The official Obama family portrait: Michelle with Barack and children Malia and Sasha. Photo: The White House
Feisty, fearless and brilliant, Michelle Obama is Barack’s number one weapon in his bid for re-election.
THERE’S a small nook in the White House’s residential wing used by presidents’ wives as a dressing area. From the window you get a rare view over the Rose Garden to the Oval Office. Laura Bush, who showed it to Michelle Obama, had been shown it by Hillary Clinton.
Each first lady has used it for moments of silent rapport with their husbands. They gaze from this hideaway to feel a connection to the men – once partners, even equal partners in a marriage, now separated by a gulf of power and politics.
It is, of course, impossible to say what Michelle Obama thinks in those quiet, private moments when she contemplates that view. But her thoughts have not only helped shape a presidency, they could determine the next. As Barack Obama puts it: ”[Hers] is the voice I hear inside my head when I make decisions.”
The rise and rise of Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama’s popular rally appearance in Viriginia, May 2012. Photo: Reuters
When Obama’s political advisers were planning his first major 2012 campaign rally, they made two key decisions. First, hold it in a battleground state to flatter voters and fire up volunteers. Second, Michelle Obama was to be the warm-up act.
As America heads for a too-close-to-call presidential fight, the first lady of the United States is to play a major role. She’s not only more popular with the general public than her husband (69 per cent favourable to 56 in a recent ABC poll), she’s also adored by the rank and file Democrat volunteers who, between now and November, have to be cajoled into a campaign.
At that first rally earlier this month, her appearance in a bright blue sleeveless dress drew an extended roar from the crowd not noticeably less raucous than her husband’s. ”I admit I am a little bit biased because I think our President is awesome,” she said, as besotted Democrats yelled, ”I love you!”
‘She’s blunt, so she can tell me things that maybe other people are afraid to tell me,’ Barack Obama on his wife. Photo: AFP
She was performing the same role, even wearing the same teal brooch, as at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In introducing her husband, her job was to describe a removed, sometimes frustratingly unemotional man through her eyes as a passionate husband and leader.
She talked about her children. In 2008: ”Their future and all our children’s future is my stake in this election.” In 2012: ”When I tuck our children in at night I think about the world we will leave for them.”
She talked about her family. In 2008: ”My mother’s love was our sustaining force … my dad was our rock.” In 2012: ”[My parents] saved and sacrificed, they poured everything they had into me and my brother.”
And, in 2008, she left the crowd in tears as she recalled Barack’s emotion on the night of the birth of their first child, and dedicated the campaign ”in honour of my father’s memory and my daughter’s future”.
It was a barnstorming performance that won over wounded Hillary Clinton supporters and set up an overwhelming election win. No wonder her husband’s strategists wanted a repeat performance for 2012. And, in a way, it was a speech that Michelle had been preparing her whole life.
MICHELLE Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago’s South Side – the stomping ground of Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, the place Bad, Bad Leroy Brown called the ”baddest part of town”.
Her father, Fraser Robinson III, worked a swing shift as janitor at a city water treatment plant: cleaning bathrooms, flushing drains, for $US6000 a year. A former gifted high school athlete, he battled daily pain and disability because of MS. He had married his high-school sweetheart, Marian, granddaughter of a slave on a South Carolina rice plantation, a standout in athletics who quit her job as a secretary for the Sears Roebuck catalogue to raise their family. He was also a precinct captain in Mayor Richard Daley’s fabled Democratic machine.
They had a tiny apartment on South Parkway, a solidly black neighbourhood, surrounded by aunts, cousins and uncles, family friends, with sport on the TV, barbecues in the backyard, evenings listening to Motown and jazz.
Marian remembered that Michelle ”raised herself from about nine years old”, a precocious kid who memorised every episode of The Brady Bunch and played with her Barbies, a natural leader in the playground, always top of her class.
In her Harvard Law School yearbook her parents wrote: ”We knew you would do this 15 years ago when we could never make you shut up.”
At Princeton she was described by fellow students as tall, athletic, ”toothsomely attractive”, devoted to family and friends, witty, direct and hard-working. But she had a troubled relationship with the Ivy League and its broad playing fields, neo-Gothic architecture and born-to-rule inhabitants.
White classmates openly looked down on students who benefited from affirmative action programs. ”I cannot tell you the number of times I was called Brown Sugar,” said fellow African-American student Lisa. ”Definitely you got the feeling you didn’t belong.” Michelle later remembered some students would look the other way, even cross the street to avoid her.
