People are often surprised by Michelle Obama’s skill as a public speaker. But by the time she began campaigning for her husband’s presidential bid nearly two years ago, she was already a veteran of his political campaigns.
“I think to the extent that people think that I’m good, it’s from the fact that I really do try to speak from my heart,” she said earlier this year on her campaign bus in South Carolina. “I know that sounds corny. When I talk, I am really trying to speak from experience, the things I know.”
This is what has endeared her to her husband’s supporters. And it is also what has occasionally gotten her into trouble.
She “goes out there, speaks her mind, jokes,” Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod told the New Yorker in March. “She doesn’t parse her words or select them with an antenna for political correctness.”
“Occasionally, it gives campaign people heartburn,” he said.
Unlike Cindy McCain, who usually stood silently at her husband’s side, Michelle Obama, 44, campaigned separately all over the country, enchanting supportive crowds with her down-to-earth attitude and her visceral understanding that people’s lives were in an uncertain period of upheaval and challenge.
“We have become a nation of struggling folks, just barely making it every day,” she told a crowded church in Cheraw, S.C., days before her husband triumphed in that state’s primary last January. “Folks are just jammed up, and it’s gotten worse over my lifetime. And doggone it, I’m young!”
Until she was burned by reaction to some poorly chosen campaign hyperbole (“For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”), which led her to make her speeches a little blander, she would speak at length, often without notes, and in transcendent terms about her husband’s ability to effect change.
Sometimes, her rhetoric could seem a little over-the-top.
“In my opinion,” she would say, “the only rational decision is Barack. Nothing else makes sense.”
Or: “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to be graced with a man like Barack. The question is, are you ready for him?”
A long journey
On Jan. 21, the Obamas will wake up in the White House, and the country will wake up to a new first lady who appears as if she would like to model herself on the uncontroversial domesticity of Laura Bush, even though her own Ivy League resume and work history resemble more closely those of another first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
She has said she has no interest in a White House policy role. She has expressed an interest in helping military families, though she does not hail from one.
Her father, Fraser Robinson, who was stricken with multiple sclerosis when she was young, worked as a pump operator for the Chicago water department. Her mother, Marian, who is expected to move with the Obamas into the White House, did not work outside the home while her children were growing up.
Michelle Obama’s only sibling, Craig Robinson, who recently became head basketball coach at Oregon State University, was recruited by Princeton to play basketball. Michelle followed her big brother there. Princeton was an eye-opener for the high-achieving girl from Chicago’s South Side. As she wrote in her senior thesis, “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘blackness’ than ever before.”
When she decided to apply to Harvard Law School, she didn’t get wholehearted support, she told the church audience in South Carolina. “My thesis advisor said, ‘Well, you’re smart, but you’re maybe not the brightest thing I’ve seen coming out the blocks.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really?’ ”
She graduated from Harvard law in 1988 and went to work for a Chicago law firm, Sidley & Austin, specializing in intellectual property law. When Obama arrived as a summer intern, she was assigned to supervise him. She already knew who he was -- she’d heard about this good-looking guy who had become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and was curious. But she didn’t think she should date him, given their work relationship. He pushed it, though, and won.
In 1992, they were married at Trinity United Church of Christ by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who would later become a controversial figure in the campaign.
After a few years, Michelle grew unhappy practicing corporate law and left for a job in the administration of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In 2002, shortly after the Obamas’ second daughter was born, she went to work at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she eventually became vice president for community and external affairs.
Caught without a sitter, she had schlepped the baby with her to the job interview.
“She really wanted to make that known to me,” Michael C. Riordan, president and chief executive of the medical center, said last year. “Family came first.”
The year her husband was elected to the United States Senate, her salary nearly tripled, going from $122,000 to $317,000. Hospital officials have said the 2004 raise put her salary in line with those of its other vice presidents.
During the campaign, she often held round-table discussions and talked easily from firsthand knowledge about the stresses of balancing motherhood and work.
In a conversation with working mothers after visiting the day-care program at the University of South Carolina, Obama bemoaned a system that does not give full support to working moms.
“Being an outstanding mother should not be at the expense of being a good employee,” she said. “Part time is a total scam, because part time is full time with less money. And you’re labeled as a part-time person, and you still need child care! These are the realities of being a woman today, and that’s been a frustration to me.”
Whether she will use her bully pulpit in the White House to advance the cause of working mothers remains to be seen.
“My first job, in all honesty, is going to continue to be mom in chief,” Obama told Ebony magazine. The Obamas are the parents of 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Natasha, who goes by the nickname Sasha.
“They are the light of our lives,” she has often said on the stump. “They make me breathe in and out every day because they are precious.”