Michelle Obama: The Woman Behind Obama

November 11, 2008 at 5:20 am Leave a comment

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Backstage, behind the floodlights, moments before he gave the 2004
Democratic convention keynote address that would launch his career into
the national stratosphere, Barack Obama made a confession to his wife,
Michelle.


His stomach was a bit queasy.

Michelle responded by hugging her husband tight and looking him
straight in the eye, Obama recalls in his book, The Audacity of Hope.

“Just don’t screw it up, Buddy!” Michelle said, transforming the tense moment into one of shared laughter.

The remark is classic Michelle Obama — a woman who faces reality
head-on with candor, humor and tenacity, who keeps her husband
grounded, who keeps him real.

“He is the senator. His profile is soaring,” said consultant and
friend Avis LaVelle, national press secretary to Bill Clinton during
his successful 1992 presidential campaign.

“But every high-flying kite needs somebody with their feet on the ground. And that’s Michelle.”

In the nearly 2 1/2 years since Obama’s rousing address, the junior
Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois has become a familiar figure on
Sunday morning talk shows, the cover of Time and Newsweek, and the
front pages of newspapers nationwide.

Meanwhile, the woman who never really wanted a political life has stayed mostly behind the scenes.

But Obama’s announcement last week that he is exploring a 2008 bid
for president inches Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama ever closer to
the floodlights, to the strange blend of curiosity and scrutiny that
awaits the wives of presidential candidates.

Obama, 45, would never make a run for president without his
43-year-old wife’s approval and careful counsel, those close to her
say. Rest assured, Michelle, a devoted mother, has weighed the impact
on the couple’s two daughters, Malia, 8, and Natasha, 5.

“There are arguments to be made that maybe [a presidential bid] is
better when they are younger,” said Verna Williams, a University of
Cincinnati law professor and one of Michelle’s closest friends at
Harvard Law School.

“If anything, you can count on Michelle to have thought through
whether it’s better to do it now, as opposed to four years from now, as
opposed to eight years from now.”

Bungalow baby

Barack Obama’s credentials have become familiar to millions: first
African American president of the Harvard Law Review; University of
Chicago law professor; two-term Illinois state senator; third African
American U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

Michelle’s resume may be less well known, but it is impressive.

She is a 1985 cum laude graduate of Princeton University; a 1988
graduate of Harvard Law School; a former associate dean at the
University of Chicago, and currently a vice president at the University
of Chicago Hospitals.

Michelle, who declined an interview request, sits on six boards,
including the prestigious Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

“She’s smart, she’s successful and she’s well liked and popular,” said LaVelle, Mayor Daley’s former press secretary.

“Long before there was a Barack Obama, there was a Michelle Robinson who was a star in her own right.”

And although Obama is an adopted Chicagoan — born in Hawaii to a
Kenyan economist father and a Kansas-bred cultural anthropologist
mother — his wife is pure Chicago.

Michelle’s late father, Frasier Robinson, was a city pump operator
and a Democratic precinct captain. Her mother, Marian, is a former
Spiegel’s secretary.

Michelle was raised in a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a
classic Chicago brick bungalow, now surrounded by a chain link fence,
in South Shore. Her mother still lives there, behind burglar-proof
wrought iron doors and secured windows, poised above a hedge of clipped
yews.

Gifted classes

From that outpost, early on, there were signs Michelle was a standout.

“As far back as any of us can remember, she was very bright,” said
her brother, Craig Robinson, who preceded his sister at Princeton to
become its fourth highest-scoring basketball player.

Both Michelle and Craig, now head basketball coach at Brown University, learned to read at home by the age of 4.

Both skipped second grade (both their parents also skipped a grade).
By sixth grade, Michelle joined a gifted class at what is now Bouchet
Elementary, at 73rd and Jeffery.

The gifted program exposed Michelle to three years of French before
she graduated as class salutatorian, and, for two years, to special
biology classes at Kennedy King College.

There, the gifted class studied photosynthesis, worked in a
laboratory and identified the muscles of dissected rat specimens,
recalled childhood friend Chiaka Davis Patterson.

“This is not what normal seventh-graders were getting,” Patterson said.

Playing with Barbie

In other ways, Michelle was a typical youngster.

When Craig Robinson battled Michelle, 16 months his junior, in Monopoly, he had to “let her win enough that she wouldn’t quit.”