”Of course it was different being black – it was also different not being filthy rich,” she said. ”At the end of the year these limos would come to get kids, and me and my brother [Craig, on an athletics scholarship] would be carrying our cardboard boxes down to the train station.”
She met Barack at the commercial law firm she worked at after university (among other jobs, she handled legal affairs for Barney the Dinosaur). She was not an easy catch. ”My sister’s never going to get married,” her brother had told her parents. ”Each guy she meets, she’s going to chew him up, spit him out. She’d just fire these guys one after the other – it was brutal.”
At first she was, at least publicly, unimpressed with having to babysit Barack on his summer job at the law firm: ”I figured he was one of those smooth brothers who could talk straight and impress people.”
But he took her out to lunch, fascinated her with his family background, charmed her with his joking, self-deprecating manner. She told him she had ”no time for distractions, especially men”. He kept badgering her for another date. They went to an art gallery, listened to jazz at an outdoor cafe, went to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and had cocktails on the 99th floor of the John Hancock building. ”I was sold. He swept me off my feet.” On their next date they had ice-cream, and kissed.
The early years of their marriage were rocky. Michelle was regularly frustrated by Barack’s political ambitions, which often took priority over family time and finances. ”She’s killing me with this constant criticism,” Barack told his grandmother in 2000. ”She just seems so bitter, so angry all the time.”
But she had plenty of grounds for complaint. At the time they were hugely in debt after a failed political campaign, and he didn’t help matters. He flew to Al Gore’s Democratic National Convention in LA, tried to rent a car on a declined American Express, failed to secure a pass and flew home. ”She thinks I’m being a fool – not just a fool but a lazy fool,” he told a confidant.
She wanted him to aim high and do it properly, or stop wasting time and go into a proper job. But they were a stunningly effective team, despite the internal conflict. After quitting the law firm, Michelle had worked in Mayor Daley’s office, and forged extensive political and business contacts. Combined with Obama’s talent for community organising, they were the perfect political match.
”It’s true my wife is smarter (and better looking) – she’s also a little meaner than I am,” Obama said. ”She’s blunt, so she can tell me things that maybe other people are afraid to tell me.” Or as Michelle put it: ”I’m the badass wife who is sort of keeping it real.”
She campaigned at his side, as well as handling the household finances, doing the laundry, and endlessly cleaning up after him, leaving Post-it notes for him to pick up his underwear off the floor, not to mention raising their two daughters at a time when he was rarely at home. And she was a highly effective political stand-in. ”There is none better than Michelle,” an aide told a biographer. ”Frankly, [audiences] can connect with her in a way they can’t connect with him.”
When it came time to run for the presidency, their double act was honed. The only remaining hitch was persuading her it was worthwhile. She was already complaining about the new demands on his time after his life-changing keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
”You know, Michelle really does not want me to do this,” was a line Obama used in 2006 when asked about running for president. She reportedly thought it would be an empty effort as Hillary Clinton had it sewn up. But they went for a walk on a beach in Hawaii and she was persuaded that they could achieve something extraordinary. Even then she stipulated two conditions – he stop smoking, and he would not try again if he failed.
The 2008 campaign was a baptism of fire for Michelle, comfortable in local politics but unprepared for the national stage. Soon she was giving 45 minute speeches without notes about her husband’s accomplishments and endearing foibles, as well as her Chicago roots. But she met mounting hostility. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd accused her of ”emasculating” Obama by making him look like an ”undisciplined child”. She was criticised for painting a bleak picture of America in contrast with her husband’s message of hope. Columnists called her ”Barack’s bitter half”. Time said: ”He’s all about the promise, she’s more about the problem.”
And then there was her major gaffe, saying ”for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country”, which unleashed a torrent of criticism.
THE ”angry black woman” tag is one that Michelle continues to fight. ”Angry black people are America’s worst nightmare,” says LA-based columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan, who has written for Salon and theLos Angeles Times on racial politics and Michelle Obama. ”America does not want any angry black people – particularly in the White House.”
Kaplan says the ”angry black” image is a ”suspicion that all black people are … just sitting on their anger [over the history of slavery], and at some point that anger will come out and there’s this revenge we’re going to wreak on former slave owners. That’s very deep in the American psyche. So in order to succeed in the country you cannot be angry, to be angry is to be radical, to be a Black Panther, to be a threat, not just a physical threat but a threat to the whole idea of American equality, fairness, democracy.”
