Barack’s Rock: Michelle’s story – Newsweek
She’s the one who keeps him real, the one who makes sure running for leader of the free world doesn’t go to his head.
Michelle Obama was never much interested in calling attention to herself. As an undergrad at Princeton in the 1980s, she was interested in social change, but didn’t run for student government. Instead, she spent her free time running a literacy program for kids from the local neighborhoods. (more…)
She’s the one who keeps him real, the one who makes sure running for leader of the free world doesn’t go to his head.
Michelle Obama was never much interested in calling attention to herself. As an undergrad at Princeton in the 1980s, she was interested in social change, but didn’t run for student government. Instead, she spent her free time running a literacy program for kids from the local neighborhoods. At Harvard Law, she took part in demonstrations demanding more minority students and professors. Yet unlike another more prominent Harvard Law student who would later take up the cause, she was not one to hold forth with high-flown oratory about the need for diversity. “When [Barack Obama] spoke, people got quiet and listened,” recalls Prof. Randall Kennedy. “Michelle had a more modest, quieter, lower profile.” Barack won election as president of the Law Review. Michelle put her energy into a less glamorous pursuit: recruiting black undergrads to Harvard Law from other schools. For her, politics wasn’t so much about being inspirational as it was being practical—about getting something specific done, says Charles Ogletree, one of her professors. “She was not trying to get ahead.”
She no longer has the luxury of keeping a low profile. Now a very public figure, Michelle has accepted the role of aspiring First Lady and the sometimes uncomfortable scrutiny that comes with it. On the campaign trail, she is sometimes slated as the opening act, introducing Barack to the audience. Direct and plain-spoken, with an edgy sense of humor uncommon in a political spouse, she complements her husband’s more grandiose style. She can be tough, and even a little steely, an attitude that stems, at least in part, from wanting to live up to the high expectations her father set for her. She wants to change the world, but she also wants to win this thing now that they’re so deeply invested. If his loftiness can set him apart from the crowd, her bluntness draws them in. Standing up before large audiences wasn’t easy at first. “I’ve never participated at this level in any of his campaigns,” she told NEWSWEEK last week. “I have usually chosen to just appear when necessary.”
From the beginning of the campaign, Michelle made it clear to her husband that she would give the effort her all (“We need to be in there now, while we’re still fresh and open and fearless and bold,” she told Vanity Fair last December), but not at the expense of family life. At two meetings with the candidate and his political aides shortly before he announced his intention to run, she grilled them about particulars, practical concerns that had nothing to do with his sweeping themes of “hope” and “change.” What demands would the campaign place on their lives? Where would the money come from? Could they really take on the Clinton machine and win, or was this just an extended ego trip? “She didn’t want Barack to launch some kind of empty effort here,” says senior strategist David Axelrod.
Michelle also raised concerns about her husband’s safety. It was one of the first questions her own family had asked her when she first aired the possibility of running. He would soon be assigned Secret Service protection very early in the campaign, in response to the huge crowds he was drawing and threatening e-mails. Michelle, who now has a security team of her own, does not like to discuss the possibility of Barack’s getting hurt. “We are grateful the Secret Service is a part of it,” she told NEWSWEEK last summer. “I’m probably more grateful than Barack, who loves to live a very normal life. This is the first sign that our lives aren’t normal.”
At the meetings, Axelrod and the other aides addressed each of Michelle’s questions. “Suffusing these discussions was, if we did it, she and he both wanted to make sure it was consistent with who he is and what he thinks, and wouldn’t distort that,” says Axelrod. She has expressed fears that the nastiness of presidential politics could wind up sucking the idealism out of her husband, leaving him just another soulless, cynical Washington pol. “Michelle has always been in the camp of, ‘Let’s not forget what we’re fighting for’,” Axelrod says. After the meetings, Michelle gave Barack her blessing.
Since then, she has largely left the details of the campaign to her husband and his political team. Michelle does not sit in on strategy sessions, vet speeches or spend hours on the phone fund-raising. “I hate fund-raising,” she tells NEWSWEEK. “Haaaaate it. Hate, hate it.” Politics and policy animate her—like her husband, she turned away from a lucrative law career to work in public service. One late night in Iowa, she stayed up on the campaign bus, waxing to NEWSWEEK about the dangers of cynicism in politics. Barack, exhausted, was flaked out on the couch half-dozing. But she has no secret dreams of seeking office herself. When a reporter recently joked that she could run for Barack’s Senate seat if he were elected president, Michelle made a face of mock disgust. “Ugh,” she grimaced. “No, thank you.”
