First Lady Michelle Obama picks up a worm at Iron Street Urban Farm on the South Side as worker Jeremy Jackson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel look on.
First Lady Michelle Obama picks up a worm at Iron Street Urban Farm on the South Side as worker Jeremy Jackson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel look on. For more photos, launch the gallery »


Michelle Obama Photo Gallery

Our primer on the issue

From February 2009

Michelle Obama was in Chicago Tuesday to promote her “Let’s Move!” campaign for healthy eating and exercise. Rahm Emanuel played host to the First Lady in her visit to a South Side Walgreens that now stocks fresh produce and grocery staples—and then at Growing Power’s Iron Street Urban Farm. The two, plus a few urban mayors (Milwaukee’s Tom Barrett and Baltimore’s Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to name two), addressed the important subject of food deserts and access to healthy food in cities.

While my neighbors in Lincoln Park fight the construction of yet another organic, upscale grocery store, South and West Siders often find their options limited to mom-and-pop stores stocked with salty and sugary snacks. So it’s an important issue and worthy of the First Lady’s attention. Still, while Michelle Obama’s embrace of the safe subjects of healthy eating and regular exercise doesn’t surprise me—I’ve reported on her extensively—it does disappoint me.   

In the wake of the fevered condemnation in 2008 of her playful, innocent fist bump on the campaign trail, and of a few of her stump speech remarks—“For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country”—Michelle grew fearful of harming her husband’s trajectory, were she to grab the bully pulpit and opine about, say, the country’s stubborn inequities. 

So, she stuck first to her sincerely held set of family values—her first job was to be a mom to her young daughters. (In a post-election Salon essay titled “The Momifcation of Michelle Obama,” Rebecca Traister lambasted the priorities of the First Lady to be.) Even when her mother, Marian Robinson, moved into the White House to help with childrearing, and even though her daughters, now 13 and 10, are in school all day, Michelle has clung to that role—and to the role of the nation’s chief booster of healthy kids.

And those are naturals for her. She has long been a fanatic on both. Friends from Hyde Park told me of her 4:30 a.m. gym workouts. She elevated good nutrition from personal to national. Lab School grad Sam Kass, son of a teacher at that school where the Obama girls attended, was the family’s personal chef in Chicago as Barack traded up from the Illinois Senate to the U.S. Senate. Kass later moved with the Obamas to the White House, working as a chef there and acquiring the title “senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives.” 

So I applaud these issues, but they seem small-bore. Yes, she is being true to herself; she’s just not, in my opinion, pushing herself beyond her comfort zone.

Her tenure is a 180-degree departure from the most policy-driven modern First Lady, Hillary Clinton—not to mention Hillary’s role model, Eleanor Roosevelt. Laura Bush also devoted herself to raising two daughters—granted they were already in college when the Bushes moved into the White House—but her issue, literacy, seemed more critical and energetically pursued. And during the 2008 campaign, as I watched John McCain’s wife Cindy, I thought that behind the pastel, plastic, anxious façade, a policy person with good-works energy was just waiting to be unleashed.

Given a second term, my hunch is that Michelle (Harvard Law, ’88), a priceless campaign asset to her husband (her mid-60s approval rating soars above his, in the low 40s), will be ready to move on other issues important to women and children—and, who knows, perhaps even to men. 


Photography: Esther Kang