Michelle Obama’s balancing act goes national

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It was a triumphant moment for Barack Obama: He was walking through the Capitol for the very first time as a United States senator in January 2005, trailed by photographers, hangers-on, and finally, his amused wife. Rolling her eyes as she pulled a reporter aside, Michelle Obama said, “Maybe one day, he will do something to warrant all this attention.”

Two years and one presidential announcement later, the sarcasm is gone, and a woman who has said she dislikes politics is assuming a starring role in her husband’s campaign for the White House.

Last week, in Windham, N.H., Mrs. Obama charmed a houseful of Democratic voters, speaking of her romance with the candidate and kneeling next to two little boys and their sister to inquire, “Which one of you is the troublemaker?”

She was still a bit irreverent: “I’m sure this guy is weird,” she said, describing her initial reaction to her husband’s name. But she turned earnest when talking of the presidency. “I know Barack is something special,” she said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

Mrs. Obama’s is the trickiest of political performances. She is a black woman in a campaign in which no one knows quite what role race or gender will play. She has a propensity for bluntness and a fierce competitive drive. (“She’s a little meaner than I am,” her husband jokes.)

Her counterparts include Bill Clinton, the former president and consummate campaigner hoping to become the First Gent; and Elizabeth Edwards, who has been praised across the political spectrum for her tenacity in dealing with incurable cancer.

Even successful first lady auditions can be remembered as political don’ts: take Nancy Reagan (regarded as too adoring of her husband) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (too eager to share his job), to say nothing of spouses of losing candidates, like Judith Steinberg Dean (too absent) and Teresa Heinz Kerry (too outspoken).

Faced with those discouraging precedents, Mrs. Obama, 43, is trying a fresh approach: running as everywoman, a wife, professional, mother, volunteer.

While her husband’s story is singular — how many other Hawaiian-Indonesian-African-Midwestern sensations are there? — Mrs. Obama is his more down-to-earth counterpart, drawing parallels between the voters’ daily balancing acts and her own. The role suits her natural frankness — she has gone so far as to talk about how she had to cope with an overflowing toilet — and yet confines it safely to the domestic sphere.

In an interview, Mrs. Obama said that she is still unprepared to take on the role for which she is trying out.

“My God, who can sit here and say, ‘I’m ready to be president and first lady?’ ” she asked. But like her husband, she is running on biography, suggesting that her most important qualifications are her life experiences. Daughter of a Chicago city pump operator who had multiple sclerosis, she graduated from Princeton and Harvard and juggles her job as a hospital executive with motherhood and civic work.

Mrs. Obama dislikes politics, friends and family confirmed, but not as much as she dislikes losing. Craig Robinson, her brother and the Brown University men’s basketball coach, said his sister did not enjoy organized sports when she was younger because she so hated defeat and even now pouts when a board game does not go her way. His sister is brainy and warm, he said, but also a force to be reckoned with.

“Everyone in the family is afraid of her,” he said with a smile. Asked if Mr. Obama used a nicotine patch to quit smoking, Mr. Robinson cracked up. “Michelle Obama!” he said. “That’s one hell of a patch right there!”

Accordingly, she threw herself into her husband’s campaign from the start, asking to meet with aides running every aspect of it. Friends says she is decisive and pragmatic, perhaps more so than the candidate.

At a meeting last October, when some advisers were impressing upon Mr. Obama the importance of discipline and telling him he could not rely on oratorical talents alone in a national campaign, he began offering explanations. One participant recalled that Mrs. Obama cut him off, saying, “We’re talking about you right now.” He did not say another word.

Now she is traveling as much as three days a week, headlining events and becoming an attraction in her own right. Aides say that she will not make policy speeches or attack other candidates, and Mrs. Obama says that she makes a sharp distinction between her role and that of the campaign staff.

For instance, after the first Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina in April, she walked on stage and gave her husband a big hug. But she did not offer a critique of his performance because, she said, she wants to keep her marriage “sort of stress-free, free of the discussion, free of the analysis, free of the assessment.”

Instead, she serves as roaming ambassador. For African-American audiences, Mrs. Obama is one of their own, with a more familiar background than that of her husband. At a black church in Cincinnati last week, the audience mmm-hmmm-ed approval throughout her speech.

