Michelle Obama to turn on the charm

Chicago Tribune

Michelle Obama likes to describe herself in simple terms -- a mother, a lawyer and a wife who grew up in a blue-collar family in a working-class Chicago neighborhood.

Republicans have been busy trying to portray her in a less flattering light.

They say she is a loose -- and less than patriotic -- cannon. As evidence, they cite the comment she made this year about how she was really proud of her country for the first time as an adult. Obama says she meant she was proud of how engaged Americans were in this election.

The goal for Michelle Obama during this week’s Democratic convention is not all that different from her husband’s: She has to define herself rather than let the caricature sketched by her critics settle in the mind of voters.


Her biggest opportunity will come today as she headlines the convention’s opening night with a prime-time televised speech that will reach millions of viewers.

She will share stories about her life, starting with her childhood growing up on the top floor of a brick bungalow in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. She will talk about how she met and fell in love with her husband in a law-office romance.

“So far, the public has only seen the sound bites and the YouTube version, and you have not heard from Michelle,” said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). “It will be a proud moment to see the unedited version, the smart, graceful, Harvard-educated lawyer, mother and supportive spouse.”

She is under pressure, political analysts said, to charm a national audience while convincing voters that she is very much like many working women who must juggle a job (most recently as an executive at the University of Chicago Hospitals) and a family.


The speech will serve as a preview of what she would be like as first lady, said Bill Whalen, research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a conservative think tank. Her challenge, he said, is not so much what she says but how she presents it.

“The muttering you hear is that she has a little too much edge,” said Whalen, a Republican speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson. “She’s too smart and too accomplished to stand out there and smile for 15 minutes. The challenge is to get up there smooth and charming and not have too much attitude.”

Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama campaign official and a longtime friend of Michelle Obama, said the convention would serve as a “watershed moment” for the would-be first lady.

Her mission, Jarrett said, is to introduce the Obamas as people who overcame obstacles, worked hard to get a good education and are now fulfilling the American dream.


“It is intended to be very personal, open and very revealing about who they are,” Jarrett said. “America will know their values, their life decisions and what drew them to one another.”

On the campaign trail, Michelle Obama has not shied from speaking her mind about her husband. Early on, she connected with voters, following up with small groups while her husband spoke to larger audiences. Campaign workers nicknamed her “The Closer.”

However, a poll taken last spring by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that although opinions about Michelle Obama and Republican John McCain’s wife, Cindy, were mostly positive, Obama had emerged as a more controversial spouse. In the poll, 22% of voters had an unfavorable view of Michelle Obama, compared with 16% for Cindy McCain.

Many political analysts dismiss the notion that voters’ views about a presidential contender can be substantially influenced by the candidate’s spouse. But Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, thinks spouses can matter.


“Spouses aren’t viewed as being as threatening or as partisan as their husbands,” said Burden, who has analyzed polling data from several presidential elections. “Because they are not running for office themselves, they can do things voters of both sides of the aisle can appreciate, involving illiteracy, healthcare, the environment or children. They often have the background to make those kinds of things credible.”

Except for minor tweaking, Michelle Obama finished writing her convention speech weeks ago, aides said. After returning from a family vacation in Hawaii two weeks ago, she focused on getting daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, ready to return to school.

The three, minus Barack Obama, arrived in Denver on Sunday. Also with them was Michelle Obama’s mother .

Among the greeting party was Tally Ritter, the 15-year-old daughter of Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who asked the girls whether they had come with swimsuits.


“No, we’ve just got our hair done,” one of the Obama girls replied.

Aides to Michelle Obama promised she would be highly visible at the convention, attending a round table with female governors and getting to know delegates.

“At the end of the day, the delegates and the public will have a full picture of who Michelle and Barack Obama are,” said Stephanie Cutter, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.