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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The winners: mother and daughters on that historic night.
The winners: mother and daughters on that historic night.  more photos »

Although talk of an Obama campaign for the presidency in 2008 started almost as soon as he entered the U.S. Senate in 2005, within the Obama family there was enormous ambivalence. In September 2006, Dan Hynes, who had ended up supporting Obama’s Senate race, released a letter calling on Obama to run for president. Hynes phoned ahead to warn Barack. “Well, Dan, I’m flattered,” Obama said, as Hynes recalls, “but . . . Michelle will never forgive you.”  

Cleveland’s Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz got to know Barack when her husband, Sherrod Brown, was running for the U.S. Senate from Ohio in 2006. “There was already a lot of buzz about would [Obama] run, and any time that would happen in a group setting, he would turn to me and say, ‘You know, Michelle really does not want me to do this.’”

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At the same time, Barack thought he could win, and he made his case to Michelle. “She’s a logical sort of person, and she came along as a willing partner,” says Cheryl Whitaker, a close friend from South Shore. Michelle pointed out to another friend that Barack had always lived up to his promises—to make money writing books, to build a successful political career. “As she looked back on the list of things he said he was going to do and did them, she realized that she needed to get on board,” this friend says.            

Michelle became a key adviser to her husband during the run. Charles Ogletree, who consulted with the campaign, remembers conference calls in which Michelle was “very explicit in her views about what he needs to do.” According to one report, on a call to discuss debate strategy against Hillary Clinton, “Mrs. Obama interrupted the high-priced consultants to urge, ‘Barack! Feel—don’t think.’”

She was also his sounding board. “Barack relied on her for the Everyman/Everywoman view,” says Shomon, who observed this firsthand during the U.S. Senate race. “He believed that because of Michelle’s background, she had a great sense of what people were talking about.” Shomon says that Michelle’s mother, Marian, held a similar status. “When it came to nonpolitical things, her word was gold to him.”

On the campaign trail, Michelle quickly proved to be a crowd pleaser. Jennifer Hunter, then reporting for the Chicago Sun-Times, recalls being in New Hampshire when Barack was talking about health care. A young woman told him her story about having trouble getting insurance because she had multiple sclerosis. “His response was to talk about policy,” Hunter says. “Michelle’s response was to go and give her a big hug.” Sheryll Cashin was inspired by Michelle’s campaign performance: “She seemed somewhat reticent in law school. I wouldn’t have known that she was the amazing public speaker that she is.”

As Michelle campaigned in battleground states, usually without Barack, she asked friends to travel with her, though they were required to pay for their own tickets. Cheryl Whitaker says that the invitation was natural because the Obamas take friendship seriously. “Experience this with me,” Michelle told Whitaker, who accompanied her to Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, and Minnesota.

Whitaker began to recognize that the campaign was no pipe dream. “It was awesome to see the response to her wherever she went. People were clamoring and lining up, surrounding her, wanting to take pictures, talk to her, and shake her hand. We could all see the movement building.” 

For Sandy Matthews, the most exciting night was January 3, 2008, when Obama won the Iowa caucuses—eliminating the inevitability of a Clinton nomination. The day after Christmas, several close friends of the Obamas’ had decamped with their children to Iowa to work for Barack, canvassing and doing other campaign chores. On the night of the caucuses, Barack suggested that they gather at a restaurant for dinner before going to the hall in Des Moines where he would declare victory or concede defeat. Friends gave toasts, and then Michelle raised her glass. “She talked about her love for Barack,” Matthews recalls. It was an emotional tribute, and many of the guests had tears in their eyes. Just as Michelle was finishing, a campaign aide burst in and said that CNN had called the state for Obama.

For Barack, that first victory must have been a relief. Several friends say that Michelle had warned him about his run for the presidency: “If we don’t win now, we’re not doing this again in four years.”

***

When books are written about this campaign, Michelle almost certainly will be seen as an asset. More than her husband—who has a dazzling smile but whose eyes sometimes betray distraction or boredom—she is a natural politician. Barack has said that in a political race against Michelle, she would win, and he means it. “She’s very present with people,” says Hilary Beard. “As busy as she is, when she’s talking to them, she’s with them.”

Cindy Moelis was on a plane with Michelle, watching her fiddle with a speech she was about to deliver to a primarily African American audience. A staffer mentioned that elderly relatives had saved their money to invest in living-room furniture as a way of showing that they had become financially stable, then they had covered it in plastic. “And Michelle said, ‘Oh, my God, that was true for us,’” Moelis recalls. Michelle implored her audience to grab the chance—not to let their fear that some lunatic would assassinate Barack cause them to settle for Hillary. “Don’t put us in plastic,” she said. “Don’t protect us. Help us.”