To female audiences, Mrs. Obama emphasizes her struggle to balance travel, work meetings and homework detail. Last Monday, for instance, Mrs. Obama zoomed out of bed, to the airport, onto a flight to New Hampshire, through two campaign events and a McDonald’s drive-through, then back to the Midwest and into her two daughters’ waiting arms.

“I wake up every morning wondering how on the earth I am going to pull off that next minor miracle of getting through the day,” she said at a “Women for Obama” event last month in Chicago.

Most politicians draw a curtain of privacy around their families. Mrs. Obama takes voters into daily life in her Chicago kitchen (where Mr. Obama sometimes fails to put the butter away, she says), and even, with an anecdote about an overflowing toilet, her bathroom.

Such patter draws a contrast with the lives of other presidential contenders, including those of John Edwards, who lives in a 28,000-square-foot mansion; Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor whose remarriage has strained his relations with his children; and Mrs. Clinton, with her past marital trials.

“I think that that sort of statement is all about the Clintons, and it’s also designed to resonate with middle-income Americans who have quote unquote normal marriages in which the spouse at home calls the other and asks to bring home a bag of salad,” said Nancy Beck Young, a history professor who has made a study of first ladies and will teach at the University of Houston this fall.

Mrs. Obama is learning political wife speak: She claims, for example, she has not thought very much about what kind of first lady Mrs. Clinton was. She still shows flashes of frankness, especially about the cost of Mr. Obama’s political career.

The couple once pledged to give their daughters — Malia, now 8, and Sasha, 5 — the kind of dinner-together-every-night childhood that Mrs. Obama had growing up in Chicago. Now, the senator is mostly on the road or in Washington.

Although Mrs. Obama describes her husband as a loving father, she worries about the actual amount of fathering he is doing. Mr. Obama has acknowledged in his book that his absences caused tensions when the girls were younger. And his wife initially resisted his presidential ambitions, fearing the impact on their family life.

“Barack and Michelle thought long and hard about this decision before they made it,” said Valerie Jarrett, a family friend.

Even before the presidential race, life was a whirl of how-does-she-do-it multitasking for Mrs. Obama, with 4:30 a.m. treadmill sessions and meals prepared at lightning speed. “She’s kind of low on the Martha Stewart scale,” said Verna Williams, a longtime friend, “more like Rachael Ray, get it done in 30 minutes.” To help out, Mrs. Obama’s mother will retire this summer from her job as a bank secretary and care for the girls more frequently.

The Obamas began their careers as equals, and Mr. Obama is fond of saying that his wife has the skills, if not the experience or patience, to run for office. But now she is ceding her career to his, reducing her time at the hospital to a 20 percent commitment (and her paycheck to $42,436 from $212,180), though she remains on the board of TreeHouse Foods, a supplier of Wal-Mart.

She expresses no regret about scaling down her job at the hospital, where colleagues say she excels at tackling thorny problems. But this winter, after spotting a book on the Obamas’ coffee table celebrating Mr. Obama’s Senate victory, her staff created a matching volume of her accomplishments. Mrs. Obama wept when she saw it.

At campaign appearances, Mrs. Obama gets approving reviews. “People do judge a candidate by his wife — or her husband,” said Lynne Snierson, a marketing executive who has watched countless candidates trudge through New Hampshire.

When Mrs. Obama mentioned her daughters at an event in New Hampshire, one woman cooed about “bringing laughter back to the White House,” while two retirees whispered that she was the picture of “everyday elegance” in her red sweater set and smooth flip of a hairstyle.

It was the same perfectly calibrated look reflected in a recent cover of Ebony magazine. Seeking to make the couple look as presidential as possible, Harriette Cole, the magazine’s creative director, said stylists at the photo shoot offered Mrs. Obama a strand of West Wing-appropriate pearls.

She had already brought her own.

40 thoughts on “Michelle Obama’s balancing act goes national

  1. rikyrah

    Both of us should be asleep, but I’ll jot a comment.

    I don’t know why, but the pearl thing tickles me to no end. To no end.🙂

    It’s all unchartered territory and I wish her well as she dives in.

    I have to admit, I can’t wait to see the kids on the campaign trail this summer.

