The Making of a First Lady

She’s confident and levelheaded, and she carries the nurturing legacy of a close-knit South Shore family, an experience she wanted to re-create in her own home. After years of resenting her husband’s political career, Michelle Obama found her voice and flashed her style on the road to the White House

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Michelle in Denver before the Democratic National Convention; the victors on election night in Grant Park
Michelle in Denver before the Democratic National Convention  more photos »

 

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The first Saturday after Barack Obama won the White House, his wife, Michelle (“Miche” to her pals), did what she had been doing most Saturdays for years—joined her friends Sandy Matthews and Yvonne Davila to take their daughters to ballet and soccer and later to a movie. Usually, they went to the California Pizza Kitchen on North Avenue for lunch, but this time Yvonne picked up sandwiches, and they ate in the car en route to see Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. The friends had kept to their routine through the nearly two-year presidential campaign, so having the Secret Service in tail was nothing new.

It was a last burst of normalcy before the lives of Michelle, 45, and her daughters, Sasha, seven, and Malia, ten, would get turned upside down. But sticking to that prosaic Saturday routine—just four days after the Obama family celebrated a historic ascension before a thrilled audience of tens of thousands in Grant Park and millions more on TV worldwide—suggests something fundamental about the personality and style of the striking five-foot-eleven woman who was about to become the nation’s First Lady.

Colleagues and friends from every era of her life describe a woman of remarkable consistency in demeanor, looks, objectives, and habits. “Michelle appears to differ very little today from the student I knew in college,” said Derrick Burns, a friend at Princeton University. “Much like now, Michelle did not seek the spotlight in college. When it was on her, she shone brightly.”

Interviews with more than 50 acquaintances portray a South Sider passionately devoted to family, to hard work, and to doing good—and with a deep skepticism of electoral politics, an attitude that at times has caused strains in her marriage. Michelle is someone who relishes order and routine—her husband has remarked on her “strong perfectionist streak”—and the uncertainty of a political career has often conflicted with her desire for a generous family income and a big, comfortable home. Throughout her life, in school and at work, she has gone out of her way to help others, and Barack’s ideals attracted her. She knew from the time she met him that he wanted to change the country and had his eyes on the presidency. But she wanted a husband who did pro bono work on the side of a lucrative legal career, who also helped with the children. (Michelle would not give an interview for this story.)

Dan Shomon, a top aide who traveled Illinois with Barack when he was a state senator and a U.S. Senate candidate, says that Barack called Michelle once after he had made a particularly rousing speech. “They’re drinking the juice,” he told her enthusiastically. “I feel like I’m inspiring people.”

She replied: “You don’t even have enough money to drink your own juice.”

Michelle’s roots are far more Chicago than her husband’s—she grew up in a South Shore bungalow and attended city schools. Her father worked in the machine of Richard J. Daley, and she put in time at Richard M.’s City Hall. Unlike her husband, she comes from an intact family, one so wholesome and American that Barack has written that visiting them in their apartment was like dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver.

Friends say the close-knit Robinson home gave Michelle her confidence, her levelheadedness, and her altruism, but the memory of it—steady, warm, reliable—was in large part what made her uncomfortable about her husband’s ventures into politics. Family mattered above all, and she did not want to put it in jeopardy. Still, Michelle eventually came around—particularly after Barack made millions from his books—and a key piece of the story of the 2008 election is Michelle’s emergence on the campaign trail. After some rough patches at the start, she turned into one of her husband’s strongest assets and a formidable presence on her own. With perhaps a bit of affectionate hyperbole, Malik Nevels, a former employee of Michelle’s, puts it this way: “We could potentially see another Obama in the White House before we see another Clinton.”

***

In the early days of Barack Obama’s political career, perhaps no one outside the family had a better window on Michelle’s disdain for politics—“a waste of time,” she once told a reporter—and the tensions in her marriage than Dan Shomon, who was Barack’s staff person in Springfield and a key campaign aide through Barack’s 2004 run for the U.S. Senate. In conversations with Barack and Michelle, and in long drives with Barack around Illinois, Shomon learned that the young politician’s wife worried about her family’s financial security and often resented the demands placed on her by Barack’s state senate job. She thought that serving in Springfield was little more than a selfish indulgence of her husband’s. “She still didn’t really understand why he was not at a law firm, where he could be making $700,000 or $800,000 a year or a million or two,” Shomon says, “and why he was lowering himself to the state legislature.” It’s not that she didn’t believe in Barack and his ideals. “She believed in him 500 percent,” says Shomon. But politicians and their petty dealings dismayed her. She would tell him, “Barack, this business is not noble.”

Within two years of his election to the state senate in 1996, Michelle had Malia, their first child. The new mother would have liked to stay home with her daughter, but the family needed her salary. Meanwhile, Barack was downstate three days a week and still teaching law at the University of Chicago. “Tired and stressed, we had little time for conversation, much less romance,” Obama later wrote. “I found myself subjected to endless negotiations about every detail of managing the house, long lists of things that I needed to do or had forgotten to do and a generally sour attitude.” 

