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.
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.