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Correction to This Article
A May 11 Page One article about Michelle Obama mentioned an anecdote in which she said she had been reluctant to date Barack Obama, the only other African American at the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin. A spokesman for the firm said there were 14 black lawyers in the office at that time.
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Michelle Obama's Career Timeout

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But Obama, energetic and striking at 5-foot-11, appears slow to tire. Exercise is alleged to be her favorite hobby. She has been conducting outdoor jump-rope clinics at her house for her daughter's ballet class. Her workload is about 20 percent of what it was; she is letting go gradually. She still checks her BlackBerry for messages from the office and shows up for meetings, to the astonishment of her colleagues.

Long before entering the workforce, Michelle Obama, who grew up in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago, struggled to envision her future. Simultaneously pragmatic and intellectual, she followed her older brother to Princeton but remained conscious of being in the minority racially. In her 1985 undergraduate thesis, "Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community," she observed that she often felt out of place on the college campus.

"I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong," she wrote. Yet she also acknowledged that after four years at Princeton, the environment "has instilled within me certain conservative values," including aspiring toward "a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high paying position in a successful corporation," goals shared by her white classmates. Her thesis project: surveying black Princeton alumni on how they felt.

She went on to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1988. For the next three years, she worked as an associate at the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin, where she was assigned to mentor a summer associate named Barack Obama. She has recounted her initial reluctance to date the only other African American in the firm; on the campaign trail earlier this week, she recalled hearing his "strange name" before meeting him and thinking that "any black guy who spent his formative years on an island had to be a little nerdy, a little strange."

"I wasn't expecting much," she told voters at a house party in Windham, N.H., on Monday.

Still, she took Obama to lunch. Soon thereafter she accepted his invitation to a community organizing meeting, where she saw Obama connect with neighborhood residents as he compared "the world as it is, as he referred to it, and the world as it should be," she said.

"People found something real and authentic in what he was saying, and it resonated with me," she said at the party. "And I knew then and there that Barack Obama was the real deal."

And what, exactly, is Michelle Obama?

Her friends and associates describe her as a mother, wife and daughter first (her mother still lives nearby), but they quickly bring up her community activism. She quit the law firm to work for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) in 1991 and has worked in public service jobs since. She gave birth to their older daughter, Malia, in 1998. In the intervening years she moved into positions of ever-greater authority, and she was earning almost $275,000 a year before scaling back her duties this year. Work became increasingly important, but not for her own identity, according to her friend Jarrett. "I think part of why work has been so important to her, and why she considers herself a professional, is that she cares passionately about what she does," Jarrett said.

So is she a feminist? "You know, I'm not that into labels," Michelle Obama said in the interview. "So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it," she said. "I wouldn't identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn't identify as a liberal or a progressive."

Is she part of the kind of "two-for-one" deal the Clintons promised in 1992? Or more of a traditional spouse in the way Laura Bush has been?

"You know, I don't know what will be, and I'm just trying to keep from going there yet," she said.

Would she support Sen. Clinton if her husband weren't in the race? "That's a good question," she said, pausing.

"I would be more concerned at this time with finding the best president for this time, and if it is a woman, that would be a great thing," she said. "Would I naturally be a Hillary supporter if my husband weren't running? I don't know, I'd be looking at the race totally differently. And it's hard for me to see beyond the wonders of my husband."


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