Obama’s pride chafes at being asked to make herself seem duller and less independent than she is.
Michelle Obama and the politics of candor--One January afternoon at the University of South Carolina’s Children’s Center, in Columbia, Michelle Obama scrunched her five-eleven frame into a small white wooden rocking chair. The state’s Democratic primary, which her husband, Barack, needed badly to win, was in forty-eight hours. Obama picked up a picture book, flared her nostrils, and began sniffing noisily, in the manner of a bear foraging in the woods for dinner.
“Boom! Boom! Boom!” she read to a group of preschoolers. “The bear will tromp through the forest on his big hungry feet and”—sniff, sniff, sniff—“find that strawberry, no matter where it’s hidden.”
The kids burst into giggles. Obama picked up another book, from the “Olivia” series.
“I have Olivia in my four-year-old class!” one boy yelled.
“Is she a friend of yours?” Obama asked.
“Is she a pig?”
Soon, the story was over. “Let’s see,” Obama said. “Maybe we have a special guest who will read to us.”
She got up from the rocking chair and walked over to a set of French doors. “It’s Cocky!” the kids shouted as Obama threw open the doors to welcome an enormous red rooster, dressed in a U.S.C. basketball jersey. She flung her arms around Cocky to give him a hug, a gesture somewhat thwarted by his plush potbelly. “Cocky! Let’s read one book together with Cocky.”
Obama selected another book and held it up to Cocky’s beak. “Here you go, Cocky. Can you read?”
“Cocky, I love you!” a kid screamed.
Sharing the stage with a large, fuzzy piece of poultry might have daunted a more delicate sort of aspiring First Lady, but Obama took her eclipse by Cocky with the seen-it-all aplomb of one of the human characters on “Sesame Street.” That day, she was wearing a pair of high-waisted pin-striped sailor pants, a gray cashmere sweater, and a strand of pearls, but, though she is stylishly appointed, she is not dainty. She is often called “regal”—whether in The New Republic or in Glamour—but her bearing is less royal than military: brisk, often stone-faced (even when making jokes), mordant.
Obama works out like “a gladiator,” a friend has said. When people—they’re almost always shorter—ask her to pose for pictures, instead of bending her knees she leans at the waist, like the Tin Man. Her winningly chipmunk-cheeked smile is doled out sparingly, a privilege to be earned, rather than an icebreaker or an entreaty. Obama, who graduated from Princeton, earned a law degree from Harvard, and became, first, a corporate lawyer and, more recently, the vice-president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, spent all but the first year of her childhood in a four-room bungalow on Chicago’s South Side. Having traversed vast landscapes of race and class, often as a solo traveller, she evinces the discipline and, occasionally, the detachment of an Army brat. She can seem aloof from politics. Her mother and her older brother both say that she has never once phoned them in tears.
Obama is cool in temperament. When Stevie Wonder, whom she was escorting to the stage at a rally in February, tripped on a riser, sending her tumbling down next to him in front of thousands of people, she exhibited no embarrassment or alarm, turning what could have been a blooper-reel nightmare into a non-event. She is unquestionably accomplished, but she is not a repressed intellectual, in the mode of Teresa Heinz Kerry. More than anything, she seems to enjoy talking about her husband and her daughters (Malia, nine, and Sasha, six). She can give the impression, in the midst of the campaign’s endless roundtables and kaffeeklatsches, that she’d rather be talking to them. Obama seems like an iconoclast precisely because she’s normal (the norm for a candidate’s wife having been defined, in the past, as nonworking, white, and pious about the democratic process).
Obama is also cool in the other sense of the word; her tastes, references, and vocabulary—“freaky,” “24/7,” “got my back,” “American Idol,” Judge Mathis—if not exactly edgy, are recognizable, which, for a political spouse, makes them seem radical. Of the Iowa State Fair’s corn dogs and candied apples, obligingly gushed over by hopeful First Ladies every four years: “Stuff on a stick.” Here’s Obama, talking to me in her motorcade halfway between Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Green Bay about Obama Girl, the young woman who professed her crush on Obama’s husband all over the Internet: “That was a little weird, because, you know . . . I just assumed, you know, there’s no way anybody’s gonna hear about that. And one day Sasha comes home and she’s, like, ‘Daddy has a girlfriend. It’s you, Mommy.’ And it’s, like, ‘Oh, shhhhhhhhh—yeah.’ ” Curse word averted, barely.
Her lack of pretense has made her popular with the portion of the electorate, and the media, for whom prim Laura Bush seems out of touch. Cindy Moelis, who has known Obama since they worked together in Chicago’s city hall, in the nineties, told me, “I’ve actually had girlfriends call me and go, ‘You’re so lucky. If I’d only met her fifteen years ago, I bet we would be best friends.’ ” “Can Michelle Obama Be First Lady No Matter What?” pleaded the headline for a post on Wonkette, the political blog, about a gathering of candidates’ wives. “Please don’t get all Botoxed and start acting like some sort of Stepford wife. Please?” the post went on, remarking approvingly on what it termed the “ ‘bitch, please’ look” that Obama had seemed unable to suppress in the wake of a comment by Ann Romney.