Part of Michelle Obama’s appeal—she routinely draws audiences of 1,000-plus supporters even when she’s campaigning on her own—is that she comes across as so normal despite the withering glare of a national campaign. As a political spouse, she is somewhat unusual. She isn’t the traditional Stepford booster, smiling vacantly at her husband and sticking to a script of carefully vetted blandishments. Nor is she a surrogate campaign manager, ordering the staff around and micromanaging the candidate’s every move. She travels the country giving speeches and attending events (her mother watches the kids when she’s on the road), but resists staying away for more than one night at a stretch. When the couple catch up several times a day on the phone, the talk is more likely to be about their daughters than the latest poll projections. Michelle has made it her job to ensure that Barack, who now lives full time inside the surreal campaign bubble of adoring crowds and constant attention, doesn’t himself lose sight of what’s normal.
Onstage, Obama has introduced Michelle as “my rock”—the person who keeps him focused and grounded. In her words, she is just making sure he is “keeping it real.” She does this in part by tethering him to the more mundane responsibilities of a husband and father. She insists that Barack fly home from wherever he is to attend ballet recitals and parent-teacher conferences. When the couple host political gatherings at their home in Chicago’s Hyde Park, Michelle asks everyone to bring along their children. To help bridge the physical distance between father and daughters, Michelle recently bought two MacBook laptops, one for Barack and one for the kids, so they could have video chats over the Internet. Last Thursday, she cleared his schedule so he could return home to Chicago and spend Valentine’s Day with her and the girls.
Her reluctance to immerse herself in the minutiae of the campaign should not be mistaken for a lack of desire to win. Deeply competitive by nature—growing up, Michelle stayed clear of team sports because she couldn’t stand the idea of losing—she wants the White House as much as he does. From her vantage point outside the day-to-day chaos of the campaign, she serves as a source of official calm. One senior adviser, who asked for anonymity talking about a private meeting, recalls fretting to Michelle early on that Obama’s support among Southern black voters wasn’t picking up quickly enough. Michelle told him to relax. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It will be just like [Obama's Senate campaign in] Illinois. The numbers will all move our way.” As it turned out, she was right.
She played a similar part after the surprise loss in New Hampshire, where polls had Obama leading Hillary Clinton by wide margins. It was Michelle who delivered the pep talk to the candidate’s dispirited aides waiting anxiously outside the couple’s hotel suite. She cautioned them against listening to the pundits and polls: “We need to send a message to all our supporters to not take a single thing for granted.”
Michelle then turned her ministrations to her husband. As he walked onstage that night to deliver his concession speech, she took his hand and led him around the front of the podium so he could recharge himself with the cheers of the crowd. She paused with him for a moment, then patted him on the cheek and left the stage.
Still new enough to politics that she doesn’t yet belabor her every word, Michelle’s sharp humor poking fun at her husband—she’s joked that Obama snores and has bad breath in the morning—can sometimes fall flat. This is especially true when people see the punch lines in print, where her comments can be read as disrespectful. At a recent speech in Wisconsin, the excited young woman introducing Michelle flubbed her line, saying she was “honored to introduce the next president!” Michelle strode to the podium with a big smile. “I like that promotion that I got,” she told the crowd. “I don’t know if Barack knows yet. We can announce it on the news tonight. He’s going to be the First Lady.”
She realizes not everyone finds her jokes funny, but doesn’t seem all that interested in curbing her tongue. “Somehow I’ve been caricatured as this emasculating wife,” she tells NEWSWEEK. “Barack and I laugh about that. It’s just sort of, like, do you think anyone could emasculate Barack Obama? Really now.”
Those who know her invariably describe Michelle as poised, relaxed and confident. “There is no difference between the public Michelle and the private Michelle,” says University of Chicago law professor David Strauss, who sits with her on the board of the University of Chicago’s Lab School. (The Obamas’ daughters attend the school.) “There’s no pretense.” Yet that confidence did not come naturally. Now 44, Michelle has had to overcome persistent self-doubts and insecurity—about her abilities, about race and class, and about what kind of life she was supposed to lead.