  2. “At a meeting last October, when some advisers were impressing upon Mr. Obama the importance of discipline and telling him he could not rely on oratorical talents alone in a national campaign, he began offering explanations. One participant recalled that Mrs. Obama cut him off, saying, “We’re talking about you right now.” He did not say another word.”

    I’m not quite sure if the writer of this article is trying to make Michelle look good or they are trying to cloak their praise of her with little tid bits that they know good and very well will turn people off. They kept implying throughout the article that she was mean and is often feared by her family. While that may be true, I don’t like the way they used it as a prop in this story. I’m afraid that readers will focus on the prop and not the main character.

    I put money on it that Hil and any other smart, confident woman helps her husband be his best. And I’m certain that any smart, confident husband helps his wife be the best. To me what Michelle does for her husband is to be expected. I can’t imagine her doing anything other than pushing her husband to max out his potential. Some might see it as her bossing her husband around; I see it as a good wife, insisting that her husband trim the fat and present the meat. Some might see it as her being mean; I see it as a wife, being persistent and relentless when it comes to helping her husband do away with anything that will hold him back from achieving their goals.

    Hell, if I was his wife, that’s what I would be doing. In fact, I’m glad that she’s telling him to drop the “great orator” stunts and go for the real deal. That’s what I’ve been saying… Obama needs to speak with more heart and conviction. It’s time for concrete responses and not measured, well constructed, textbook answers.

    With that being said, I’m quite optimistic about Obama. I’m noticing that the brother is starting to step up to the plate. He’s starting to put his game face on. And that’s what I like. I’m not quite sure if he thought he could come off tough and ready to rumble. But that’s the kind of leader that most of us are looking for. Someone that can throw themselves right in the middle of these problems that are country is in and handle up…

  3. “When Mrs. Obama mentioned her daughters at an event in New Hampshire, one woman cooed about “bringing laughter back to the White House,””

    But there’s laughter there now…

    …oh, they mean not-behind-the-president’s-back laughter…😀

  4. NMP

    Angie,

    If you recall, Jodi Kantor is the same NY Times reporter who did the cover piece on Obama’s Pastor whom he subsequently called the most unscrupulous reporter he had ever encountered. She seems hell bent on creating the impression of division or tepid support among the people closest to Obama.

  5. NMP

    rikyrah,

    I get the sneaky suspicion that the pearls are supposed to evoke memories of Jackie Kennedy with a fashion fair twist.🙂

  6. rikyrah

    rikyrah,

    I get the sneaky suspicion that the pearls are supposed to evoke memories of Jackie Kennedy with a fashion fair twist.

    NMP,

    Me too…LOL

    But, I’m not mad at her. For me, it said, ‘ I’m a SIsta prepared for anything.’

    And, I like that.

  7. Rick

    “… tough and ready to rumble. But that’s the kind of leader that most of us are looking for. Someone that can throw themselves right in the middle of these problems that are country is in and handle up…” — Angie

    Cosign, Angie

    Although I wish the Democrats — more generally — would take a firmer stand on the issues we elect them for.

  8. dm

    Time to upgrade the hairdo.

    The Leave it to Beaver mom, June Cleaver look went out in the 50’s.

  9. NMP

    dm,

    That’s completely unnecessary! And please upgrade your references. Folks on this board can relate better to Claire Huxtable–NOT June Cleaver!

  10. rikyrah

    dm,

    leave her hairdo alone. It works for her and her image, so let it be!

    And the reference should be Condi Rice, not June Cleaver.

  11. rikyrah

    Angie,

    If you recall, Jodi Kantor is the same NY Times reporter who did the cover piece on Obama’s Pastor whom he subsequently called the most unscrupulous reporter he had ever encountered. She seems hell bent on creating the impression of division or tepid support among the people closest to Obama.

    Yes, I definitely recall Dr. Wright’s blistering letter to the NYTimes. I think we should just say that Ms. Kantor’s articles will have digs. She hasn’t called him ‘ Uppity’…..yet…..

    I definitely think it was a dig at Michelle Obama.