It’s not that Obama doesn’t know the anodyne, wifely things to say (essentially, nothing). She is, after all, a “community and external affairs” professional. But her pride visibly chafes at being asked to subsume her personality, to make herself seem duller and less independent than she is, even in the service of getting her husband elected President of the United States. In Wisconsin, I asked her if she was offended by Bill Clinton’s use of the phrase “fairy tale” to describe her husband’s characterization of his position on the Iraq War. At first, Obama responded with a curt “No.” But, after a few seconds, she affected a funny voice. “I want to rip his eyes out!” she said, clawing at the air with her fingernails. One of her advisers gave her a nervous look. “Kidding!” Obama said. “See, this is what gets me into trouble.”
Pundits have portrayed Obama as an oversharer and a taskmaster, demeaning her husband by acknowledging his morning breath and his body odor. But the domestic carping that commentators have taken as some sort of uncontrollable T.M.I. tic serves Obama’s husband well, and this may account for her frequent recitation of the mundane details of their housekeeping arrangements. By noting, for example, that Barack is “the ‘Harry Potter’ parent,” and that she encourages him to find time to read to Malia and Sasha, Michelle makes Barack seem like a great dad and a guardian of young womanhood. The contrast between their family life and that of the Clintons is implicit. When Michelle remarks—as she did, now famously, at a fund-raiser hosted in Beverly Hills—that Barack forgets to “secure the bread so that it doesn’t get stale,” she’s playing the martinet as hammily as she played the big hungry bear in South Carolina.
“Occasionally, it gives campaign people heartburn,” David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s chief strategist, admits. “She’s fundamentally honest—goes out there, speaks her mind, jokes. She doesn’t parse her words or select them with an antenna for political correctness.”
People forget that Barack himself has been working the hapless-hubby routine for a long time: he writes about trying to enjoy the bachelor life as a freshman senator in Washington but finding himself too “fully domesticated, soft, and helpless” to remember to buy a shower curtain. The ordinary card, in fact, may be one of the Obamas’ best assets. It assuages fears of difference—“We’re just like you” is the cumulative message of all the back-and-forth about the breath and the bread—and inoculates against jealousy, a smart bit of self-deprecation on the part of a young, gifted, attractive couple whose fortunes have risen quickly, like movie stars insisting that they were unpopular in high school.
Besides, Obama’s tendency toward deflation isn’t limited to Barack. Cindy Moelis recalls commissioning a cookie bouquet with icing in the pattern of the Obama campaign’s logo and presenting it to Michelle, who replied, “Oh, great. More sugar for the kids.” Obama’s dismissiveness is not that of the spoiled princess, as her detractors have suggested, but that of the wary striver: why get used to things being good if they could fall apart at any moment?
“Michelle’s always been very vocal about anything,” her mother, Marian Robinson, told me. “If it’s not right, she’s going to say so. When she was at Princeton, her brother”—Craig, now the head basketball coach at Brown, was two years ahead of Michelle—“called me and said, ‘Mom, Michelle’s here telling people they’re not teaching French right.’ She thought the style was not conversational enough. I told him, ‘Just pretend you don’t know her.’ ”
There is more to the Obamas’ relationship, however, than the caricature of Michelle as a ballbreaker to Barack’s Obambi (Maureen Dowd’s term). Consider the moments leading up to Barack’s career-making speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The story that the Obamas like to tell, and that their chroniclers like to repeat, is that Michelle pulled Barack aside just before he took the stage, warning him, “Just don’t screw it up, buddy!”
Someone who was involved in the preparation of the speech recalls a more nuanced dynamic, as Michelle calmed an irritable Barack. “We were spending intense sessions tinkering with wording and commas,” the person says. “It was pretty tense, because everybody was picking at Barack and making suggestions. He was getting a little irate. Michelle was in the room, and she was kind of handling both him as well as some of the speech.” The observer went on, “She was listening intently and, without being overly directive, was somebody that he could glance over to, almost a telepathic kind of relationship. He was clearly looking to her for reaction.”
Earlier on the day that Obama visited the nursery school, she addressed a congregation at the Pee Dee Union Baptist Church, in Cheraw, a hamlet of about six thousand known as “The Prettiest Town in Dixie.” The church’s makeshift gravel parking lot, next to the Pee Dee Ice and Fuel Company and bounded by train tracks, was full. After an invocation by the Reverend Jerry Corbett and an introduction by the mayor of Cheraw, Obama came to the pulpit. “You all got up bright and early just for me?” she asked the mostly elderly, almost all-black crowd. “Yes!” they roared. Obama continued, “On behalf of my church home and my pastor, Reverend Wright, I bring greetings.”
Obama opened with some reminiscing. “My people are from South Carolina,” she said. “I don’t know if y’all knew that. . . . In fact, my brother and I came down last week for a mini family reunion at my grandparents’ church, because they retired back down here, and before their death they were living here, attending an A.M.E. Baptist church in Georgetown.”
Obama was playing to her audience—later she riffed on “those relatives who have plastic on the furniture” and reminded the churchgoers to get “ten other triflin’ people in your life” out of bed and down to the polls on Saturday. Her appearances at the church, and many like it, were a key point of strategy in a state that would be the first real test of whether or not Barack could attract significant numbers of black voters. “In South Carolina in particular, because she had family from there, it made a lot of sense for her to speak in the African-American community,” David Axelrod said.
