Her Heart's in the Race
Michelle Obama on the Campaign Trail and Her Life's Path

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."

The year was 1990 and Michelle Robinson was toiling at the top-tier Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin, tracing a worthy and entirely conventional path for a talented graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. The job helped repay her student loans but spoke little to her soul. When she broke away, first to the staff of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, then to a series of community service jobs, she began to merge her ambitions with a determination to make a difference.

Her new course also dovetailed with the personal ethic of one Barack Obama. After his own tour of Harvard, where he was elected president of the law review, he shunned the corporate ladder, choosing a small public interest firm headed by a Daley antagonist and former lawyer for Harold Washington, Chicago's first and only black mayor. Barack Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, wrote a memoir called "Dreams From My Father," and by 1997 was a new face in a crowd of state senators commuting to Springfield.

"Barack and I had both struggled with the question: When you know you've been blessed and know you have a set of gifts, how do you maximize those gifts so you're impacting the greatest number of people?" Michelle Obama says. "And what do you do? Is it community organizing? Is it politics? Is it as a parent? Our answer at some level is it can be all of that."

South Side Childhood

It is not a shy person who sets a bar high, then chooses to lay out her reasoning to audiences and interviewers all across the country, day after day, without notes or evident anxiety. Chicago businesswoman Kevann Cooke, a fellow black Princeton graduate, describes Michelle as "intelligent, thoughtful and a hell of an amazing public speaker. She has the ability to talk to anyone, and that's because she's comfortable in her own skin."

Maybe it was always that way for a woman who jokes that her family wondered what man would be strong enough to win her heart and handle her personality.

For much of her early life, Obama lived on the second floor of a two-family house in South Shore, a predominantly black working-class community near Lake Michigan on Chicago's South Side. Her brother, Craig, says, "If I had to describe it to a real estate agent, it would be 1BR, 1BA. . . . If you said it was 1,100 square feet, I'd call you a liar."

Wood paneling divided the living room into three spaces -- one for Craig's bedroom, one for Michelle's and one for a common study area. For a living, Frasier Robinson tended steam boilers and Marian Robinson stayed home until Michelle was in high school, and achievement was expected, fueled by a certain optimism.

"When you grow up as a black kid in a white world, so many times people are telling you, sometimes not maliciously, sometimes maliciously, you're not good enough," says Craig Robinson, a two-time Ivy League basketball player of the year at Princeton, now head coach at Brown University. "To have a family, which we did, who constantly reminded you how smart you were, how good you were, how pleasant it was to be around you, how successful you could be, it's hard to combat. Our parents gave us a little head start by making us feel confident.

"It sounds so corny," he adds, apologetically, "but that's how we grew up."

Barack Obama says visiting the Robinsons was "like dropping in on the set of 'Leave It to Beaver.' " As the son of a white single mother from Kansas and a largely absent black father from Kenya, he felt he had "bloodlines scattered to the four winds." But he found a sense of place at the Robinsons, where "there were uncles and aunts and cousins everywhere, stopping by to sit around the kitchen table and eat until they burst and tell wild stories and listen to Grandpa's old jazz collection and laugh deep into the night."

The portrait came with a twist: Beset by multiple sclerosis, Frasier Robinson declined from an agile boxer to a man who needed two canes to walk across the street. Craig Robinson says the children never knew their father without a limp, yet saw him report to work uncomplainingly. To the end, he was his family's voice of good sense and authority.

"I remember him saying you don't want to do things because you're worried about people thinking they're right; you want to do the right things," Craig says. "You grow up not worrying about what people think about you."

Except maybe your father.

"If you disappointed my dad," Craig recalls, "everybody was, like, crying."

"I am constantly trying to make sure that I am making him proud -- what would my father think of the choices that I've made, how I've lived my life, what careers I chose, what man I married," Michelle tells an audience. "That's the voice in my head that keeps me whole and keeps me grounded and keeps me the girl from the South Side of Chicago, no matter how many cameras are in the room, how many autographs people want, how big we get."

When Michelle and Barack went on their first date, they saw Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."

Ivy League Acclimation

Princeton left Michelle Robinson freshly conflicted about her own ambitions. The picture-book university, with its neo-Gothic quadrangles of carved stone and its clutches of self-assured white people, was an elite realm that delivered an elite education. It was a combination that cut both ways, reminding her too often that she was a black student from the urban working class, while also telling her that Michelle LaVaughn Robinson could play in the big leagues.

"My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'Blackness' than ever before," she wrote in the introduction to her sociology thesis, "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community." "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 didn't belong."

Yet she began to think her time at the university had instilled "certain conservative values." By senior year, she saw herself "striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates -- acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high-paying position in a successful corporation."

Her internal debate over her future -- What is possible for a black person? What is desirable? What is acceptable when judged by whom? -- continued at Harvard and Sidley Austin the year her father and college friend died. In her mid-20s, two years out of law school, her answers prompted her departure.

When she began looking for life beyond the law firm, she sought advice widely. A friend sent her résumé to Valerie Jarrett, Daley's deputy chief of staff, who interviewed her and offered a job on the spot. Michelle was intrigued, but she asked Jarrett to meet with her fiance. Barack wanted to know whether her ideas would find a home with Daley, the energetic but untested son of Chicago's imperious longtime Democratic boss.

At dinner with the couple, Jarrett came up with the right responses and Michelle went to City Hall in 1991, soon following Jarrett to the city planning department. Later, when Jarrett chaired the Chicago Transit Authority, Michelle volunteered to lead the citizens advisory board. In 1993, she started the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program that trains young people through internships at nonprofits.