  12. I watched a ditty on Mrs Obama today. I like her. Why? Cause she said something to this affect, “My husband can handle a strong woman like me!” Isnt that the bane of strong women? Finding a man strong enough to “handle’ our intelligence and independence without feeling intimidated? Obama is looking a bit stronger to me now. Weird reason to turn toward him but a real aspect of the campaign.

  13. rikyrah

    The CBC is up to it’s old tricks, folks. They don’t want to admit that they were wrong in getting into bed with the White Citizens Council Network. Twenty-six members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have signed letters to Sen. Barack Obama

    Yes, they have sent letters to Obama, Clinton and Edwards.

    Afro-Netizen has a copy of the letter.

    I think that those of us who think that Obama, Clinton and Edwards did the right thing, need to drop our own emails and phone calls to them.

    Hillary Clinton
    (202) 224-4451

    Clinton Contact Form

    John Edwards
    Phone: (919) 636-3131
    Fax: (919) 967-3644

    Edwards Contact Form

    Barack Obama
    (202) 224-2854

    Obama Contact Form

    Please let them know that you appreciate them not going to the Faux News Debate, and that you appreciate them going to the Tavis Smiley/PBS Debate in June. Remember, the Tavis Smiley event is a DNC SANCTIONED event; the CBC one is not.

    The CBC wanted to crawl into bed with Faux News. Let them choke on it.

  14. NMP

    Y’all are killin’ me! Reminds me of one of my professor’s lament that when Shirley Chisholm was running, Black folks were more focused on the width of her nose than the importance of her campaign. Theresa Heinz Kerry was walking around looking like Little Orphan Annie throughout his entire campaign and John Edwards hair looks better than his wife’s even on a bad hair day and yet the focus was never on their hair.

  15. yogo

    dblhelix: ‘Nessa was rocking the crooked ‘fro back in the day. That perm is taking Michelle’s edges out.

    I think they’re going to stereotype her as the Strong Black Woman, bossing her man around. I saw that one coming awhile ago.

  16. yogo

    NMP: About THK: Nobody cares about your hair when you’re a billionaire. And Liz Edwards doesn’t look bad, but she has three excuses: 1)got two little kids at home, 2)married to a strident metrosexual, 3)cancer.

    You can’t outdress or outhair a metrosexual. Can’t be done. And nobody will hate on your hair while you’re trying to battle cancer.

    We just want Michelle to represent. Either tighten up the wig game or do something about those edges and outdated flip.

    Seriously though, she should stop joking about busting his balls all the time.

  17. “Seriously though, she should stop joking about busting his balls all the time.”

    I think I’m going to have to agree with that statement. I think that Michelle thinks her little jokes about putting her husband in check are cute. But unfortunately, I think they might backfire on her. I think it would be good to tone it down a little.

  18. darrylm

    Angie:

    I feel you on that one…..if Barak is not careful he is going to be portrayed as the new Steadman Graham – a nutsack-less eunuch

  19. NMP

    Yogo,

    I should have been date specific, but I was speaking of 2004 campaign Elizabeth Edwards when she was 75 pounds overweight, sporting double-knit two-piece tops over polyester/spandex blend pants. I can appreciate (as I share) your sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards pre and post cancer having to care for two small children, but please let’s remember that Michelle Obama has been balancing a high-powered career and two small children–with NO nanny. Maybe she’ll get around to getting some perm repair and a new du when her momma quits her bank job to lend a hand.

    Call me overly optimistic, but I was hoping for once that a sistah wouldn’t be judged by her hair, her ass or perceived attitude.

    Y’all have a good holiday weekend; I’m getting a day’s jump start.

  20. rikyrah

    I should have been date specific, but I was speaking of 2004 campaign Elizabeth Edwards when she was 75 pounds overweight, sporting double-knit two-piece tops over polyester/spandex blend pants. I can appreciate (as I share) your sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards pre and post cancer having to care for two small children, but please let’s remember that Michelle Obama has been balancing a high-powered career and two small children–with NO nanny. Maybe she’ll get around to getting some perm repair and a new du when her momma quits her bank job to lend a hand.

    Perm repair – ok. New ‘do? I don’t think so. It works for the ‘image’.


    Call me overly optimistic, but I was hoping for once that a sistah wouldn’t be judged by her hair, her ass or perceived attitude.