After warming up the crowd, Obama launched into her stump speech, a forty-five-minute monologue that she composed herself and delivers without notes. Obama has been open about the value of her ability to speak to black audiences in cadences that reflect their experience, but she makes clear her distaste for the notion that she is a niche tool, wielded by her husband’s campaign to woo black voters solely on the basis of their shared racial identity. “I mean, I’ve been to every early state,” she told me, when I asked her about reports that she was “deployed” in the South to reach black audiences. “I was ‘deployed’ to Iowa,” she said, making air quotes with her fingers. “I was ‘deployed’ to New Hampshire.” The four times I heard her give the speech—in a ballroom at the University of South Carolina, from the pulpit of Pee Dee Union, at an art gallery in Charleston, and in the auditorium of St. Norbert College, in De Pere, Wisconsin—its content was admirably consistent, with few of the politician’s customary tweaks and nods to the demographic predilections, or prejudices, of a particular audience.
Obama begins with a broad assessment of life in America in 2008, and life is not good: we’re a divided country, we’re a country that is “just downright mean,” we are “guided by fear,” we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents. “We have become a nation of struggling folks who are barely making it every day,” she said, as heads bobbed in the pews. “Folks are just jammed up, and it’s gotten worse over my lifetime. And, doggone it, I’m young. Forty-four!”
From these bleak generalities, Obama moves into specific complaints. Used to be, she will say, that you could count on a decent education in the neighborhood. But now there are all these charter schools and magnet schools that you have to “finagle” to get into. (Obama herself attended a magnet school, but never mind.) Health care is out of reach (“Let me tell you, don’t get sick in America”), pensions are disappearing, college is too expensive, and even if you can figure out a way to go to college you won’t be able to recoup the cost of the degree in many of the professions for which you needed it in the first place. “You’re looking at a young couple that’s just a few years out of debt,” Obama said. “See, because, we went to those good schools, and we didn’t have trust funds. I’m still waiting for Barack’s trust fund. Especially after I heard that Dick Cheney was s’posed to be a relative or something. Give us something here!”
First Ladies have traditionally gravitated toward happy topics like roadside flower beds, so it comes as a surprise that Obama’s speech is such an unrelenting downer. Obama acknowledged to me that some advisers have lobbied her to take a sunnier tone, with little success. “For me,” she said, “you can talk about policies and plans and experience and all that. We usually get bogged down in that in a Presidential campaign, over the stuff that I think doesn’t matter. . . . I mean, I guess I could go into Barack’s policies and rattle them off. But that’s what he’s for.” In Cheraw, Obama belittled the idea that the Clinton years were ones of opportunity and prosperity: “The life that I’m talking about that most people are living has gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl. . . . So if you want to pretend like there was some point over the last couple of decades when your lives were easy, I want to meet you!”
After the speech, Obama was whisked into the church basement. A clutch of people gathered nearby, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. But when she emerged into the chilly morning air, she didn’t linger long with her well-wishers. She can seem squeamish about politicking, put off by the awkward stagecraft of glad-handing and the small-group discussions—Michelle, five or six women, and, as she put it one day in Wisconsin, “five thousand cameras”—that her staff bills as “intimate conversations.” But she thrives in large venues. Cindy Moelis said, “The first time she got feedback on being such a wonderful speaker, I think when people said, ‘Wow, you’re really good at that,’ she goes, ‘Why’s everybody surprised?’ ”
If Michelle Obama’s husband succeeds in garnering the Democratic nomination and then in winning the general election in November, she will be not only the first black First Lady of the United States but also one of the youngest since Jackie Kennedy. Yet, for a potential revolutionary, Michelle Obama is deeply conventional. She exudes a nostalgia, invoking the innocence and order of the past, as much as her husband beckons to a liberating future. Listening to her speeches, with their longing for a lost, spit-shine world, one could sometimes mistake her, were it not for the emphasis on social justice, for a law-and-order Republican. “It’s not just about politics; it’s TV,” she says, of our collective decay. And, wistfully: “The life I had growing up seems so much more simple.” She is a successful working mother, but an ambivalent one: “My mother stayed at home. She didn’t have to work.” Her music of choice is Stevie Wonder, and has been since her childhood. (At the Obamas’ wedding, a friend sang “You and I.”) One of her favorite foods is macaroni and cheese. In “The Audacity of Hope,” acknowledging the appeal of the Reagan Administration, Barack writes, “It was related to the pleasure that I still get from watching a well-played baseball game, or my wife gets from watching reruns of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ ”
Obama draws a straight line from the way her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, raised her to the world as it ought to be. For all her modern womanhood, she has not been tempted by rebellion or self-differentiation. “My lens of life, how I see the world, is through my background, my upbringing,” she said, in South Carolina.
Fraser Robinson and Marian Shields, who both grew up on the South Side of Chicago, married in 1960. Craig was born two years later, and on January 17, 1964, Marian gave birth to Michelle LaVaughn, whom Fraser nicknamed Miche. She and Craig looked so much alike (and still do) that people often mistook them for twins. Fraser, who was partially handicapped by multiple sclerosis, worked swing shifts as a city pump operator, while Marian tended to the children. The family lived in a modest house that they rented from a relative in the South Shore neighborhood. “If I had to describe it to a real estate agent, it would be 1BR, 1BA,” Craig told Peter Slevin, of the Washington Post. “If you said it was eleven hundred square feet, I’d call you a liar.”
