she sounds much more reverent. He is, she said at a Harlem event, "the answer" for America.

In the Austin area last month, one supporter asked what she would do as first lady. Her response: "Take care of my daughters, to make sure they're OK being in the White House."

And if she doesn't end up moving east next January?

"My job is waiting for me," she said in an interview. "And if it's not, I'll find something else to do. . . . I don't worry about a career. That will always be there. What I am worried about are my girls."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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At a glance:

Michelle Obama

Birth: Jan. 17, 1964, Chicago.

Education: 1985, Princeton University, BA in sociology, minor in African American studies; 1988, JD, Harvard Law School.

Current job: University of Chicago Medical Center, vice president of community and external affairs.

Family: Husband, Sen. Barack Obama; daughters Malia, 9, Sasha, 6.

On meeting husband: "Who names somebody Barack Obama?"

Church: Trinity United Church of Christ.

Political quid pro quo: Husband quits smoking or he can't run for president.

Children's quid pro quo: Win or lose, a dog.

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Source: L.A. Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga, www.barackobama.com

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