"Michelle," says Jarrett, "is really good at taking nothing and creating something."

In 1996, recruited again by Jarrett, she decamped for the University of Chicago and the first in a string of increasingly prominent community service and outreach jobs. She is now vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center, a liaison to impoverished and medically underserved black neighborhoods.

There is significant irony in her position. The university is an intellectual haven with broadly liberal politics, yet its sometimes diffident approach to surrounding African American neighborhoods has long been a sore point. A half-century ago, its heedlessness provoked one of the most storied episodes in the career of Saul Alinsky, the iconoclastic community organizer whose mobilizing model was studied and taught by Barack Obama.

In 1960, as the University of Chicago expanded into the black community of Woodlawn, Alinsky mobilized residents to fight back, while also challenging city policies on policing and school segregation. In August 1961, to prove that City Hall should pay attention, more than 2,000 residents boarded 46 buses for the trip downtown. They registered, very publicly, to vote.

Obama is mindful of her well-paid role on the inside. She describes her task as pulling opposing forces together, the kind of thing her husband talks about constantly.

"The truth is that having lived and experienced both sides of the situation, I know the community does not trust and understand the university and the university does not trust and understand the community. And until you can bridge those gaps and hear out both sides and understand why are they afraid, you can't really have a conversation," says Obama, who reports telling the university, "And until you can appreciate the assets of the community, and not just view it from a deficit, then you can't fully partner with it because you don't respect it."

One goal is to open a series of health clinics in the South Side's neediest neighborhoods -- home to the church basement where Barack so impressed Michelle.

The Juggling Act

Yet for all her drive, Michelle learned early that being married to Barack Obama often means that when he is gone chasing his dreams, she must cut back on her own -- in her work and especially in building a two-parent world for their two daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6.

"It's hard," Michelle Obama once said wryly, "and that's why Barack is such a grateful man."

Their struggles to manage their careers and home life have hardly been private, thanks to Barack Obama's two bestsellers. He writes guiltily about allowing his political career to crowd out his obligations as partner and parent. During one particularly bad stretch, he says, "my failure to clean up the kitchen suddenly seemed less endearing. . . . My wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained."

That was around the time he made the first serious mistake of his political career. He tried to grab a congressional seat from a successful incumbent, Rep. Bobby Rush (D). His ambition kept him largely absent from their Chicago family life and left the Obamas essentially broke. He lost the race by 31 percentage points.

"You only think about yourself," Michelle told him more than once. "I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone."

After the defeat, Obama retooled his efforts on the home front and in politics. Then, four years later, he launched what seemed to his close friends a crazily quixotic race for the U.S. Senate. When he made his pitch to Michelle, he told her it would be "up or out."

"No one thought that was a good idea," recalls Jarrett, who hosted a lunch to talk it through. "We were resolved we were going to talk him out of this . . . Michelle being the most clear that it was a bad idea."

Obama, during two hours of jawing, convinced them he could win but could not do it without them. Michelle's willingness to accept anew the harried life of political spouse made possible the race that launched his national career.

He roared from behind to capture the 2004 Democratic primary and the general election, calculating during one stretch that he had taken seven days off in 18 months. Just two years later, when he aimed for the Oval Office, Michelle made some calculations of her own. She knew the work of shepherding the girls to school, soccer, dance, tennis, ballet and music would fall largely to her.

"Okay, how are we going to do this?" she recalls asking. "How's this going to look? What am I going to do about my job? How will we manage the kids? What's our financial position going to be?

"Once I got a sense of how this could work not just for me or him but for our family and the people in our lives . . . I could say, okay, we can do this, I can manage this."

Life as a Stump Speaker

Managing it means cutting her University of Chicago hours to nearly none. It means replacing any dream of a "Leave It to Beaver" life in the Obamas' $1.6 million Hyde Park home with a new extended family of Secret Service agents, whom Sasha calls "the secret people." It means taking day trips when possible, giving her time to wake the girls in the morning and kiss them good night. Her mother, who retired this year as an administrative assistant at a bank, and close friends pitch in. On days when she is not traveling or working at campaign headquarters, aides try not to call.

"She takes this so seriously," says Melissa Winter, her chief of staff, "because every moment she's not with the girls has to be validated."

On the campaign trail, the response is strong.

"She's so dynamic, but she speaks from the heart and that's what I'm looking for," says Del Turner, 59, a Waterloo writer. "I'm so tired of hearing the politicians speak these days. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't sound real. They don't fool me."

With the race on the line, Michelle is spending two or three days on the road each week. Occasionally, she spots an event where the girls can have some fun and she takes them along, as she did to a campaign stop at a New Hampshire children's fair.

Mostly, she juggles, backing her husband and the political vision they have come to share.

A sequence of decisions stretching back nearly 20 years led to moments like the one in Iowa Falls, where she says, "I've felt so disconnected from my government for so long. . . . We need a leader who can touch our souls." And the one in Fort Dodge, where she tells an audience, "We need someone who understands and respects the Constitution, particularly as we have seen it obliterated."

And the scene in a library in rural Rockwell City, where Obama tells a hard-to-read audience of her husband's early opposition to the Iraq war, his success at ethics reform, his health-care work, his willingness to level with people. She says the United States is in Iraq because leaders "were not willing to tell us the truth," and she urges her listeners to imagine a president who has worked in church basements and walked picket lines.

"Just dream," she says as she finishes. "If you reach into your hearts and act without fear, we can do something special."

The hitherto silent group delivers a standing ovation.

"I guarantee you," she declares with a grin, "if I could talk to everybody in this state, they would vote for Barack Obama. I'm pretty convincing."

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