Money was scarce but sufficient. Fraser took pride in providing for his family. “If the TV broke and we didn’t have any money to have it fixed, we could go out and buy another one on a charge card, as long as we paid the bills on time,” Marian told me. Saturday nights were spent at home playing Chinese checkers, Monopoly, or a game called Hands Down (like spoons, with bluffing). It was a simple time. “I probably had two sleepovers my entire life,” Craig said. “We were home folks.” Many years, the family drove to Dukes Happy Holiday Resort, in Michigan, for a week’s vacation.
The Robinsons went to church occasionally, but if they subscribed to any credo it was that of freethinking. From a young age, Craig and Michelle were encouraged to make choices, and to contend with the consequences. “More important, even, than learning to read and write was to teach them to think,” Marian Robinson said. “We told them, ‘Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow us to just say anything to you. Ask us why.’ ” Craig recalls, of Michelle, “I wouldn’t say she ran roughshod over her friends, but she was sort of the natural leader.”
Craig became a basketball star at a parochial school, while Michelle rode the bus, and then the El, to attend classes at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Michelle’s Class of ’81 yearbook—she was treasurer of her class—includes a picture of her as a serious-looking young lady in a bright-yellow silk shirt. She did not play varsity sports, even though people were always telling her she should. Craig told me, “That’s the best way to get her not to do something. She didn’t want to play just because she was tall and black and athletic.” Bernadette McHale, one of her teachers, recalled, “Our first full graduating class was in ’78, so it was pretty experimental to come here. She made a decision to choose an integrated environment that had more diversity in both curriculum and population.”
Craig was recruited to play basketball at Princeton, and Michelle—who figured she could cut it if he could—followed him there. Princeton in 1981 was not particularly hospitable to minorities of any sort. “It was a very sexist, segregated place,” Angela Acree, who was Obama’s roommate there for three years, recalled. She continued, “We couldn’t afford any furniture, so we just had pillows on the floor, and a stereo.” Their social lives revolved around gatherings at the Third World Center, rather than the university’s eating clubs. Acree recalled, “The white people didn’t dance—I know that sounds like a cliché—and they also played a completely different kind of music, whereas we were playing R. & B., Luther Vandross, Run-D.M.C., at the T.W.C.”
Obama majored in sociology, investigating, in her senior thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” the ways in which attending Princeton affected black alumni’s sense of connection to the black community. At Obama’s request, the thesis was embargoed until November 5, 2008. Last month, amid charges of hypocrisy—the Obama campaign has congratulated itself on transparency—Obama finally released the document to the Web site Politico. A sample passage: “Unfortunately there are very few adequate support groups which provide some form of guidance and counsel for Black students having difficulty making the transition from their home environments to Princeton’s environment. Most students are dependent upon the use of their own faculties to carry them through Princeton.” She dedicated the project to “Mom, Dad, Craig and all of my special friends. Thank-you for loving me and always making me feel good about myself.”
Obama went straight from Princeton to Harvard Law School. After graduating, she became a junior associate, specializing in intellectual property law, at the Chicago firm of Sidley & Austin. She worked there for three years, eventually becoming, as she says in her stump speech, disenchanted with “corporate America.” Valerie Jarrett hired her as an assistant to the mayor, Richard Daley. “In the planning department, part of her job was to help businesses solve problems,” Jarrett told me. Sort of like a one-woman 311? “No, a 911,” Jarrett responded. “She made problems go away just that fast.” In 1993, she was appointed the founding director of the Chicago office of a public-service program called Public Allies, which places young adults from diverse backgrounds in paid internships with nonprofit organizations. An early appearance in the Chicago Tribune was in an article about Gen X-ers. Obama told the reporter, “I wear jeans, and I’m the director.”
Michelle and Barack met at Sidley & Austin, when she was assigned to advise him during a summer job. Michelle’s co-workers warned her that the summer associate was cute. “I figured that they were just impressed with any black man with a suit and a job,” she later told Barack. Over her protestations—she felt that dating someone she worked with would be “tacky,” her brother recalls—Barack began to court his boss. “She took me to one or two parties,” Barack writes, “tactfully overlooking my limited wardrobe, and she even tried to set me up with a couple of her friends.” Before the end of the summer, he’d got her to agree to go out for a movie—Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”—and an ice-cream cone at Baskin-Robbins. Vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in 2004, Barack met Spike Lee at a reception. As Michelle has recalled, he told Lee, “I owe you a lot,” because, during the movie, Michelle had allowed him to touch her knee.
Barack had a more bohemian attitude toward romance. “We would have this running debate throughout our relationship about whether marriage was necessary,” Obama told me. “It was sort of a bone of contention, because I was, like, ‘Look, buddy, I’m not one of these who’ll just hang out forever.’ You know, that’s just not who I am. He was, like”—she broke into a wishy-washy voice—“ ‘Marriage, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s really how you feel.’ And I was, like, ‘Yeah, right.’ ” Eventually, he proposed to her over dinner at Gordon, a restaurant in Chicago. “He took me out to a nice dinner under the guise of celebrating the fact that he had finished the bar,” Obama recalled. “And he got me into one of these discussions again, where, you know, he sort of just led me down there and got fired up and it’s like you’ve got blah blah blah blah, and then dessert comes out, the tray comes out, and there’s a ring!”
