Obama’s wife ‘commands a room,’ seen as an asset in ’08
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.”
Mrs. Superstar: Michelle Obama has made many campaign stops, with and without her husband.