Unlike her husband, who did not know his father well and never had a stable home life, Michelle Robinson was raised in a loving, two-parent family on Chicago’s South Side. Her childhood home, a one-bedroom apartment inside a brick bungalow, isn’t far from the $1.65 million house where the Obamas now live. Her mother, Marian, was a doting presence, a stay-at-home mom who often made lunch for her daughter and friends and listened patiently to all the school gossip. But the family’s home life was dominated by her quiet but formidable father, Fraser. Once a gifted athlete, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his 20s. Despite his physical limitations, he woke early each morning and went to work at the municipal water department. A lifelong Democrat, he was a precinct captain.
Her father lived vicariously through the accomplishments of his children. He was especially proud of Michelle’s brother, Craig, a star basketball player whose talent and grades got him a scholarship to Princeton. (He is now head basketball coach at Brown University.) Fraser Robinson would never raise his voice to his children when they misbehaved. Instead, he would fix them with a cold stare and say, “I’m disappointed.” Hearing that would make young Michelle and her brother collapse into tears. “You never wanted to disappoint him,” she says. “We would be bawling.”
For Michelle, Craig’s easy success was intimidating. “She was disappointed in herself,” her mother tells NEWSWEEK. “She used to have a little bit of trouble with tests, so she did whatever she had to, to make up for that. I’m sure it was psychological because she was hardworking and she had a brother who could pass a test just by carrying a book under his arm. When you are around someone like that, even if you are OK, you want to be as good or better.”
She did well in school (she skipped second grade), but she was not at the top of her class. She didn’t get the attention of the school’s college counselors, who helped the brightest students find spots at prestigious universities. “Princeton, the Ivy Leagues swoop up kids” like Craig, Michelle says. “A black kid from the South Side of Chicago that plays basketball and is smart. He was getting in everywhere. But I knew him, and I knew his study habits, and I was, like, ‘I can do that too’.” Some of her teachers told her she didn’t have the grades or test scores to make it to the Ivies. But she applied to Princeton and was accepted.
Overwhelmingly white and privileged, Princeton was not an easy place for a young black woman from the inner city. There weren’t formal racial barriers and black students weren’t officially excluded. But many of the white students couldn’t hide that they regarded their African- American classmates as affirmative-action recipients who didn’t really deserve to be there. Angela Acree, a close friend who attended Princeton with Michelle, says the university didn’t help dispel that idea. Black and Hispanic students were invited to attend special classes a few weeks before the beginning of freshman semester, which the school said were intended to help kids who might need assistance adjusting to Princeton’s campus. Acree couldn’t see why. She had come from an East Coast prep school; Michelle had earned good grades in Chicago. “We weren’t sure whether they thought we needed an extra start or they just said, ‘Let’s bring all the black kids together’.”
Acree, Michelle and another black student, Suzanne Alele, became inseparable companions. The three of them talked often about the racial divide on campus—especially how white students they knew from class would pass them on the green and pretend not to see them. “It was, like, here comes a black kid,” says Acree. The black students tended to hang out together at the Third World Center, a social club on campus, while the white party scene revolved around Princeton’s eating clubs.
Michelle felt the tension acutely enough that she made it the subject of her senior sociology thesis, titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” The paper is now under lock and key, but according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Michelle wrote that Princeton “made me far more aware of my ‘blackness’ than ever before.” She wrote that she felt like a visitor on the supposedly open-minded campus. “Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton,” she wrote, “it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second.” (Today, Michelle says, not quite convincingly, that she can’t remember what was in her thesis.)
She didn’t share such concerns with her parents, who were proud of their college-bound children. “She didn’t talk about it a lot,” says her mother, Marian. “I just learned from reading some articles that she did feel like she was different from other people. But she never let that bother her.” Instead, Michelle was determined to prove that no matter how she got there, she deserved her place in the class: she graduated with departmental honors and was accepted to Harvard Law School.
At Harvard, she felt the same racial divide. Verna Williams and Michelle became friends in their first year of law school. She remembers many of their fellow black students worrying that white classmates viewed them as charity cases. But she suggests Michelle was not among them. “She recognized that she had been privileged by affirmative action and she was very comfortable with that,” Williams recalls.