The couple married in 1992, and moved into a condominium in a walkup building in Hyde Park. Cindy Moelis recalled a dinner party the Obamas gave when they were newlyweds: shrimp-and-pasta, inexpensive art on the walls from their travels to Hawaii and Kenya. Barack was not the life of the party. “Because Barack was so smart, he was pretty serious when we were in our thirties. I’d poke him and say, ‘Come on, let’s talk about the last movie you saw,’ ” Moelis said. “At some point in our forties, I said to Michelle, ‘You know, I think he’s so much grown into who he is now. He’s so much more lighthearted.’ Because he became a senator and he had this wonderful outlet to be a policy person and to be intense, and when he got home he could relax and laugh and just have dinner with friends and talk about movies and basketball.”
Parenthood, far more than politics, has been the catalytic force in Michelle’s adult life. She is passionate about being a mother, and about confronting the problems that working women face in making time for both their families and their professions. When I asked if there was an issue she has worked particularly hard to bring to her husband’s attention, she replied, “The attention that he’s focussed on work-family balance. . . . That is our life. To the extent that we have challenges, and struggles, headaches that everybody else is going through . . . those are our conversations.” (Barack has candidly chronicled their struggle “to balance work and family in a way that’s equitable to Michelle and good for our children,” and its toll on their marriage.) Her frame of reference can seem narrow. When she talks about wanting “my girls to travel the world with pride” and the decline of America “over my lifetime,” you wonder why her default pronoun is singular if the message is meant to be concern for others and inclusiveness.
Last summer, Obama’s mother retired from her job as a bank secretary in order to look after Malia and Sasha when Barack and Michelle are on the road. (The Obamas employ a full-time housekeeper, and Michelle tries to see a personal trainer four times a week, but they do not have a nanny.) Obama speaks frequently of her reliance on a network of female relatives, friends, and co-workers. Her staff comprises a collection of mostly young women, practical yet fashionable, like their leader, efficient but not effusive. On Super Tuesday, before the triumphant couple took the stage in the ballroom of the Chicago Hyatt, one of Obama’s aides leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Tonight, she’s wearing red. ”
When Barack was elected to the United States Senate, the Obamas decided that Michelle and the girls would remain in Chicago rather than leave behind what she refers to as her “support base.” A local mother told the Tribune, of their chore-swapping, “This weekend was Hannah Montana, next weekend Michelle has soccer-skills practice.”
One morning, during a roundtable at Ma Fischer’s, a diner in Milwaukee, Elizabeth Crawford, a recently divorced caterer with two children, brought up the subject of the eating habits of American families. “I really, really hope that Barack will jump on that,” she said.
Then, having given thoughtful but boilerplate responses most of the morning, Obama suddenly departed from her script. It was the most animated I saw her on the campaign trail. “You know,” she said, “in my household, over the last year we have just shifted to organic for this very reason. I mean, I saw just a moment in my nine-year-old’s life—we have a good pediatrician, who is very focussed on childhood obesity, and there was a period where he was, like, ‘Mmm, she’s tipping the scale.’ So we started looking through our cabinets. . . . You know, you’ve got fast food on Saturday, a couple days a week you don’t get home. The leftovers, good, not the third day! . . . So that whole notion of cooking on Sunday is out. . . . And the notion of trying to think about a lunch every day! . . . So you grab the Lunchables, right? And the fruit-juice-box thing, and we think—we think—that’s juice. And you start reading the labels and you realize there’s high-fructose corn syrup in everything we’re eating. Every jelly, every juice. Everything that’s in a bottle or a package is like poison in a way that most people don’t even know. . . . Now we’re keeping, like, a bowl of fresh fruit in the house. But you have to go to the fruit stand a couple of times a week to keep that fruit fresh enough that a six-year-old—she’s not gonna eat the pruney grape, you know. At that point it’s, like, ‘Eww!’ She’s not gonna eat the brown banana or the shrivelledy-up things. It’s got to be fresh for them to want it. Who’s got time to go to the fruit stand? Who can afford it, first of all?”
The Obamas are fixtures of Chicago’s philanthro-social scene: there they are, waving from a silver Mustang at the annual Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic; there’s Michelle delivering remarks at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Seventy-second Central Regional Conference; there she is arriving at the Black Creativity Gala with a shopping bag full of “Obama for Senator” buttons. Cindy Moelis recalls being shocked, after agreeing to host Obama’s baby shower, that the guest list included fifty people. “Hmmm,” Michael Sneed, the Sun-Times columnist, reported in 2006. “Sneed hears rumbles a mink coat reportedly belonging to Michelle Obama, wife of Sen. Barack Obama, may have gone missing following the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s birthday bash at the South Shore Cultural Center.”
The Obamas’ financial standing has risen sharply in the past three years, largely as a result of the money Barack earned from writing “The Audacity of Hope.” In 2005, their income was $1.67 million, which was more than they had earned in the previous seven years combined. “Our lives are so close to normal, if there is such a thing when you’re running for President,” Michelle has said. “When I’m off the road, I’m going to Target to get the toilet paper, I’m standing on soccer fields, and I think there’s just a level of connection that gets lost the further you get into being a candidate.”
