By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007
CHICAGO -- For the first time in her adult life, Michelle Obama is about to be unemployed.
She never aspired to be a stay-at-home wife or mother. For years she wrestled with the issues that many professional women with families face, chiefly whether to quit her job. Now, that is what Obama, 43, has decided to do. And though she will hardly be homebound, she admits to being conflicted.
"It is very odd," she said of the prospect of interrupting her career, during one of her first one-on-one interviews since her husband, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), announced he is running for president.
"Every other month [since] I've had children I've struggled with the notion of 'Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?' " she said. "I have gone back and forth every year about whether I should work." When she finally winds down her duties as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals in the days ahead (she was promoted to the position soon after her husband joined the Senate), she said, it "will be the first time that I haven't gotten up and gone to a job."
"It's a bit disconcerting," she said. "But it's not like I'll be bored."
Identity issues are something Obama has confronted head-on all of her life: as a black student at Princeton, where she wrote her senior thesis based on surveys of black alumni, then as an Ivy League-educated professional woman surrounded by white men, and now as the wife of a man who could become the first black president of the United States. She is no less thoughtful about labels she chooses to apply to herself -- and those she rejects -- than her husband, who has made his half-African, half-Kansan lineage and his part-Hawaiian upbringing a focal point of his narrative. On the campaign trail, she calls herself a mother, a citizen and a "professional," a term that has not always been an asset for potential first ladies.
Yet 15 years after Hillary Rodham Clinton stumbled into the culture wars with comments about pursuing a career rather than staying home "baking cookies," Michelle Obama appears unfazed by questions about her choices. "Yeah, you know, cooking isn't one of my huge things," she admitted, laughing when asked for a favorite recipe. "My view on this stuff is I'm just trying to be myself, trying to be as authentic as I can be. I can't pretend to be somebody else."
Rarely have political spouses played as dynamic a role as in the current presidential campaign, in which a former president (Bill Clinton), a Stage IV breast cancer patient (Elizabeth Edwards) and a person with multiple sclerosis (Ann Romney) have taken turns in the spotlight and could have a measurable effect as voters assess the candidates. The Obama campaign has introduced the family -- Michelle and the couple's two daughters, who are 5 and 8 -- in relatively small doses, expecting to increase their visibility as the campaign continues. Michelle Obama has made 16 joint appearances with her husband since his formal announcement on Feb. 10 and another dozen by herself, including a trip to southern New Hampshire earlier this week.
In conversations with her friends, Obama has expressed some ambivalence about shedding her independent life, if never about her reason for doing so. "It's a sacrifice for her to give that up," said Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the Obamas' and chair of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board, who said she and Michelle Obama discussed the decision as recently as last weekend, during a casual dinner at a neighbor's house.
"On the other hand," Jarrett said, laughing, "the opportunities she will have as first lady are great, too."
Obama does not let herself go that far. She has no ready answer to the question of what she would do as first lady -- whether she would, for example, decide to start working again. "Barack and I have lived very separate professional lives," she said. "He's done his thing, I do my thing. And my focus is on figuring out what's the right thing for me to do given where I am in my life, where my kids are. And I won't know what that looks like in '08 -- it changes," she said.
Only half-joking, she adds: "I might be so tired I won't want to talk to anybody after 2008."
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."