Michelle recalls things differently. A campaign spokeswoman says she had an edge getting into Princeton not because of affirmative action, but because her older brother was there as a scholar athlete. She was a “legacy,” just like any other applicant with family ties to Princeton. Her aides say Michelle earned her way into Harvard on merit by distinguishing herself at Princeton.
Michelle did well enough at Harvard to land a job at Sidley & Austin, a blue-chip corporate-law firm in Chicago. She was making good money as an associate on track to becoming a partner. But the work—she was assigned to copyright and trademark cases—was dull. “I didn’t see a whole lot of people who were just thrilled to be there,” she says. “I met people who thought this was a good life. But were people waking up just bounding out of bed to get to work? No.”
In 1989, she was assigned to mentor a young, unconventional summer associate by the name of Barack Obama. Michelle was unimpressed by the office gossip about the hotshot Harvard Law student, a biracial intern from Hawaii whom she dismissed as “a black guy who can talk straight.” But she was disarmed by his confidence. He walked up to her one day and said, “I think we should go out on a date.” She resisted, thinking it was inappropriate. She dropped her guard after he asked her to go to one of his community-organizing sessions in a church basement, where he delivered a stemwinding speech about closing the gap between what he called “the world as it is, and the world as it should be.”
She was smitten. “I was, like, ‘This guy is different’,” she says. “‘He is really different, in addition to being nice and funny and cute and all that. He’s got a seriousness and a commitment that you don’t see every day’.” She recalls thinking, ” ‘Well, you know, I’d like to be married to somebody who felt that deeply about things’.” At this, she paused for a second. “Maybe I didn’t say ‘marry.’ Scratch that part. It took him a little while.” Each of them offered the other something they had lacked growing up—for her, a free-thinking outlook, for him, a sense of stability.
Michelle introduced him to her family. They liked him, but didn’t expect him to last long. Michelle was a demanding girlfriend, always breaking up with one suitor or another, and it was something of a family joke that sooner or later she would toss him overboard, too. “The first thing I was worried about was, is this poor guy going to make the cut?” says her brother, Craig. “How long is it going to be until he gets fired?” Her mother remembers Obama as quiet and respectful. “He didn’t talk about himself,” she says. “He didn’t tell us that he was running for president of the Harvard Law Review. We never realized that he was as bright as he is.”
Soon after meeting Barack, Michelle suffered a personal crisis that made her rethink what she wanted to do with her life. Her father passed away in 1991 of complications from MS. Around the same time, her dear college friend, Suzanne Alele, died of lymphoma. She had admired Alele’s free spirit. Unlike dutiful Michelle, her friend tried not to take life too seriously and she traveled widely. After Alele’s funeral, Michelle thought, “If I died in four months, is this how I would have wanted to spend this time?”
Looking back, she says she realized she had unthinkingly climbed onto an “automatic path” of a corporate career. “I started thinking about the fact that I went to some of the best schools in the country and I have no idea what I want to do,” she says. “That kind of stuff got me worked up because I thought, ‘This isn’t education. You can make money and have a nice degree. But what are you learning about giving back to the world, and finding your passion and letting that guide you, as opposed to the school you got into’?” She resolved to leave the law firm and mentor young people from the neighborhood she grew up in. But she was daunted by how little money she would make, and feared she would not be able to pay back her sizable student loans. Obama convinced her that if they married and combined their incomes, they could afford a more frugal life.
Michelle began writing job letters to various charities and city agencies. One landed on the desk of Valerie Jarrett, deputy chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. “I interviewed Michelle, and an introductory session turned into an hour and a half,” Jarrett tells NEWSWEEK. “I offered her a job at the end of the interview—which was totally inappropriate since it was the mayor’s decision. She was so confident and committed and extremely open.” Michelle was flattered by the quick offer. But though she came across as supremely confident to Jarrett, she had doubts about whether it was the right decision. She asked Barack to meet with Jarrett to discuss the job before she accepted.
Jarrett, who is now a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, became Michelle’s mentor. She set Michelle to work with businesses caught in red tape between city departments. It wasn’t exciting work, and it paid far less than her law-firm salary, but Michelle saw it as a first step in her new career in public service.