Just after Barack was elected to the United States Senate, Michelle received a large pay increase—from $121,910 in 2004 to $316,962 in 2005. “Mrs. Obama is extremely overpaid,” one citizen wrote in a letter to the editor of the Tribune, after the paper published a story questioning the timing of the award. “Now, what is the real reason behind such an inflated salary?” Her bosses at the University of Chicago Hospitals vigorously defended the raise, pointing out that it put her salary on a par with that of other vice-presidents at the hospital. (As it happens, Obama has spent most of her life working within the two institutions for which she most frequently claims a populist disdain: government and the health-care system.)
Michelle’s roots in the community predate her involvement with Barack; in fact, he has written that it was one of the things that attracted him to her, awakening, after years of peripatetic soul-searching, “a longing for stability and a sense of place that I had not realized was there.” Barbara Pace-Moody, the development director of Muntu, an African-dance company on whose board Obama serves, recalls meeting her, in the early nineties, when they were both volunteers for a mentoring program: “We spent every Saturday with young women from the Chicago Housing Authority. We had a big gala, and she and her sister-in-law took their own money and paid for the girls to get their hair done and set them up in a hotel downtown. I remember thinking, Who is this Michelle Robinson?”
More troubling to the Obamas’ image of civic rectitude is their entanglement with a campaign contributor named Antoin (Tony) Rezko in a 2005 real-estate deal. (Rezko is now awaiting trial on corruption charges.) That year, as the Tribune reported, the Obamas moved to a $1.65-million Georgian Revival mansion in Hyde Park, which features a thousand-bottle wine cellar and bookcases made of Honduran mahogany. On the day they bought the house, Rita Rezko, Tony’s wife, purchased the adjacent lot, which was wooded and empty, for $625,000. After the deal went through, Michelle contacted the city’s landmarks commission, which she had served on, and received an e-mail from a deputy commissioner with suggestions for obtaining permits to erect a fence between the parcels. The Obamas paid for legal, architectural, and landscaping work, while Rezko got the bill for the fence’s construction, for fourteen thousand dollars. (Obama paid the proper fraction of the purchase price for a sliver of land that he bought from the Rezkos as a buffer.)
The other Chicago connection that dogs the Obamas is Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., their pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ. Wright, who drives a Porsche and references Bernie Mac and Terry McMillan in his unorthodox sermons (“Take what God gave you and say, ‘In your face, mediocrity, I’m a bad mamma jamma!’ ”), officiated at Michelle and Barack’s wedding and baptized their two daughters. Barack took the title “The Audacity of Hope” from a sermon that Wright preached. In 2006, the Obamas gave $22,500 to the church.
Wright espouses a theology that seeks to reconcile African-American Christianity with, as he has written, “the raw data of our racist existence in this strange land.” The historical accuracy of that claim is incontestable. But his message is more confrontational than may be palatable to some white voters. In his book “Africans Who Shaped Our Faith”—an extended refutation of the Western Christianity that gave rise to “the European Jesus . . . the blesser of the slave trade, the defender of racism and apartheid”—he says, “In this country, racism is as natural as motherhood, apple pie, and the fourth of July. Many black people have been deluded into thinking that our BMWs, Lexuses, Porsches, Benzes, titles, heavily mortgaged condos and living environments can influence people who are fundamentally immoral.”
In portraying America as “a Eurocentric wasteland of lily-white lies and outright distortions,” Wright promulgates a theory of congenital separatism that is deeply at odds with Obama’s professed belief in the possibilities of unity and change. Last year, Trumpet Newsmagazine, which was launched by Trinity United and is run by Wright’s daughter, gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to Louis Farrakhan, leading to accusations that Wright was anti-Semitic.
Barack’s advisers have tried to dismiss the criticisms of his association with Wright as a witch hunt by conservative blogs and talk-show hosts. The candidate disinvited Wright from giving the convocation when he announced his Presidential bid. Last month, I attended an Ash Wednesday service at the church. When it was over, I approached Wright and asked him to tell me about Michelle Obama. “She’s from the ’hood,” he said. Within seconds, a minder rushed over to say that I was forbidden to conduct any interviews on the premises.
“We don’t want our church to receive the brunt of this notoriety,” Obama told me. I asked her whether Wright’s statements presented a problem for her or for Barack. “You know, your pastor is like your grandfather, right?” she said. “There are plenty of things he says that I don’t agree with, that Barack doesn’t agree with.” When it comes to absolute doctrinal adherence, she said, “I don’t know that there would be a church in this country that I would be involved in. So, you know, you make choices, and you sort of—you can’t disown yourself from your family because they’ve got things wrong. You try to be a part of expanding the conversation.” (She made a similar argument when I asked if she agreed with her husband in opposing gay marriage. “It’s like you gotta do the baby steps. . . . You don’t start with the hardest, toughest issues when you’re trying to unite a group.”)
Obama does not avoid blunt discussions about race. One year, she and Cindy Moelis, who is white, went to a spa in Utah to celebrate their birthdays. “We were in the cafeteria, getting healthy food for breakfast,” Moelis recalled. “Everybody was, like, ‘Hey, Michelle!’ ” Moelis wondered aloud why nobody remembered her name. “See any more six-foot-tall African-American women?” Obama replied. “I didn’t think so. So stop taking it personally.”
