Craig Robinson, an assistant basketball coach at Northwestern, has a management theory about hiring someone: Before you do, engage the job seeker in a friendly game of three-on-three. “You can tell a lot about a person’s personality on the basketball court,” he says. Robinson also happens to be the older brother of Michelle Obama, so this strategy had particularly interesting results when he applied it to Barack, the suitor. “He shot the ball whenever he wanted to,” says Robinson. “That told me he had some confidence. But it wasn’t like he was selfish, where he’d shoot the ball even when he wasn’t open.”
In the end, Barack Obama won the family’s endorsement, representing something of a relief to Craig and to Michelle’s mother, who had long wondered whether the sensible and high-achieving woman they called “Miche” would find a husband tough enough to hold his own. Barack-today the Democratic candidate for Senate running against Alan Keyes, but at the time not yet in politics-fit the bill.
Michelle and Barack certainly seemed evenly matched. Both had graduated from Ivy League colleges (Michelle from Princeton and Barack from Columbia) and then from Harvard Law (Michelle in 1988 and Barack in 1991, though he is three years older than she). Both are tall (Michelle is 5 feet 11 and Barack is six feet two). And the couple had met through another serendipitous coincidence: In 1989, when Michelle was a first-year associate at the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin (now Sidley Austin Brown & Wood), Barack arrived as a summer associate, an internship between his first and second years of law school.
Michelle was assigned to be Barack’s mentor. A month later, he asked her out. “Barack is very straightforward,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I think we ought to go on a date.’” After putting it off for a while because she worried that it would be inappropriate, the two spent a day touring the Art Institute, lunching at the museum’s outdoor café, and then walking along Michigan Avenue before taking in a movie, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Three years later, they married.
Michelle Obama, 40, grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Her working-class parents rented the top floor of a two-flat from her great-aunt, who lived downstairs and taught Michelle to play the piano. Her mother stayed home with her and Craig, two years older, until they reached high school, when she took a job as an administrative assistant. Fraser Robinson, Michelle’s father, held down the swing shift in the boiler room at the city’s water purification plant and volunteered as a Democratic precinct captain. Once a standout boxer and swimmer, Robinson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his 20s and eventually walked with a heavy limp. “We grew up with a father who was on crutches and getting up and going to work every day,” Craig says.
Michelle showed her aptitude early. She skipped second grade, graduating second in her class at Bryn Mawr Elementary, and, according to her mother, Marian, “she would practice the piano for so long you’d have to tell her to stop.” Michelle later attended Whitney Young High School; her friends there included Rev. Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita, now godmother to the Obamas’ older daughter. During her junior year in high school, Michelle visited Craig at Princeton University, which had recruited him to play basketball (at 6 feet 7, he became the school’s fourth-leading scorer in its history). She set her sights on following Craig, also an excellent student, and remembers thinking, perhaps only half jokingly, “I’m smarter than he is!”
After Princeton, she went to Harvard Law, then took the job at Sidley, back in Chicago. Three years into her career as a corporate attorney, Michelle was devastated when her father died from MS complications. “That’s when I started analyzing my life, sitting in a firm,” she recalls, adding that in that same year she also lost one of her best friends from college to cancer. She soon left the firm to pursue a much lower-paying path in the public sector: She went to work for the city, first as an assistant to Mayor Daley, until becoming the executive director of Public Allies Chicago, a nonprofit that provides leadership training to young adults interested in public service careers. In 1996, she left the group to help create a student volunteer program at the University of Chicago. She is now the executive director of community affairs for University of Chicago Hospitals.
Today, as a windstorm of anticipation gathers around them, Michelle is Barack’s confidante. “She’s gorgeous. She’s strong and smart and grounded,” he says. “[And] she’s brutally honest, which is good for keeping my head on straight.” When not making the occasional campaign appearance, she maintains a normal routine: rising at 4:30 a.m.; exercising with a personal trainer; working full-time; caring for their two young daughters (Malia, six, and Natasha, three), who attend the university’s Lab School; and staying close to home, the bottom floor of a Hyde Park brownstone where the Obamas have lived for more than a decade.
She also manages to carve out time for friends and family, often visiting her mother, who lives nearby, and making dates with Craig and his two kids. Four days before Barack delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle helped throw a birthday party in Chicago for Yvonne Davila, a close friend from her time in the Mayor’s Office. “In the midst of all this,” says Davila, “she finds time to throw a party for me.”
Interacting with people is her favorite part of campaigning. “I love shaking hands. I love hearing stories,” she says. But she admits she worries about Barack’s safety in the public arena and says the negative attacks bother her. “When it happens, it makes me sad,” she says. Asked what political wife she admires, she cites Hillary Rodham Clinton. “She is smart and gracious and everything she appears to be in public-someone who’s managed to raise what appears to be a solid, grounded child.” Would she ever consider running for political office herself? “No,” she says, firmly, not pausing a beat. “Absolutely not."
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp