"Barack," she interjected, "Feel -- don't think!" Telling her husband his "over-thinking" during past debates had tripped him up with rival Hillary Clinton, she said: "Don't get caught in the weeds. Be visceral. Use your heart -- and your head."
Taken aback, the young woman said, "I'm sorry." MORE
from Mrs. Obama's interview with the Journal.
The campaign veterans shut up. They knew that Mrs. Obama's opinion and advice mattered more to their candidate than anything they could say.
With the Democratic presidential race wide open, Mrs. Obama, a 44-year-old Princeton- and Harvard Law-educated hospital executive, is assuming the same dominant role in Sen. Obama's public life that she has in his private life. At home, she expects a lot of every family member, from having her 6- and 9-year-old daughters set their own alarm clocks to insisting her husband pick up his dirty socks. Her most recent directive to him: Stop smoking.
On the campaign trail, she has emerged as an influential adviser whom aides watch as a barometer for how both they and the candidate are doing. They watch for "the look" between her and Mr. Obama, on stage or in private moments, as an indication of his mood.
Inside the campaign, she's been dubbed "the closer" because she often pushes harder to seal the deal with voters than he does. But worries about her sarcastic humor being taken the wrong way have forced her to cut back some of her public candor, she admits.
The role of spouses in presidential politics is evolving, from one of smiling wife to equal and visible partner -- complete with appearance schedule, entourage and opinions. With this, though, comes greater potential to be either an asset or a liability.
In the Democratic race, Bill Clinton has come across at times as empathetic, seasoned onetime leader of the free world -- but at other times as red-faced, argumentative attack-dog-in-chief. Mrs. Obama carefully avoids discussing policy and strategy, but jumps right in to dish about issues that affect her personally, such as being a working mom and overcoming obstacles, which plays well with key voting groups like working women and minorities.
The Obamas present themselves as equals. "We're two well-versed lawyers who know each other really well," Mrs. Obama says in an interview. "We each think we're right about everything, and can argue each other into a corner." Friends and campaign aides describe them as a high-powered team built on contrasts: She's the heart to his head, the enforcer to his lapses, regimented to his laid-back, critic to his ego, details to his broad strokes, sarcasm to his sincerity, toughness to his cool vibe.
Mrs. Obama's campaign role is growing in ways big and small. After a sporadic start due to her reluctance to upend her family's life, she has picked up steam. In Iowa, she appeared at 33 events in eight straight days. Earlier this month, she hosted a rally in Los Angeles with Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy. She has met with every department in the campaign from the new-media unit to the ground organization, and she got the campaign to form a women's outreach initiative.
But sometimes her approach can backfire. When she told audiences that her husband is "snore-y and stinky" in the morning, doesn't put the butter back in the fridge and one morning "put on his clothes and left" while she juggled her own schedule to deal with an overflowing toilet, some voters and observers cringed that she was emasculating her husband.
And when she said last fall it was "now or never" for his presidential run because of the "inconvenience factor" of a campaign, some saw her remark as a threat that he wouldn't run again if he lost.
"It wasn't a threat -- but to do this again? Put these two girls through this again?" Mrs. Obama says. "This is the only time Barack will be this close...to issues on the ground" from having spent more time as a community organizer and state representative than a Washington politician and still leading a normal life like taking out the garbage and paying off student loans.
Her role, Mrs. Obama says, "is to give people yet another slice of who Barack is, making him even more multidimensional," because people picking a president "want to know not just about policies...but who are you? What do you believe in? Can I trust you?" Her comments about his foibles were meant to prevent "deifying" her husband, she says: "He's a gifted man -- one of the most brilliant politicians you'll see in this lifetime -- but in the end, he's just a man."
Mr. Obama, in a speech after a primary, called his wife "the love of my life and the rock of the Obama family." But in a candid moment last March, he told a crowd: "She's too smart to run. It is true my wife is smarter, better looking. She's a little meaner than I am."
Where Mr. Obama's personality and consensus approach to politics were shaped growing up as a mixed-race child in a predominantly white world, Mrs. Obama's style is rooted in her own background growing up in a working-class African-American family on Chicago's South Side.
A striking woman who's as tall as her husband when she wears her Jimmy Choo heels, she grew up in a four-room apartment with a kitchen the size of a closet. Her father, a pump operator at the city water plant, and her stay-at-home mother pushed their two children to be "achievers" and get the education they didn't have, says her brother, Craig Robinson. They both went to Princeton in the 1980s.
In her senior thesis in 1985, Mrs. Obama wrote that her college experience "made me far more aware of my 'Blackness' " than ever before, adding, "I will always be Black first and a student second" on campus. At Harvard Law, Mrs. Obama, involved in the Black Law Students Association, pushed hard to improve the low numbers of African-American faculty and students.