Michelle’s perceived authenticity has been an asset to Barack. Ron Carter, a former associate of the Black Panther Party who is the publisher of the South Street Journal, told me that he was impressed by her handling of a combustible situation that arose during Barack’s senatorial campaign, following a speech that he gave at Liberty Baptist Church, on Chicago’s South Side. “There were lots of radicals protesting, calling into question his loyalty to the community,” Carter recalled. “She came out the back door, and there were a bunch of hoodlum thugs ready to do a full-blast demonstration. She put on her street sense and asked all the guys, ‘Y’all got a problem or something?’ They all froze, guys who would slap the mayor, who would slap Jesse Jackson in the face, even.”
Barack has written eloquently about the pressure of assimilation for members of minority groups. When I asked Michelle if she had felt that sort of pressure, she replied, “What minority communities go through still represents the challenges, the legacies, of oppression and racism. You know, when you have cultures who feel like second-class citizens at some level . . . there’s this natural feeling within the community that we’re not good enough . . . we can’t be as smart as or as prepared—and it’s that internal struggle that is always the battle.” She talked about her first trip to Africa—Barack took her to Kenya to meet his father’s family—and the realization that, as much as white society fails to account for the African-American experience, so does any conception of pan-blackness. “There’s also the view among many black Americans that Africa is home,” she said. “But when you’re a black American you’re very much an American first.”
Marian Robinson told me that she did not know that Barack’s mother was white until long after she met him. “He never talked about himself,” she said. The Obamas’ partnership has been a source of great pride among African-American women. In an essay on TheRoot.com, Kim McLarin writes that Obama reminds her of Ntozake Shange’s play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf”: “ordinary / brown braided woman / with big legs and full lips / reglar.” For her, the Obamas’ relationship is a public validation of the worthiness of dark-skinned women. “He chose one of us, and I am thrilled,” McLarin writes. “She loves, respects, and adores Barack, but she is the prize and she damn well knows it. He better know it, too.”
In Chicago, Barbara Pace-Moody opened her e-mail to show me a JPEG of Barack and Michelle that she had been forwarded as an exemplar of a strong marriage. In it, Michelle stands behind Barack, her arms clasped around his waist, while he leans back, his hands over hers, closing his eyes ever so slightly. The picture was taken at a rally in New Hampshire, but they could have been on a beach in Hawaii. Ebony named “Barack & Michelle” to its “10 Hottest Couples” list this year, in the company of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. An aide, referring to their “kissy” backstage displays, told me, “They’re, like, ‘We don’t care who’s standing by.’ ”
Some observers have detected in Obama an air of entitlement. Her defenders attribute these charges of arrogance to racist fears about uppity black women. While it’s a stretch to call the suggestion that Obama projects an air of self-satisfaction bigoted, it may at least reflect a culture gap: last April, after Maureen Dowd wrote a column criticizing Obama for undermining her husband’s mystique, a blog riposte, circulated widely on the Internet, was titled “The White Lady Just Doesn’t Get It.”
Things had been going remarkably smoothly for Michelle Obama until mid-February. Campaigning four days a week, she was drawing crowds in the thousands. According to David Axelrod, she had urged the campaign to be aggressive in its outreach to female voters, and her husband had made significant inroads with a demographic that had been a Clinton stronghold. “She’s pivoted her language to ‘See how far we’ve come’ as opposed to ‘Don’t we have a long way to go,’ ” one of Obama’s advisers told me, in Sheboygan. “It’s weird,” Craig Robinson said, at the beginning of the month. “It’s like if your sister’s a budding actress, and all of a sudden she’s Julia Roberts.”
Speaking at a rally in Wisconsin on February 18th, Obama remarked, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.” The sentiment—that America was in a mess, and Mrs. Obama was not happy about it—was not a new one, but her unfortunate formulation instantly drew charges that she was unpatriotic. Bill O’Reilly spawned his own scandalette, remarking, “I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels.” Victor Maltsev, of Rego Park, wrote to the Post, “Obama wants to be our next first lady? Watch out, America!” Cindy McCain seized the opportunity to draw a sniffy contrast between the Obamas and her and her war-hero husband, telling a cheering crowd, “I don’t know about you—if you heard those words earlier—I’m very proud of my country.”
It was a manufactured controversy, but it reflected a real cavalierness on Obama’s part—not toward the Blue Angels and 9/11 and the Berlin Wall and America’s armed forces, as her various critics had it, but toward the reality that it might be wise for a person whose spouse is running for President not to say something that could be construed that way. The controversy over her brand of household humor may have been a matter of cultural misinterpretation. But Obama’s blitheness about politics may have less to do with race than it does with class—conservative commentators pegged her as a paragon of élitist leftism—or, more likely, for a daughter of blue-collar Chicago, with personal disposition. In our conversation, she came across as almost apolitical. I asked her about the first time she voted. “Oh, God, um, I’ve voted every time that I could vote, but I don’t—it doesn’t stand out,” she said. “You know, that was just something you did. You know, you didn’t not vote. . . . But I, you know, it wasn’t like this moving experience for me”—she breathed in dramatically—“ ‘I cast my first vote!’ ” (“I feel kind of bad about it,” she once told a reporter, unconvincingly, who asked whether she participated in the Senate spouses’ club.)
