Her Heart's in the Race

"I've felt so disconnected from my government for so long. . . . We need a leader who can touch our souls," says Michelle Obama, campaigning for her husband in Iowa Falls. (By Scout Tufankjian -- Polaris Images)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007


A brainy black man named Barack Obama: 44th president of the United States?

Michelle Obama signals to an Iowa audience that a certain initial skepticism is natural, recalling her first thoughts when her future husband arrived at her Chicago law firm as a summer associate: "I've got nothing in common with this guy. He grew up in Hawaii! Who grows up in Hawaii? He was biracial. I was like, okay, what's that about? And then it's a funny name, Barack Obama. Who names their child Barack Obama?"

Hers is a lively riff, delivered with flair, and it draws smiles. Turning earnest, she explains how she learned that they had very different upbringings and very similar values, a discovery confirmed one summer afternoon in a sweltering church basement in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. There in Altgeld Gardens, where he had worked before law school with people who felt the world was failing them, she heard him say how individuals have an obligation to make a difference in a society that is too often mean-spirited and unfair.

"What I saw in him on that day was authenticity and truth and principle," Michelle Obama tells her rapt listeners. "That's who I fell in love with, that man."

She might be standing in a back yard in Waterloo or on a stage in Harlem, but as she carries the audience along from phrase to well-turned phrase, she makes clear that "this running for president thing," as she calls it, has become nearly as much her quest as her husband's. "I will be very disappointed if we don't get this right," she says after a campaign stop. "As a country, we can't afford to miss again. We can't."

During an intensely challenging stretch of a campaign that has shown more promise than momentum, Obama is increasing her political workload, interrupting her own career as a $275,000-a-year hospital executive. Today she was scheduled to make the rounds here in Ottumwa, Centerville, Corydon, Lamoni and Indianola. She had doubts about the wisdom of the Oval Office bid, fearing what it would mean for the family, especially their two young daughters, but now that she's in, she's in all the way.

"The selfish part of me says, 'Run away! Just say no!' because my life would be better," she says in a quiet moment after another campaign event. "But that's the problem we face as a society, we have to stop making the me decision and we have to make the we and us decision."

Forty-three years old and nearly 6 feet tall, she strides into unfamiliar settings in a hundred cities and towns and returns the questioning gaze of strangers "to introduce the Obamas the people, not the Obamas the résumés." She urges them to look deeply at her husband, the one who is not white and is not named Washington or Adams or Johnson or Ford or Clinton. She is saying, Yes, I know what you're thinking. I know. But hear me out. This is the kind of candidate you said you wanted. He's ready. Are you?

* * *

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson the person ditched Michelle LaVaughn Robinson the résumé not long after she met Barack Obama. It had been a rough year. Her father, a Chicago water plant worker and the man whose high standards still echo in her head, died after living half a lifetime with multiple sclerosis. And Suzanne Alele, one of her roommates and best friends at Princeton, died of cancer at just 25.

"I was confronted for the first time in my life with the fact that nothing was really guaranteed," says Obama. "One of the things I remembered about Suzanne is she always made decisions that would make her happy and create a level of fulfillment. She was less concerned with pleasing other people, and thank God. Was I waking up every morning feeling excited about work and the work I was doing? I needed to figure out what I really loved."

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