    You ARE overly optimistic…LOL

    It’s all part of the process, but it is what it is, and it’s to be expected.

  21. yogo

    I thought it was clear I was making a joke. You know, where I wrote “seriously though.”
    Michelle’s hair is fine. A lot of professional black women are wearing that style. Oprah rocked it for a long time, Robin Roberts got it, Condi. It’s not a big deal. It’s good natured teasing.
    And back in 2004 Liz Edwards was still married to a strident metrosexual. The question for me with a woman that rich is why she’s in double knits looking like a KMart special. I don’t even want to speculate on how her husband might be a selfish prick and encourages her to look like that so he can shine.

  22. yogo,
    Cynical as I am, I have come slowly to the realization that Edwards is as genuine a pol as we’re ever gonna get. I don’t think he’s selfish, or a prick. I do think he ain’t gonna win. Ain’t but two in this: Mama and Obama. I am operationally for neither but am gonna hafta choose sides sooner rather than later. What Edwards does IS important, However, I don’t think he will determine the winner. And for the purposes of clarification, I have no problem with sistah Michelle’s do.

  23. I think we riff on Michelle’s hair for the same reason we expect our pastor to have a big shiny Cadillac or Lincoln – they represent us and we want them to look good – and the Suzie Homemaker Buoffant do ain’t representin’ us that well.

  24. Rick

    “I think we riff on Michelle’s hair for the same reason we expect our pastor to have a big shiny Cadillac or Lincoln – they represent us and we want them to look good – and the Suzie Homemaker Buoffant do ain’t representin’ us that well.”

    DM-

    Consider this: Perhaps your statement suggests a larger problem with (SOME) churches – and how we perceive our brothers and sisters more generally – rather than a problem with Michelle’s hairstyle.

    Since you mention church: the Bible says “look not on a brother’s (or sister’s) contenance…for the Lord sees not as a man (or woman) sees things; for man (and woman) looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (Samuel 1 16: 7)

    Just a thought…

    Rick

  25. Denise

    Yogo:

    Co-sign ! The “peacock spouse” is just as unacceptable (for yours truly) as a super-model mother who always has untidy children.

    It’s not a good look, period!

  26. RE: Mrs. Edwards

    Keep in mind that white folks don’t always think about flossing the same way black folks do. Soon as many of us get money, we rush to the mall and buy something to go on our backside. That’s simply because many black folks feel like they have something to prove.

    But white folks feel like they don’t have nothing to prove. So, they can run around with cheap looking clothes on, cimply because their clothes really ain’t the wardrobe that gives them the stamp of approval that they have in this world. It’s the white skin that they wear. So, no matter what Edwards has on, she’s often praised more than a million dollar dressed sister.

    And it’s funny the folks that’s paying so close attention to Michelle’s hair and Elizabeth’s clothes are usually the ones that’s broke. Michelle and Elizabeth ar probably howling in laughter at the folks that put too much attention on the appearance and not on the appearance of their bank statements.

    I think it’s a shame that Gore has to shake the excess pounds before people could think of him as a viable candidate.

    I know looks are important, but goodness…

  27. Denise

    😆

    I’m not talking about flossin’ (and frontin’), either.

    I’m talking about the appearance of having a respected, equal partner. Mrs. Obama fits this bill completely.

  28. yogo

    No, it’s not about flossing, the Edwards are filthy rich and she looks like a dishrag most of the time. That’s just an observation that NMP made up above (24). I didn’t want to go there about her weight and her span/poly clothes.

    Denise you’re right. That peacock spouse is not a good look. But it doesn’t reflect on her, that’s on him.

  29. Darrylm

    Angie:

    I can’t speak for the others, but there will be no tag day for me. SO get off of your soapbox.

  30. Sara

    “Mrs. Obama’s is the trickiest of political performances.”

    This misses the point entirely. Mrs. Obama refuses to perform. She is, instead, refreshingly and unapologetically herself. Bravo to her, for having the courage to be what too few of us… male or female, Ivy League or GED, black or white, political or not… have the courage to be.

  31. Angie

    We’ve had some great discussions here. I should go back and read through some of these threads. I now understand how blogging helps document the historical steps of this political season.
    Skep: Thank you again for hosting us and letting us talk this stuff out.

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