On the July 21, 2008, cover of The New Yorker, Michelle was portrayed as 60s radical Angela Davis, the image that conservative commentators were trying to draw. It was a frustrating moment for writers such as Kaplan, as once again they realised they were not allowed to express their anger over black American history.
But in the end the controversy did not lose the election. The Obama campaign ran effective damage control, getting Michelle on morning TV talking about bacon (pro) and pantyhose (anti). One adviser said they turned her into ”the mum from The Cosby Show”.
And anyway, many observers believe Michelle had little role in winning the White House after the primaries. ”2008 was defined by George Bush, the economic collapse and the inevitability of a Democratic president,” says professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Centre for Politics.
But the scars remain. When Jodi Kantor’s book The Obamas came out earlier this year, reporting on tension in the White House between Michelle and other advisers, the first lady went on TV to complain that people were too quick to paint her as ”some kind of angry black woman”. Kantor was ”really surprised” by the reaction, she told Slate.com. The book never called Michelle an angry black woman, and her advisers had worked so hard to put the issue in the past, it was ”a mystery” why she would raise it again.
”The thing I felt like I was really watching in my reporting which was so dramatic and complicated was the translation of a marriage into a presidential partnership,” Kantor said. For a start, it was the first time the whole family had lived full-time in the same house. ”There’s this personal drama that reflects the political drama.
”She’s often the one to anticipate problems before he [does]. She’s got an outsider’s wisdom, that this is going to be really hard. So sure enough she gets to the White House and her husband disappears into the world of the presidency and her world is completely different.”
While her husband got his head around national security and a crumbling economy, Michelle had to handle make-up artists, dinners, decorators and florists.
As a mother, she says it’s hard to ground her children in such extraordinary surroundings. ”The residence is second and third floor of the White House and what we want to have happen is when they get off that elevator and walk in our residence it feels like the South Side of Chicago, the same values, the same rules, the same sense of responsibility … We try to make sure the kids have chores to do.”
Though Obama makes a point of joining his family for dinner every evening, there is still a gulf between him and his wife that did not exist before. ”We’re not equal in our professional lives, but we’re equal in our personal lives,” Michelle told Kantor. With her privileged access to the president, Kantor wrote, she has nudged him when she believed his strategy was not long term enough, and grounded him in America when his eyes strayed too often to foreign affairs.
”I think the defining thing about Michelle Obama when it comes to the presidency is that she has a lofty vision of her husband. She wants him to be a transformative president. To her that was the only way it was worth it.
”This was Michelle’s most profound influence on the Obama presidency: the sense of purpose she shared with her husband, the force of her worldview, her passionate beliefs about access, opportunity and fairness; her readiness to do what was unpopular and pay political costs.
”Every day he met with advisers who … reminded him of poll numbers; he spent his nights with Michelle, who talked about moral imperatives, who reminded him again and again that they were there to do good.”
Kaplan says there has been some disappointment that the Obamas have not more directly tackled inequality in America. For example, one of Michelle’s major causes is childhood obesity, ”but she won’t address anything that’s specifically racial, so she won’t even say childhood obesity disproportionally impacts black children because that’s just too controversial.
”Being a very public black figure … you have to sort of shave your edges and not be ‘ethnic’, but it’s disappointing because they are in a position to change conversation, to lead us all in a different direction – but they don’t, or they can’t. But she still has a down-to-earthness that I think people, black people especially, appreciate. She has not forgotten where she comes from – she’s actually the perfect American story.”
Kantor predicts Michelle will be well used in this year’s campaign, especially to rally the party base. ”One of the things political advisers say is that their marriage has such political power, that Democrats respond so much better seeing them together than seeing them alone,” she says.
Michelle has had a whirlwind 2012, capping a four years in which she outpaced any previous first lady in the number of TV appearances. This year alone she has done push-ups with Ellen DeGeneres, played tug-of-war with Jimmy Fallon, laughed with Jay Leno and Letterman, danced on Disney’s iCarly, worked out with Biggest Loser contestants, smiled on Sesame Street and paired with Taylor Swift at the Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards.
Sabato says Michelle is invaluable because she adds an aura of conservative stability to a liberal president. ”She’s worked her way into the traditional first lady’s role in a re-election campaign, that of the popular cheerleader. As the first African-American first lady she was controversial. Now she’s very popular and is playing the usual role that a first lady plays – that’s an achievement,” he says.