Michelle Obama’s story

In many ways she would make history as first lady.

By , Staff writer

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    Chicago roots: Her path has taken her from a working-class family through the Ivy League to a successful career and role as a mother.
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Chicago – As she tells it, Michelle Obama’s first reaction when she heard her husband talk about running for president was, “Absolutely not! Please don’t do this!”

She was wary of the nastiness of politics, of the grueling nature of such a campaign, and, above all, of the toll that it all might take on their two young daughters.

But these days, Barack Obama has no bigger cheerleader than his wife, and Ms. Obama has developed into an able, dynamic campaigner. She’ll be speaking at the Democratic National Convention Monday night.

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When her husband’s run for the nation’s top office looked to be a reality, “She said, ‘Let’s sit down and think it through analytically,’” remembers Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s close friend and a senior adviser to the campaign. “‘Let’s talk about the downsides and risks, and let’s have a plan for how we’ll manage that.’”

That thorough approach to problems and her all-out commitment once the choice is made are hallmarks of a woman who excelled in her own careers long before gaining the media’s attention as potential first lady.

But while she’s been gaining attention for her accomplishments and poise, she’s also drawn notoriety, serving as a lightning rod for those who see her as angry, abrasive, and didactic. Her now infamous comment last winter, calling Barack’s candidacy the “first time in my adult life that I’ve been really proud of my country,” has drawn particular criticism, even after her subsequent explanations.

“Since she is so public, and so willing to express her views and be blunt, it draws attention,” says Charles Ogletree, Obama’s Harvard Law School professor and an adviser to the campaign. “But I think the more the public gets to know her in more intimate settings, the more they’ll appreciate what an asset she’ll be in the White House.”

In many ways, Michelle Obama’s story is the American dream, a classic tale of a supportive family, a working-class background, and success in school and career.

She grew up on Chicago’s South Side, in a small bungalow where her mother still lives. Her father, Frasier Robinson, was a pump operator for the city and was diagnosed at a young age with multiple sclerosis. Her mother, Marian, stayed home to raise Michelle and her older brother, Craig. Whenever possible, the family ate dinner together.

While both Robinson children were high-achievers, Craig Robinson, now head basketball coach at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says there was never any pressure from his parents.

“The way our family worked, you kind of naturally did the best you could,” he says in a phone interview from Oregon. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we saw [our father] get up every day and go to work with an affliction like MS and never complain or feel sorry for himself and always be supportive of what we were doing.”

Obama attended Whitney Young High School, a prestigious magnet school that required a 90-minute commute by public bus every day, and she followed her brother to Princeton University in 1981.

At Princeton, Obama had suddenly entered new cultural territory, and her senior sociology thesis – on “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” – reflects some of the questions it raised for her.

“My experience at Princeton has made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before,” she wrote in the introduction, talking about her fears that she would always remain at the periphery of white society, and also her awareness that an Ivy League education had instilled in her many of the same values and goals as her white classmates.

The thesis, for which she surveyed black alumni about their Princeton experience and their subsequent involvement with the black community, hints at an internal struggle over her identity.

But her friends say she was self-assured, interacted well with both white and black students, and had little interest in politics.

“Unlike most college kids looking for themselves, she was not unsure of who she was,” says Angela Acree, her roommate for three years and still one of Obama’s best friends. “She had a really good sense of self.”

Ms. Acree and Obama spent a summer working at a Fresh Air Fund camp for girls in the Catskills. At Princeton, Obama started an after-school program for children of university workers. At Harvard Law School, she worked in a program in which students gave legal services to indigent clients.

It stemmed, in part, from a desire to please her father, believes Professor Ogletree. “She was going to prove to him that she was going to keep her commitment to be like her brother – a college graduate and a professional-school graduate and someone who gave something back to the community,” he says.

Still, when she graduated in 1988, Obama first went to work at a large law firm – Sidley Austin, where she met Barack – when she was assigned to mentor him as a summer associate. She seemed to be on track for a successful corporate law career.

Several years later, she shifted back toward public service, first working for the city of Chicago in the mayor’s office and the planning department, and later running the first Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a nonprofit that encourages young people in public service. Eventually, she took a job at the University of Chicago Hospitals managing community and external affairs, from which she’s currently on leave.

Those who have worked with her describe a woman who is competent and organized, who expects a great deal from both herself and those working for her, and who is able to cut through bureaucracy and quickly find solutions to tough problems. In her job in the planning department, Obama often fielded complaints from the business community.

“Michelle was extraordinary at figuring out what the problem was, how many different departments were involved, and pulling people together,” says Ms. Jarrett, who hired Obama for her first city job, offering her the position on the spot after a 20-minute interview that turned into a 90-minute conversation. “She’s totally analytical, practical, and insightful. Add to that these extraordinary people skills.”

At the University of Chicago Hospitals, she helped smooth the sometimes acrimonious relations between the hospitals and the South Side communities they serve. She started bus tours to introduce new employees – and the board of trustees – to the community, began a program to steer construction projects to local female- and minority-owned businesses, and dealt with crowded emergency rooms by setting up a counseling system that connected people to primary care providers who could offer preventative care.

“She will talk about difficult issues openly, and it’s very disarming, because she is direct,” says Susan Sher, her boss at the Medical Center. “But she’s also kind and approachable, so people are more likely to talk about what’s really going on.” Still, that bluntness has gotten her into trouble on the campaign trail.