"We got into big debates on the condition of black folks in America," says Harvard classmate Verna Williams. "She's got a temper."
|Sen. Barack Obama acknowledges the cheers of supporters and receives a hug from his wife, Michelle.|
After law school, she returned to Chicago to join the high-powered firm of Sidley Austin as an associate specializing in intellectual property. Friends say she worried about selling out but wanted to pay off her education loans.
Then her father, whom she watched go to work every day despite multiple sclerosis, and her best friend from Princeton, struck by cancer, died the same year. She says she urgently wanted to find her life's calling because "nothing was really guaranteed."
Enter Barack Obama. At Sidley Austin, she was assigned to mentor the summer associate, who was two years older but had started Harvard after she did. He wanted a date; she wanted no mixing business with pleasure. But one night, he persuaded her to join him at a meeting of community organizers in a church basement. "When he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves," Mrs. Obama recalls. "He talked about the world not as it is, but as it should be." She changed her mind about him that night.
Shortly after they got engaged, Mrs. Obama moved from her law firm to the staff of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, as a liaison with service agencies on tasks such as finding shelters for the homeless during the winter. In 1992, she married Mr. Obama, who was launching his own unconventional career, working at a small public-interest firm, teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and writing a memoir called "Dreams of My Father." They lived in a South Side condo.
In 1996, Mr. Obama was elected to the Illinois senate and traveled frequently to Springfield. "I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone," his wife told him, according to his second book, "The Audacity of Hope." Working long hours on her own job, she often refused to attend political events if they impinged on her time with their two young daughters.
When Mr. Obama prepared to run for the U.S. Senate in 2003, she tried to talk him out of it, say friends. They add that after he promised the move would be either "up or out," she reluctantly agreed to continue her role as political spouse.
Sen. Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention propelled him to national celebrity. His first book became a best seller and he got a signing bonus for a second, allowing the couple to pay off their education and credit-card debts and buy their first house, a three-story, $1.65 million brick home in Chicago's Hyde Park. (The wife of an Obama contributor who has since been indicted on corruption charges bought the adjoining lot and later sold the Obamas a strip of it, which Mr. Obama subsequently told reporters was "boneheaded.")
Around this time Mrs. Obama, employed by the University of Chicago Medical Center, was promoted to vice president of community affairs and joined the board of a food company, TreeHouse Foods Inc., leading to whispers that her career had taken off with her husband's political prominence. "I understand why people want to make sure that somehow I'm not using my husband's influence to build my career," she told the local media. "And I haven't." She resigned the boardroom post last year.
With Mr. Obama in the Senate, some advisers suggested they move to Washington. Mrs. Obama said no -- she wanted to leave the girls in the school they loved and keep her job at the medical center. By the end of 2006, with her husband on the verge of running for president, Mrs. Obama worried about the effect on their family and finances. She knew she'd probably have to cut back on her own earning potential to join him on the campaign trail.
She worried, too, about his safety. She was told that if any threats against his life were made, the Secret Service and the campaign would bolster his protection. In the end, she decided to support his run. "My mother raised us not to make decisions on what could go wrong or we'd never go forward," she says.
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Mrs. Obama tells her staff to work her campaign appearances around her daughters' activities -- ballet recitals, soccer games, parent-teacher conferences, Beyoncé concert. Her peace of mind improved greatly when her mother decided last summer to retire and help take care of the girls, Malia and Sasha.
She says when her husband makes it home -- for only 10 days in the last year -- he assumes his usual household tasks. "When Barack's home he's going to be part of this life," Mrs. Obama says. "He doesn't come home as the grand poobah."
Her all-female staff works hard to protect her on the stump and she's protective of her aides as well. Last week when a TV reporter physically moved Mrs. Obama's press secretary out of his way, she stopped him cold: "Did you place your hand on my staff?" Mrs. Obama demanded. "You do not touch my team."
On a recent campaign trip, she wore a classy but edgy black suit with an intricate white starched blouse. It was perfect for fund-raisers she attended at private homes in Manhattan and Greenwich, Conn., but less so for a meeting with working women at a Stamford, Conn., diner.
At the diner, she talked about rushing into Target in her workout clothes the day before to pick up toilet paper and returning to Chicago the next day to take her daughters to ballet classes and Disney on Ice.
A young woman asked Mrs. Obama what her "First Lady platform" would be. "To make sure my kids have their heads on straight," Mrs. Obama said. "We can talk about the high-falutin' notion of a First Spouse platform, but here I am, a woman professional who has to work on top of my first job as a mother."
Sensing that this recent college graduate hadn't experienced first-hand the same kind of work-family conflicts, Mrs. Obama grabbed her hand and softened her tone. "It's personal," said Mrs. Obama.