After she worked for the city for a couple of years, Barack led Michelle closer to community activism. He was on the board of a start-up group called Public Allies, a nonprofit that encouraged young people to go into public service—just the kind of encouragement she felt she had never gotten. The organization needed a Chicago director. The job paid even less than her city post. “It sounded risky and just out there,” she says. “But for some reason it just spoke to me. This was the first time I said, ‘This is what I say I care about. Right here. And I will have to run it’.” (Michelle jokes that she took a pay cut with every new job. The couple finally got out of debt when Barack’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” became a best seller.) More recently, she inspired a program to send doctors from the prestigious University of Chicago Medical Center into community hospitals and clinics in poor surrounding neighborhoods. (At nearly $275,000 a year, her work at the University of Chicago paid much better than her earlier public-service jobs.) Last fall, Michelle took a leave of absence from her job to participate in the campaign full time.
What would she do as First Lady? It’s a question she gets all the time now. Yet it’s not one she ventures to answer in any detail. She is interested in issues women face balancing work and home, and in lowering barriers that keep poor students from college. “There are a ton of things. It’s endless what you can do in the White House,” she says. “But until I get there and know what kind of resources I’ll have and how much time and what’s the agenda of the country, I think, truthfully, I don’t know which of these many things I can focus on.”
If they win, Michelle says, there won’t be any to-do list for the East Wing until she gets her daughters settled in Washington. (She never moved to the capital when Obama became a senator.) “What will the girls need?” she asks. “Are they going to transition easily to the White House and this public life and a new school and a new city? If they’re losing their minds, that’s one project off Mommy’s table, because I’m going to be making sure that they have their feet on the ground.”
Though she has no official policy role in the campaign, she has been deployed to speak directly to the fears of black audiences in a way that Barack often does not. Earlier this year, Obama staffers worried that some African-American voters might still be reluctant to believe that a black man could really be elected president. Michelle went down to South Carolina to try to put them at ease. As she reviewed her speech on the plane ride to one event, a story came to mind. She thought of African-Americans she had known who had saved for new furniture, only to wrap it in plastic to protect it. But in the end, doing so was self-defeating. “That plastic gets yellow and scratches up your leg,” she told the audience. “I think folks just want to protect us from the possibility of being let down … by the world as it is. A world, they fear, is not ready for a decent man like Barack. Sometimes it seems better not to try at all than to try and fail.” She urged them to take the risk.
At least once, Michelle did voice her displeasure to the campaign staff. After one of the debates, Obama’s team met to discuss strategy. Michelle dialed in and spoke over the phone. She did not say much, but she made it clear that she was not happy. She thought that Hillary Clinton had packed the crowd with supporters, and that Obama had been booed whenever he criticized Hillary. She told the strategists that she didn’t want that to happen again. “It was more than a strategist talking about what the best tactic would be,” says a senior Obama aide who attended the meeting and spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. “It was a spouse saying, ‘Do not do this to my husband again’.”
As the campaign wears on and the scrutiny of her every utterance increases, she is reluctantly learning to not always say what comes to mind, especially within earshot of reporters. She took flak for voicing ambivalence about Hillary Clinton in a recent ABC News interview, when she said she would need to “think about” supporting her if she won the nomination. (Now she says that interview was edited to cut out her positive comments about Clinton.) Michelle had in fact spoken positively about Clinton in the past, saying she admired her accomplishments as First Lady. “This is what I haven’t learned how to do,” she says. “It’s like I can’t think out loud. I can’t sort of meander through because then somebody takes a clip of the first part” and twists it.
Like any savvy politician, she’d rather take her story to the voters without the filter of the press. In her stump speech, she uses her own life as a rebuke to those who have said that she and her husband aren’t ready for the White House. She tells the story of a 10-year-old girl she met in a beauty parlor in South Carolina who told her that if Barack wins the White House, “it means I can imagine anything for myself.”
That story, Michelle says, was just like her own: “She could have been me. Because the truth is, I’m not supposed to be here, standing here. I’m a statistical oddity. Black girl, brought up on the South Side of Chicago. Was I supposed to go to Princeton? No … They said maybe Harvard Law was too much for me to reach for. But I went, I did fine. And I’m certainly not supposed to be standing here.” Whatever lingering doubts Michelle Obama may still have, moving into the White House would go a long way toward putting them to rest.
With Sarah Kliff, Karen Springen and Roxana Popescu
© 2008 Newsweek, Inc.