Obama’s wife ‘com­mands a room,’ seen as an as­set in ’08

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Brian DeBose

There seems to be an in­stant con­nec­tion peo­ple make with the wife of Sen. Barack Obama from the first words she speaks.

“She com­mands a room,” said New Hamp­shire-based po­lit­i­cal talk-show host Arnie Ar­ne­sen, who was on hand to lis­ten to Michelle Obama at the open­ing of the Obama cam­paign’s Gran­ite State head­quar­ters.

Al­though not eas­ily im­pressed with politi­cians and their wives hav­ing, as she says, “been around the block too many times,” Mrs. Ar­ne­sen was ex­tremely taken with Mrs. Obama.

“She is a tall stat­uesque wo­man; I would say a hand­some wo­man; she’s not drop-dead gor­geous so as to alien­ate you but beau­ti­ful in her pres­ence,” she said. “She is not a friv­o­lous wo­man but a wo­man of sub­stance. She has an im­age, and she ac­tu­ally lives up to the im­age she projects when she speaks [. . . ] in a way that is not scripted and not un­com­fort­able.”

That’s a lot of ac­co­lades from a first im­pres­sion, and Mrs. Ar­ne­sen was pre­pared to of­fer more. But Mrs. Obama, 43, a lawyer and vice pres­i­dent for com­mu­nity and ex­ter­nal af­fairs for the Univer­sity of Chicago Hos­pi­tals has earned them. In ad­di­tion to her pro­fes­sional ti­tles she is also a suc­cess­ful wife and mother of two young daugh­ters, Malia and Sasha.

“Al­though she is a pro­fes­sional and well-ac­com­plished, she seems to be more in­ter­ested in be­ing a mom,” said Bar­bara Gould, an Obama fundraiser who has ob­served the can­di­date’s wife on the cam­paign trail.

Mrs. Gould, 67, has been fundrais­ing for can­di­dates in her na­tive Ohio for more than a decade and did the same for Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Mrs. Obama “is the fu­ture,” she said. “She is the real em­bod­i­ment of the true mea­sure of what women’s lib was re­ally about. It was about be­ing a per­son, be­ing equal, some­one who does her thing and lets some­one else do their thing.”

Mrs. Obama was un­avail­able for an in­ter­view, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials from both the Obama cam­paign and the Univer­sity of Chicago Hos­pi­tals, and has no for­mal role on her hus­band’s cam­paign team. But like most can­di­date spouses has made nu­mer­ous stops on the cam­paign trail, both with her hus­band and by her­self.

She has been crit­i­cized for be­ing a lit­tle too hon­est about her hus­band and their home life, but long-time friends say “that’s Michelle,” paint­ing a pic­ture as hon­est and as real as what peo­ple see ev­ery morn­ing.

“I think she’s al­most ex­actly the same per­son now as she was in col­lege — a bril­liant, ca­sual fun-lov­ing per­son,” said Ken­neth M. Bruce, 45, a class­mate at Prince­ton.

For decades, can­di­dates seek­ing the pres­i­dency would rarely make prom­i­nent men­tion of a spouse.

But the 2008 pres­i­den­tial race will see large roles for at least two other Demo­cratic con­tenders. For­mer North Carolina Sen. John Ed­wards’s wife El­iz­a­beth came to the fore­front with her valiant strug­gle against can­cer. And New York Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton has the most-fa­mous spouse of all — for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, who her cam­paign says will help gov­ern the na­tion if the for­mer first lady wins the White House.

Michelle Robin­son was born in Chicago’s South Shore in 1964 — too late to re­mem­ber much about Martin Luther King’s 1968 marches against poverty and seg­re­ga­tion in Chicago but just in time to take ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that the civil rights move­ment made avail­able to her and other blacks.

Her fa­ther, the late Frasier Robin­son, was a city pump op­er­a­tor and a po­lit­i­cally ac­tive Demo­cratic precinct cap­tain. Her mother, Mar­ian Robin­son, a house­wife, would go to work and be a sec­re­tary at Spiegel’s cat­a­log store to help pay for her chil­dren’s Ivy League ed­u­ca­tion.