Her humor – in particular, her attempt to humanize Barack by pointing out his domestic foibles – doesn’t always translate well, especially in print.

Comments like her one to Glamour magazine that he is “snore-y and stinky” when he gets up in the morning can come across as glib and disrespectful.

Her campaign speeches – in which Obama often focuses on the difficulties facing Americans today, sometimes telling her audience that Barack “will demand” such things as shedding cynicism or engaging in the political process – strike some as overly negative and didactic.

“Almost every time the candidate’s wife speaks extemporaneously she seems to offer some bon mot consistent with that bleak assessment” of America, wrote Mark Steyn in a National Review cover story this spring that dubbed her “Mrs. Grievance.”

An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll a month ago showed that 31 percent of Americans held a negative view of Obama, compared with 16 percent who hold a negative view of Cindy McCain. (In the same poll, 34 percent expressed a positive opinion of Obama, and 28 percent gave a positive reaction to Mrs. McCain.)

Since the oft-quoted remark about her pride in her country, Obama and others have said she was referring only to the political process. But she has also been more careful and guarded in her comments since then.

Her friends, meanwhile, shake their heads at the “angry black woman” caricatured in right-wing media and blogs, saying it bears no relation to the woman they know. “She’s had a magical life,” says Ms. Acree, who recently traveled with Obama for several days of campaigning. “What does she have to be angry about?”

Ogletree, her former professor, says, “They’ve been focused on trying to create a Michelle Obama who doesn’t exist.”

Jose Rico, the founding principal of the Multicultural Arts High School in Chicago, and a Public Allies fellow under Obama more than a decade ago, is particularly surprised at those who question her patriotism. He notes that at Public Allies, Obama was the one who helped him become less disillusioned with America and showed him the value of taking part in the political process.

Originally an undocumented immigrant who had just received his legal residency, Mr. Rico felt alienated and was set on not becoming a US citizen.

“She was the one who really challenged me to think about that, in terms of the change I wanted to make, and how that would translate not just to my community, but on a broader scale,” remembers Rico, who went on to earn his citizenship and to achieve his dream of starting a high school, in which Obama also encouraged and challenged him.

Rico and others say that although Obama is an exacting boss with high expectations – and is a fairly strict taskmaster at home as well, where her children and husband all know the chores they’re expected to do – she is also warm and cares about the personal lives of friends and colleagues.

Acree remembers when their mutually close friend from Princeton University, Suzanne Alele, was dying of an illness at a young age in 1990. Obama had just begun working at the law firm Sidley Austin and was trying to prove herself; Acree and Alele were both in Washington. “If Suzanne or I picked up the phone and needed or wanted anything, she was here in a heartbeat,” says Acree. “Suzanne’s death was the first time I really got to see the depth of her love for her friends, how loyal she is.”

Her staff also speak highly of her, and say she exhibits great concern for them and their personal lives – not always a trademark of harried political candidates and their families.

While she has alienated some on the right, Obama has also grown into an able campaigner and public speaker, drawing large crowds.

Rather than pushing her to the background, the campaign has tried to give her a fresh introduction to counter the negative image.

Earlier this summer, she hosted a segment of ABC’s “The View,” riffing with Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Whoopi Goldberg about her daughters, her fashion choices, and her decision not to wear pantyhose.

This week, in addition to the speech Monday night, she’ll be holding one of her trademark “roundtable discussions with working women” in Denver and will kick off a service day on Wednesday with the Governor’s wife.

In the roundtable discussions, which she’s held around the country, Obama focuses on the topic that seems closest to her heart: the challenges facing working mothers.

“There isn’t a moment that goes by that I’m not thinking about my little girls,” she told a packed audience in Pontiac, Mich., at one of these discussions. “The role I hold most dear is being mom.”

Despite the unavoidable craziness of a presidential campaign, Obama has made a monumental effort to minimize the disruptions to Malia and Sasha, scaling back her own campaigning when she can and taking as few overnight trips as possible.

Saturdays – when she and the girls engage in a weekly ritual involving ballet, tennis or soccer, McDonald’s, and a movie – are sacred.

“Above all else, she is a great parent,” says her brother. “Family comes first to her. It comes first naturally, and honestly.”

Talking about parenting – and about the challenges and choices that working mothers face – seems to come naturally as well, and it’s a topic that Obama riffs on easily, usually speaking without notes, in a relaxed, conversational style.

She gets nods from other women as she talks about the multiple hats most mothers are expected to wear, the guilt they feel when not spending time with their children, and the many directions in which they’re pulled.

And she tries to give listeners a window into her husband by talking about the three strong women in his life – his grandmother, his mother, and herself – and the ways in which their stories have helped him understand the issues important to women and mothers.

“These stories have really shaped who he has become as a man,” Obama told the Michigan audience, describing Barack’s grandmother hitting a glass ceiling in her job at a bank, and his mother’s effort to raise two children alone.

Obama has also been holding discussions with military spouses – speaking earlier this month with spouses in Norfolk, Va. – and has become interested in the particular challenges they face.

Both areas, say friends, are likely to continue to be Obama’s policy focus if she becomes first lady, though they’re hesitant to predict how active a presence she would be in the White House, since her daughters will continue to be her top priority.

“Michelle will create a new mold, and it’s too soon to say what it will be,” says close friend Valerie Jarrett.

Obama’s brother puts it even more simply: Obama would be a great first lady, Robinson says, because “everything she has ever done, she has done very well.”

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