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.