Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"Michelle Obama: More than a second-stringer"


Roger Simon (Politico):

CONCORD, N.H. -- Michelle Obama is standing on a low stage under a hot and hazy sun, wearing a black top, lacy black skirt and pearls.

About 150 people are sprawled on the grass in front of her. They are wearing shorts and T-shirts. Toddlers are toddling around, dogs are rolling in the grass, the atmosphere is relaxed and the expectations are low.
That is because Michelle Obama is a surrogate and, by definition, surrogates are not the real deal. They are stand-ins, substitutes, second-stringers. They represent the candidate, but nobody expects them to be nearly as good as the candidate.

Which is why the crowd gathered in White Park this day is about to get a surprise.

It is not an especially tough crowd. It has been assembled by New Hampshire Women for Obama, and even though Michelle's husband, Barack, has a message of "One America," Democrats like to break that one America into constituent groups.

Thus, in the park, there are tables with brightly colored signs that say: "Educators for Obama," "LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders) for Obama," "Women of Faith for Obama," "Enviros for Obama," "Peace Activists for Obama," "Lawyers for Obama," "Women in Business for Obama" and "Women of Color for Obama."

In her speech, however, Michelle is not going to talk about what separates people but what unites them, especially if they are women.

She speaks easily, introducing her daughters, Malia, 8, and Sasha, 5, and her mother Marian Robinson, whom Michelle unabashedly calls "my mommy."

Michelle starts with a point that does not, at first glance, seem all that believable.

"My life isn't terribly different from the life of women here, many of you guys here," she says. "I am not trying to be cute and coy by saying that. I am doing a lot of juggling, a lot of balancing. I wake up each morning wondering what minor miracle I'm gonna have to pull off to get through my day."

People laugh.

"Women are usually the ones who are scheduling baby-sitters, planning play dates, making sure that dentist appointments are kept. This is what I was doing last week," she says. "Getting people to potlucks and puppet shows. It's the end of the school year. My God, I'll be so glad when school is over!"

The crowd laughs again and applauds.

"I know there are some good guys out there that are doing their part," Michelle says with a smile, "but for the most part, if a toilet overflows, we're the one scrambling to change the meeting time to be there to meet the plumber. Can I get an 'Amen,' ladies?"

She gets an "Amen" from the crowd, and then she expands the point and people begin to get it: This is not the usual domestic anecdote that pops up from time to time in political speeches. She is going someplace with this.

"And to top it off, women have the added social pressure of needing to look good, be well-groomed and in good spirits, and supportive to our wonderful significant others," she continues. "I'm tired just thinking about it."

More laughter.

"And don't get me wrong, we have made great strides as women in this society," Michelle, 43, says, talking about how daughters can now dream of being "just about anything: surgeons, CEOs, Supreme Court justices, basketball stars, race car drivers. They can dream big in ways that even I didn't dream."

And then she hits the point. "But sometimes I wonder, what is the cost of having it all? Sometimes we, as women, we've convinced ourselves that doing it all is somehow a badge of honor, but for many -- for the vast majority of women in this country -- it's an absolute necessity, it is not a choice. So we sometimes sacrifice as women and mothers our own personal health, mental health, physical health and well-being. And this is a challenge that we are facing as women."

Which is pretty serious stuff for a speech in the park, but Michelle Obama brings it home: "We have a man, Barack Obama, my husband, who is stepping up to the plate. And he is a man, I tell you, who understands the issues that we face as women."

She gets big applause, and after she finishes, she stops and chats with people in the park.

It is now a couple of hours later, and she is walking into the steamy gymnasium of Rundlett Middle School in Concord and it is no longer her crowd.

It is the New Hampshire State Democratic Convention, and scores of people are waving fans that say "I'm a Hillary Fan" and wearing stickers for the other Democratic contenders.

These are the party faithful, the activists, the organizers, and there is a lot of competition for them. Preceding Michelle in the speaking order are Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is supporting Hillary Clinton, and David Bonior, who was a 13-term congressman from Michigan and is now John Edwards' campaign manager.

Both have given thousands of campaign speeches, but in watching them you see the perils of being a surrogate: They are representing something bigger than themselves -- a presidential contender -- and both are clearly nervous. They read through their speeches quickly and depart.

Michelle Obama takes the stage and speaks for the next 14 minutes without notes. She begins with what appears to be just another anecdote: how she met her husband.

She was "an associate at a big corporate law firm" in Chicago and "the firm was abuzz about this hotshot law student named Barack Obama," she says.

"And I immediately made a set of assumptions about who this guy was based on, you know, superficial things like the fact that he had a funny name and the fact that he was raised in Hawaii and he was biracial," Michelle says. "And I have to tell you, I kind of thought any black guy who was raised in Hawaii had to be a little off!"

The gym rocks with laughter.

"So I lowered my expectations," Michelle goes on. "But I have to tell you that, you know, I based my first assumptions on our differences."

Which, as the audience will realize later, is the money quote, the point of the speech.

Because then Michelle went to lunch with the guy with the funny name from Hawaii, and he told her about his working-class family and how his mother, a single parent, struggled to raise two kids. "And I realized that while we may have grown up a bit differently, we were raised with the same core values," Michelle says.

And so she went with Barack to a meeting in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago where he was doing community organizing.

"Barack was there to help them find their power to effect change," Michelle says. "To bridge the gap, as he called it so eloquently, between the world as it is and the world as it should be."

"He connected with me," she continues. "And he is connecting with people around the country in the same way. Because what I fell in love with that day was that he was real, he was authentic and he had an ability to create and deliver a vision for what was possible for this country."

The words still hang in the air after she speaks them: "what I fell in love with that day."

The crowd is quiet. She goes on.

"This guy was living his values, and that was impressive to me," she says. "He wasn't just talking a good game. And trust me ladies, I met a lot of men that can talk a good game."

And now everybody laughs and they applaud and the crowd is hers. She goes on, but the point has been made: Sure, you can look at Barack Obama and see the differences between him and you, but listen to him as I listened to him, and you will see how he is just like us and understands us and wants to help us.

Michelle Obama is not the only good surrogate out there. Elizabeth Edwards is also good on the stump and Bill Clinton is no slouch. But Michelle is the perfect surrogate for her husband: While his speeches soar, her speeches stay at ground level, where people can grab onto and embrace them.

She admits her instincts tell her to "run away" from this whole presidential campaign thing, but she is not running away. She is in it to win it -- for her husband.

And while it is often said that Barack, at age 45, can easily run again if he does not win the nomination this time, there may be a problem with that.

Next time could be Michelle's turn.

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