The campaign recognized that Michelle connected with audiences—she was as popular in nearly all-white Iowa as in diverse urban centers; as election day neared, she drew crowds of 10,000 or more. But it took Michelle time to find her footing. At the start, she continued to riff on Barack’s domestic foibles, but the quips did not work as well on the national stage. People do not want to hear about the intimate lapses—snoring, bad breath in the morning—of their potential commander in chief, and the playful jabs diminished him. When Michelle moved from the domestic to the political, things sometimes got worse. In February 2008, there was the comment, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am proud of my country.” And speaking in a black church in South Carolina—a state where her great-great-grand-father Jim Robinson had been born a slave—Michelle called America “just downright mean. . . . The life that I’m talking about that most people are living has gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl.” When inflammatory statements from the Obamas’ pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, saturated the airwaves in March, there was speculation that this, too, was Michelle’s fault, since women usually select a church. (In fact, Barack had joined the church before he knew Michelle.)

Other comments she made were interpreted by critics as faulting capitalism, further feeding the news frenzy. And then there was the so-called “terrorist fist jab,” when Michelle took the stage after Barack secured the nomination. It was spontaneous, cute, and affectionate—and, for a time, a distraction.

Myra Gutin, an academic who writes about First Ladies, says that Michelle cost Barack “some political capital and threw the campaign off message for a little while.” She underwent a rehabilitation effort—which included concentrating on gentler national media, such as The View and celebrity magazines such as Us Weekly and People. She also learned to parse her language carefully. The Reverend Jesse Jackson says that Michelle came to realize that “she has to weigh the strength of words, how they’re read by others.” Michelle protected herself from some of the criticism, says Cindy Moelis, by curtailing her consumption of news. “She allows staff to filter things that she needs to know so she doesn’t feel insulted by some of the things that she reads.” When traveling with Michelle, recalls Cheryl Whitaker, “we didn’t read the paper and look at polls.”

In a way, the critics did the Obamas a favor—Barack got to jump to Michelle’s defense. “Lay off my wife,” he said. He told CBS’s Katie Couric the Monday before election day that what bothered him most were the “right-wing” attacks on his wife. “I just feel like family are civilians.”

***

At the start of the campaign, Michelle had pledged to be home every night by six, to sit with the girls after dinner while they did their homework, to tuck them in, and to be there in the morning when they awakened. “She held to that pledge like clockwork,” says Sandy Matthews. The key was Michelle’s mother, Marian, now 71. If Michelle is the person who kept her dream-big husband anchored, Marian is the one who taught Michelle how to do it—the reason her children’s “feet are always on the ground,” says Avis LaVelle. At a California forum run by Maria Shriver in October 2007, five potential First Ladies were asked, “Who’s your best friend?” Most named their husbands. Michelle said, “Oh, my mother.” 

Marian dotes on her granddaughters and is more easygoing than their mother. They get “a little leeway with Grandma,” says Sandy Matthews—a little extra television, rules a little relaxed. Marian got help from the girls’ godmother, Eleanor Wilson, also known as Mama Kaye, who lives in Olympia Fields and is a friend and contemporary of Marian’s. Michelle could stay calm during the campaign, Matthews says, because her mother was looking after the girls, “not missing a beat during the day with anything that they needed.”

Marian had a soothing effect on someone else in the family, too. A photographer who was in the Chicago hotel suite when the Obamas and their friends and families were watching the election returns caught an image for the ages—as it became clear that Obama would be the next president, Marian Robinson, seated some distance from Barack on the sofa, reached out and took his hand in hers and squeezed it.

***

The Saturday afternoons in Chicago with her daughters and her friends are over, at least for now. Heading for the fishbowl of Washington, Michelle has said that she will concentrate on making a smooth transition for her girls. It will help that her mother, Marian, is moving with them. Friends say the sisters are close but different. Malia is “more reserved, more pensive, more thoughtful, more sensitive,” says Sandy Matthews. Yvonne Davila adds that Malia, like her father, does not “get excited about a lot of things; [she’s] levelheaded, and she figures things out.” Matthews calls Sasha “spicy.” She loves crowds and hoopla, clicking cameras—she high-fived Vice President Dick Cheney—pretty dresses, the more frills the better. 

Michelle got started on the school search right after the election, although anyone who knew anything about Washington assumed the girls would end up at Sidwell Friends, which has a long history of political children—Chelsea Clinton, Tricia Nixon, and Albert Gore III, among them. Although Barack did not look at schools with his wife and children, he joined Michelle for a parent-teacher conference at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools the Friday after the election. Michelle has said that just because her husband is the leader of the free world, he doesn’t get a pass on childcare. After the long campaign, she told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes that the family could now have dinner together “under the one roof. . . . I envision the kids coming home from school and being able to run across the way to the Oval Office and see their dad before they start their homework, and having breakfast, and he’ll be there to tuck them in at night.”

Given the pace of life in today’s White House, that image of domesticity may be hopelessly naïve and out of date. But it represents the family life that Michelle has worked hard to preserve, even as her husband’s political career has rocketed and pulled her along for the ride. Friends say she will not give up on the effort—and she will have an ally in Barack. “They’re best friends,” says Kelly Jo MacArthur. People who know them describe “the look”—a glance across a crowded room catching each other’s eye—and the greeting reserved for each other, “Hey, you.” In St. Paul, when Michelle gave her husband the famous fist bump, reporters overlooked his affectionate pat on her behind.

Onstage at Grant Park, the night of the victory rally, Michelle and Barack embraced, and she whispered into her husband’s ear, “I love you.”

 

Photograph: David Katz/Obama for America

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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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