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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 with her brother, Craig Robinson, at the DNC
Michelle with her brother, Craig Robinson, at the DNC  more photos »

Michelle, then 29, left city government after only 18 months—she was “taken aback by the slowness of the bureaucracy,” says Jody Kretzmann, a colleague—to become the founding executive director of Public Allies Chicago, an organization that trained young people for community-service jobs. Some have speculated that Barack, with the dream of the presidency already in his head, worried that Michelle would be compromised by working in City Hall—perhaps without her even realizing it—and then so would he. “You don’t have to think evil of Obama or City Hall,” says Quentin Young, a physician and an activist, “to realize that could be a liability to a person who is politically on the rise.”

For Michelle, Public Allies represented considerable risk. “She was giving up the financial security and benefits that came with a city job and entering uncharted ground,” Moelis says. “She was being asked to start an office in which you were raising the money to pay yourself.”

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Jarrett, Moelis, and Davila agreed to serve on her board. Michelle and her small staff selected 30 allies ranging in age from 18 to 30, some with graduate degrees and some who had made it only through high school, a diverse mix racially and economically. In any class of allies, says Jody Kretzmann, an adviser to Public Allies, there might be “everything from gangbangers from the West Side to welfare moms to University of Chicago Law School graduates. They’ve got to figure out a way to work together and do something in a team-service project in a community.”

Michelle left Public Allies three years later, in 1996, because she wanted to have a baby, her friends say, and couldn’t do that with a 60-hour-a-week job. “She had done with it what she wanted to do,” says Mike Mullins, the group’s finance director. “She had started the organization; she had it on a very firm footing.”

She used what she had learned from Public Allies in her next job as the associate dean of student services and the first director of community relations and community service at the University of Chicago. Michelle had grown up minutes away from the university, but she told a reporter from O, The Oprah Magazine that she had never been on campus: “All the buildings have their backs to the community. The university didn’t think kids like me existed, and I certainly didn’t want anything to do with that place.”

In her new position, Michelle encouraged U. of C. undergraduates to volunteer beyond the boundaries of the campus. She also served on a board that set sexual-harassment policy for the university. Another board member was the director Curt Columbus, who then headed the U. of C.’s University Theater. He remembers Michelle’s “low-key, disarming, and wicked intelligence.” She was “human in her insights as opposed to institutional,” he says. He also recalls her beauty—she was “one of those women you look at and say, ‘You look fabulous.’”

***

She didn’t feel so fabulous. While Michelle was working at the university and managing the household, Barack was spending part of every week in Springfield as a state senator. Although she was fond of telling others to follow their hearts, she seemed to have a different standard for Barack. Part of the conflict had to do with the most basic personality difference between them: Michelle had an overriding need for order and routine in her home—her complaints during the presidential campaign that he would leave his socks on the floor and the butter on the counter were real. Not only did Barack keep a cluttered office in their apartment but he was a free spirit and drawn to risk.

In 2001, while Barack was still recovering from his loss to Bobby Rush and Michelle was on maternity leave, she got a call from Michael Riordan, then the president and chief executive officer of the University of Chicago Medical Center. He asked her to interview for a job. She was not enthusiastic, but she took Sasha along and went to the interview. While Sasha slept, Riordan offered Michelle the job, on her terms, which included a big salary and flexible hours.

She started work in 2002 with the title of executive director of community affairs, and her goal, says Jody Kretzmann, was to make sure that hospital administrators and professionals understood the neighborhoods around them. She placed volunteers from the hospital in the community, and community people in the hospital as volunteers. Berneice Mills-Thomas, who runs community-based health centers throughout the city, recalls that Michelle came to her office, looking for input. “She’s getting down with us,” Mills-Thomas says, “and asking us, ‘What do you need?’” 

***

During Barack’s run for the U.S. Senate, he and Michelle took out a second mortgage on their two-bedroom condominium on the first floor of a three-story walkup on South Eastview Park, near the lakefront. They had paid $277,500 for it in 1993. Cindy Moelis describes it as “a spacious apartment that had a nice common room. They decorated it with inexpensive but beautiful things.”

Michelle still wanted a house, however—a big house with a big yard. “Barack wanted his family to be comfortable, but he would have been satisfied with three spoons, a fork, and a dish,” says an acquaintance who talked to him often about the matter. “It was an issue for her.”

But fortune struck when Barack’s convention speech in 2004 sent his memoir onto bestseller lists, and the couple suddenly had money. Michelle had gone along with Barack when he wanted to trade up to the Senate; now she wanted him to indulge her dream of trading up to a grand house. They found one in Kenwood—a $1.65-million six-bedroom, three-story Georgian revival mansion with a wine cellar and dark wood paneling.

Barack later called the house deal “boneheaded”—to get a bigger yard, they made a deal with Rita Rezko, the wife of Tony Rezko, a onetime financial supporter of Barack’s and now a convicted felon awaiting sentencing. But if Barack blamed Michelle for getting him into an embarrassing arrangement, he never mentioned it. Barack never criticized her for “pushing him into doing something,” says a person close to him. “Never once [did he suggest that] he didn’t love her or respect her.” 

With more money, Michelle also came to understand that a list of chores was no longer a viable way to organize their lives. She hired a full-time housekeeper to do “the things I don’t fully enjoy, like cleaning, laundry and cooking,” she told People.

 

Photograph: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

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