“I think it’s my fa­ther that touches me and my brother the most be­cause he had mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis,” Mrs. Obama told a large group of sup­port­ers at the open­ing of her hus­band’s New Hamp­shire cam­paign of­fice. Her fa­ther “went from be­ing a vi­brant man in his 20s to not be­ing able to walk or ever run again. He needed the as­sis­tance of a cane and then a mo­tor­ized cart to get around.”

She said his per­se­ver­ance and con­sis­tency in putting ev­ery ounce of his en­ergy into tak­ing care of his fam­ily with­out com­plaint or miss­ing a day of work shaped the per­son she would be­come.

The par­ents in­stilled in Michelle and her older brother, Craig, the be­lief that there was value in the hard work it takes to get a good ed­u­ca­tion for black chil­dren in ur­ban Amer­ica. She grad­u­ated from Whit­ney M. Young High School in 1981, then fol­lowed her brother to Prince­ton Univer­sity to ma­jor in so­ci­ol­ogy and grad­u­ate cum laude in 1985, with a law de­gree from Har­vard to fol­low in 1988.

“He was the first per­son I ever knew who got into an Ivy League school; I mean mem­bers of my fam­ily had gone to col­lege, but noth­ing like that,” Mrs. Obama said. “So when I grad­u­ated, I felt con­fi­dent and ap­plied, and I got in as well.”

Craig Robin­son be­came a high school bas­ket­ball coach and is now on the road re­cruit­ing for his team at Brown Univer­sity, where he is the head coach.

“She was re­ally pop­u­lar so­cially and aca­dem­i­cally; I was sur­prised that she grad­u­ated cum laude, be­cause we did the same things a lot, and I didn’t get those grades,” Mr. Bruce said.

He said af­ter grad­u­at­ing Michelle lost her room­mate and best friend Suzanne Alle to can­cer, which he called a tough time for ev­ery­one, “but es­pe­cially for Michelle.”

Miss Robin­son would go on to be an as­so­ci­ate at the Chicago branch of the law firm Si­d­ley Austin, where her sec­ond life as wife would soon be­gin.

In 1989, she was Barack Obama’s sum­mer ad­viser at the law firm — and she was not im­pressed by the man who would next year be­come Har­vard Law Re­view’s first black pres­i­dent.

“Ev­ery­one was buzzing about this new prodigy, and then I got se­lected as his ad­viser and I thought, ‘Oh great, I’m go­ing to be stuck with this nerd all sum­mer,’ ” she joked at the New Hamp­shire cam­paign stop about her sight-un­seen first im­pres­sion of her fu­ture hus­band.

“My first job was to take him to lunch, and we ended up talk­ing for what seemed like hours. And I found out that we had a lot in com­mon and the same val­ues.”

Enough in com­mon that the two would marry in 1992, but her ca­reer didn’t stop upon her mar­riage. She would go on to work for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Da­ley as an as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner of plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment, then as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the non­profit Chicago Of­fice of Pub­lic Al­lies en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to work on so­cial is­sues.

Mrs. Obama would then con­tinue her work with young peo­ple tak­ing a po­si­tion as as­so­ci­ate dean of stu­dent ser­vices at the Univer­sity of Chicago to ex­pand and im­prove the univer­sity’s com­mu­nity-ser­vice cen­ter. She then left there to work for the Univer­sity of Chicago. Now she is a pres­i­den­tial cam­paigner, work­ing part time at the hospi­tal so she can help her hus­band reach the White House.

Obama sup­port­ers say she can help coun­ter­act Mrs. Clin­ton’s try­ing to be­come the first fe­male pres­i­dent.

“Peo­ple keep say­ing if we elect Hil­lary, we get the pack­age. But I thought we were elect­ing Hil­lary,” said Ms. Gould. “When we elected Bill, we thought we were elect­ing Bill, not the pack­age or some­thing.”

Mrs. Obama has plenty of ac­com­plish­ments of which women and blacks can be proud.

“This is the re­al­iza­tion of the words Martin Luther King spoke in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech; she is the em­bod­i­ment of that re­al­ity, and that is awe-in­spir­ing,” Ms. Gould said. “This is a wo­man who can do it all with a man who can do it all.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

Mrs. Su­per­star: Michelle Obama has made many cam­paign stops, with and with­out her hus­band.

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