Shomon remembers the lists. “‘OK, Barack, you’re going to do grocery shopping two times a week. You’re to pick up Malia. You’re going to do blah, blah, blah, and you’re responsible for blah, blah, blah.’ So he had his assignments, and he never questioned her, never bitched about it. He said that Michelle knows what she’s doing—I trust her child rearing and the family rearing.”

Michelle later told a reporter that she had gotten some advice from her mother—essentially to let Barack be Barack: “He’s a good man; don’t be mad at him.” Still, according to Shomon, Michelle even asked Barack to give up his beloved basketball, mostly because he kept getting injured. She suggested golf, and he “turned into a great golfer, because he’s a really good athlete,” Shomon recalls. But he continued to play basketball. “She would kind of grouse about it.” Golf went by the wayside because Barack had no time.

In 2000, Barack decided to try to move up, and he ran against the incumbent Bobby Rush for the U.S. Congress—a race that was “very difficult on all of them,” recalls Cindy Moelis, who had worked with Michelle at City Hall. Michelle was skeptical. “She was just not sure where this was all going to lead,” says Shomon, who managed Obama’s congressional campaign. Shomon would ask her to go to fundraisers, and she would almost always say no. Barack would never object, much less insist. “She went to things she had to go to,” Shomon recalls—including her husband’s concession speech. Barack was devastated by the loss. “He went through kind of a rough period after that race,” says Shomon. Michelle was upset about the waste of time and energy.

In 2001, she gave birth to their second child, Sasha, and over the next few years, while Michelle struggled with caring for the girls and her job, Barack and Shomon hit the road. Shomon estimates that between 2001 and 2004, they “put 30,000 or 40,000 miles on the car together.” They went to state fairs; they drove to southern Illinois. Barack would call with reports from the road of a bigger-than-expected turnout, and Michelle would say, “Well, Malia is sick, so that’s what I’m concerned about.”

By Shomon’s account, Barack took his time telling Michelle of his plan to run for the U.S. Senate, and at one point he asked Shomon to talk to her and “kind of lay it out for her.” Shomon recalls her being calm and asking thoughtful questions about Barack’s chances. But even after it started to look as if Barack might win, Michelle was not enthusiastic. “She wasn’t the one driving him to run,” recalls Avis LaVelle, who was Mayor Daley’s press secretary when Michelle worked for him. “My suspicion is she was not the one at night saying, ‘Barack, you ought to go for the next office.’”

Michelle did campaign this time around, though. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newsletter, described her passionately introducing her husband at a church on Chicago’s West Side. “I am tired of just giving the political process over to the privileged. To the wealthy. To people with the right daddy,” she told the group. 

Dan Hynes, one of Obama’s opponents in the primary (and, as the son of the Democratic bigwig Thomas Hynes, someone with the “right daddy”), recalls appearing at a candidate forum one Saturday morning when Barack showed up with Malia and Sasha. Hynes assumes that Michelle told her husband: You’ve been gone all week, I’ve got things to do, you’re taking the kids. So there was Barack, “trying to herd these two little kids, and they’re knocking things over and taking pamphlets and throwing them. And here he is trying to be this dignified Senate candidate.”

After Barack gave his bring-down-the-house keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Shomon needed surrogates to make appearances for the candidate. “We didn’t have anything,” Shomon explains. “We had Michelle.” He picked five or ten events a week that he wanted her to go to and got her for half of them. But by then Michelle was finding her voice. The speech was always the same, Shomon recalls: “I’m Michelle Obama. I love my husband. He’s a brilliant person. He stands for the right issues, and you know what? He’s got his flaws, too.” Then she would say, “Barack leaves his underwear in the kitchen. . . .”

 “People loved it,” Shomon says. “It was not a political speech. It rounded Barack out.” That shtick would turn tiresome and problematic during the grueling presidential primary, but Michelle was turning into a terrific campaigner who exuded sincerity and wanted to shake every hand in the room. “There are some people in public life who smile at you, and the smile doesn’t ever get to their eyes,” says Avis LaVelle. “You can clearly see that she’s opening herself to you.”

Michelle was warming up for her next big role—although that role required another leap of faith given that it would take her family farther away from the sort of close, nurturing environment she had known in her own childhood.

 

Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

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comments
6 years ago
Posted by Dedra

I first want to say THANK GOD!!!
I Love the first family. I volunteered during the campaign. This is a beautiful story. Yes We Can!!!

6 years ago
Posted by SusanSC

What a great article...what a great family. The one thing we do know at this point is that we have a stable, loving family in the White House and that is exactly right for this moment in our history. My feeling is that President Obama is going to do just fine, and the Obamas are tremendous role models for all Americans.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

A movie with her kids and California Pizza kitchen "most Saturdays?" Wow! Is that "middle America?"

5 years ago
Posted by lilkunta

@anon
Yes. Most middle america families dont cook on fri & sat. They eat out. So the Obamas eating Cali Pizza most saturdays is right on target.

5 years ago
Posted by lilkunta

@ Carol Fesenthal: Now that /while the Obamas live in DC, what happens with their Chicago mansion? Obviously since they bought it outright they dont pay a mortgage, just their property taxes. Do they have Michelle's family living in it? A caretaker? or does it sit empty?

I wonder is the power/water/gas turned off to save $ since no 1 is living there?

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