The self-assurance that colors Obama’s assumption that her personal feelings are some bellwether of American achievement is also palpable in her forceful declarations that her husband is the only person who can solve the country’s problems. “I tell people I am married to the answer,” she said, in a speech in Harlem. “The man . . . who I am willing to sacrifice,” she called her husband, in Iowa. In November, on MSNBC: “Black voters will wake up and get it.” There is a hectoring, buy-one-while-supplies-last quality to Obama’s frequent admonitions that Americans will have only one chance to elect her husband President. Someone who has spent a good portion of her life gaining purchase has suddenly been asked to sell something, and she seems to find it slightly beneath her.
Perhaps Obama’s high-handedness is preëmptive, her way of “claiming a seat at the table”—as she is fond of calling enfranchisement in the power-brokering structure—rather than waiting to be offered one. It’s as though she figures she might as well say that she and her husband are all that before someone can say that they aren’t. And there’s a sort of strategic genius to her presentation of campaigning as grinding work that takes her away from her family, rather than a glorious tour of the world’s greatest country that she would be thrilled to be undertaking even if she didn’t have to. She frequently tells her audiences, “I don’t care where I am, the first question is ‘How are you managing it all? How are you holding up?’ ” The effect, of course, is to set up an expectation of tribute, like those hairdressers who display all their gifts in the days leading up to Christmas. By loudly voicing her distaste for retail politicking, Obama makes people feel as though, by showing up, she were doing them a favor.
One on one, Obama is gracious. A week before the Wisconsin primary, she made an appearance at the Hops Haven Brew Haus, in Sheboygan. When it was over, I joined her in the back seat of a Ford Explorer for part of the ride to Green Bay. Space was tight, and I couldn’t find anywhere to put my sludgy boots except practically on top of her black leather pocketbook. (If a woman’s handbag is a window onto her soul, Obama really is normal: hers had an empty M&M’s wrapper and an iPod sticking out of an unzipped compartment.) “You know what, let me move it because I can put it out of your way,” she said. Someone was trying to put something in the trunk, which was locked. “Oh, they’re trying to get in the back,” she said, and moved to help, like a mother packing her charges into the station wagon.
The acrimony between the Obamas and the Clintons had been intensifying in the days leading up to the Wisconsin primary. I asked Obama if she was worried about negative attacks on her husband. She was diplomatic. “We’ve pretty much heard it all,” she said.
“She’s very competitive, and she believes deeply in him and in what we’re doing,” David Axelrod said later. “I don’t think she’s a pacifist—if she thinks we’re being treated unfairly or doesn’t think we’re being aggressive enough in debunking attacks, she will say so. She does not fold up into the lotus position and start chanting ‘kumbaya.’ She’s against gratuitous attacks but she’s not against defending our position and making sure we don’t get punked.”
Others in the Obama camp were less circumspect. “I’m telling you, she’s not faking the funk, that’s for sure. Neither is he,” Craig Robinson said, over lunch in Providence. “And that’s why it’s working. That’s why people are connecting. ’Cause you can’t B.S. that good. Even if you’re Bill Clinton you can’t, because he’s getting called on it.”
I asked Robinson about Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” comment. “He’s straight up saying things that aren’t true,” Robinson responded. “And it was great, because Barack didn’t go crazy. He just said, ‘Hey, we just have to say something when somebody says something that’s blatantly not true.’ No one’s ever called those people on it.” He went on, “Michelle and Barack’s plan is to win this election. They can’t be worried about what he says. I mean, you know, sometimes you get angry. But it’s so ludicrous that it’s almost comical. It really is. It really is. And the whole crying now before every primary? You’ve got to be kidding me. If I was a woman, I’d be embarrassed for her,” he said of Hillary Clinton.
The competition between the two couples, and specifically between Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, became explicit later when one of Michelle’s advisers pulled me aside and pointed out that Michelle had recently been given Secret Service protection. “So that’s both spouses on both sides,” the aide pointed out.
Back in the Explorer, I asked Obama if she thought that her husband, as the Democratic nominee, could take John McCain. “Oh, yeah. We got him,” she replied.
When the conversation turned to the broader significance of Obama’s candidacy, I wondered if the burden of history weighed upon her. “No, I just don’t think in those terms,” Obama said. “I’m very much one foot in front of the other. You know, we’re not there. We’ve got to win a bunch of states and delegates and, you know, this is a messy process. And then there’s still a general election. So I am so far away from history right now that it’s like, ‘Why get caught up in that emotionally when there’s so much stuff in front of us that we have to do?’ Plus, I’ve got kids, and, you know, what are we doing for spring break, and their birthdays are coming up. I’ve got plenty of stuff to worry about before my legacy in history and all that.”
In “The Audacity of Hope,” Barack Obama perceives a vulnerability in his wife, one so closely guarded that even her brother professed to me never to have noticed it. There was “a glimmer that danced across her round, dark eyes whenever I looked at her,” he writes, “the slightest hint of uncertainty, as if, deep inside, she knew how fragile things really were, and that if she ever let go, even for a moment, all her plans might quickly unravel.” The Explorer rolled on to Green Bay.