“My sister is a poor sport. She didn’t like to lose,” Robinson said.

Michelle also was athletic, playing baseball, football and
basketball with her brother, father and mother — who, in her late 50s,
won some short-distance running events at the Senior Olympics in
Champaign.

Michelle has since grown into a 5-foot-11, sleek and striking woman
who enjoys a good 4:30 a.m. workout. When she raised her arm to wave to
an adoring 2004 Democratic convention crowd, she revealed just a
whisper of bare, taut midriff.

But when she was little, Michelle loved “girl” stuff.

She set up an Easy Bake Oven in her bedroom. She sprawled across the
carpet with the African American version of Barbie, her mate, their toy
house and car.

Later, as a young adult, children were “all she wanted,” said close
friend and consultant Yvonne Davila of D & T Communications. Now
that she has them, she is an “amazing mom,” Davila said.

“She’s a family person first,” Davila said. With kids, “she gives lots of love but at same time, there’s no nonsense.”

Regular chores

Michelle coordinates playdates, ballet, gymnastics, tennis and piano lessons with what Obama calls “a general’s efficiency.”

She pitches in at school potlucks – she tries to claim the dessert
so she can pick up a pie at the store — and makes time to sit in a
folding chair, emblazoned with a soccer ball on the back, water bottle
in hand, to watch her girls in their soccer league.

Michelle may live today in a $1.65 million Georgian revival Kenwood
mansion, surrounded by a tall wrought iron fence, but Patterson
remembers playing Barbie with her in “the smallest room I had ever
seen. It was like a closet.”

Her bedroom was actually the apartment’s living room, which had been
converted with a divider down the middle, allowing her to share it with
her brother until an addition was built.

In the Robinson household, both children had chores.

Every Saturday, Michelle had to clean the bathroom. She scrubbed the sink, mopped the floor and cleaned the toilet.

“We alternated washing dishes. I had Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Michelle had Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday,” Craig Robinson said.

Today, in the Obama household, even Sen. Obama has to pitch in.

“Michelle keeps him very grounded. She makes him throw out the trash,” said Davila.

“He makes the bed when he’s in town. They are a couple. He’s a
husband and father, so when he’s home he has to do things the way other
people do them.”

‘The place to go’

Three years after the city’s first magnet high school opened,
Michelle joined a group of hand-picked freshmen at state-of-the-art
Whitney Young.

“That was the school to go to,” said Patterson. “It was considered state of the art.”

But striving for the best was always the goal in the Robinson household.

“Without being immodest, we were always smart, we were always driven
and we were always encouraged to do the best you can do, not just
what’s necessary,” Craig Robinson said.

“And when it came to going to schools, we all wanted to go to the best schools we could,” he said.

At Young, Michelle made the honor roll four years running, took
advanced placement classes, was in the National Honor Society. She was
student council treasurer and a member of the fundraising publicity
committee.

Michelle stood out — and not just because she was among the tallest girls in her class, said classmate Norm Collins.

She seemed to conquer everything “effortlessly,” he said.

But behind the scenes, Michelle was a hard worker, her brother said.

“She’s not the daughter of a bigwig or anything, where she’s been
handed something. She’s worked for everything she’s gotten,” Robinson
said.

“Aware of my blackness”

Later, at Princeton, Michelle was one of four roommates, all on
financial aid, who shared a sparsely decorated common room and had to
walk down three floors to the bathroom, said Princeton roommate Angela
Acree.

“We were not rich,” Acree said. “A lot of kids had TVs and sofas and furniture. We didn’t.”

For her work study assignment, Michelle coordinated an after school
center, caring for children of Princeton’s lunchroom and maintenance
people.

She survived among high achievers by not only being smart, but being organized – a trait colleagues cite today.

“She was not a procrastinator,” Acree said. “Michelle would always
get her work done in advance so she was not sitting there facing some
deadline the next day.”

In their common room, to unwind, Michelle and her roommates played
Stevie Wonder records, swapped stories and “giggled and laughed
hysterically,” Acree recalls.

But Michelle’s senior thesis reveals the sociology major was acutely aware of being among the few blacks then at Princeton.

“My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my
‘Blackness’ than ever before,” Michelle wrote in a 1985 thesis
entitled “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 don’t
belong.

“Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites
at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black
first and a student second.”

Early on at Princeton, Michelle wrote, she was determined to
“utilize all of my present and future resources to benefit [the black]
community first and foremost.” Yet she now realized attending a
launching pad like Princeton would “likely lead to my further
integration and/or assimilation into a White cultural and social
structure . . .

“As I enter my final year at Princeton, I find myself 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. Thus, my goals are not as clear as
before.”

Could be the senator

At Harvard Law School, Michelle’s intelligence so impressed
classmate Verna Williams that she asked Michelle to be her partner on a
mock trial case.

“She has incredible presence,” Williams said. “She could very
easily be the Sen. Obama that people are talking about. She’s very,
very smart, very charismatic, very well spoken – all the things that
Barack is.”

At Harvard, Michelle mixed with rich and poor, working with Legal
Aid clients and recruiting African American Harvard Law School alums to
serve on Black Law Student Association panels.

Today, as vice president of external and community relations at the
University of Chicago Hospitals, Michelle deals with the full economic
spectrum seamlessly, said current boss Susan Sher, hospital general
counsel.

“In community affairs, you’re dealing with a range of people, from
presidents of hospitals to community leaders to people who are poor . .
. and she just has a way about her, a real kindness,” said Sher,
former city corporation counsel.

A special summer associate

After Michelle’s law school graduation, she joined the kind of
“successful corporation” — Chicago’s Sidley & Austin — she wrote
about at Princeton. Her specialty: marketing and intellectual property.

If she had stayed longer, “she would have been a superstar,” said
Sidley senior counsel Newton Minow. “We were all crazy about her.”

Her first year, in walked Obama. Michelle was tapped as the young summer associate’s advisor.

“I remember that she was tall – almost my height in heels — and
lovely, with a friendly, professional manner,” Obama recalls in
Audacity of Hope.

“Michelle was full of plans that day, on the fast track, with no time, she told me, for distractions — especially men.”

Michelle tried to set Obama up with friends, but he wanted to take
her out. Finally, she relented, and by the time Michelle called
Williams to say she was dating someone new, Williams could tell this
was something different, something special.

“She said, `Guess what? I’ve got this great guy in my life. His name
is Barack,’ ” Williams recalls. “It was clear she was pretty crazy
about him.

“We had known each other when we dated other guys. You go through
this whole `he’s not ready for commitment’ [thing] . . . .But this guy
was none of those things. [Barack] was a good, solid guy.”

Four years later, in 1992, when the couple walked down the aisle of
Trinity United Church of Christ. Michelle’s childhood friend, Santita
Jackson, daughter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., sang at the wedding.

“We all cried. It was so beautiful,” said Valerie Jarrett, CEO of
Habitat Co. but at the time Michelle’s boss. “It’s clear they were in
love and each other’s best friends.”

“Putting it on the table”

By then, Michelle had grown restless with corporate law. In 1991,
before her marriage, she had joined the crew of energetic young people
surrounding Mayor Daley in his early years in office. Jarrett, then
deputy chief of staff, remembers interviewing Michelle for an
assistant’s job in the chief of staff’s office.

“The moment I met her I knew immediately we would be lucky to have
her,” said Jarrett, who has since vacationed with the Obamas in
Martha’s Vineyard. “I was instantly impressed. I think I offered her a
job at the end of the first meeting.”

Before she signed up, Michelle told Jarrett her fiance wanted to
meet her “so he could figure out if he was comfortable with her going
to work for Mayor Daley.”

Obama had “some trepidation” about Michelle working in politics,
Jarrett said. (Michelle later was not thrilled with the idea of Obama
running for state senator.)

“I can remember sitting in [a restaurant] booth, with Barack on the
other side, interrogating me in the nicest possible way,” Jarrett said.

“I can’t think of many people you hire who say, `I’d like you to
meet my fiancĂ©,’ but I would have done just about anything to get
Michelle.”

At City Hall, Michelle confronted issues head-on.

“I’ve been in so many settings or meetings with Michelle where
people are talking all around an issue and she has a way of succinctly
getting to the issue and putting it on the table. She’s willing to say
what other people dance around,” said Jarrett.

Record fundraiser

In 1993, Michelle
grabbed an offer to be the founding executive director of the Chicago
office of Public Allies, part of President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps
effort.

The position brought her closer to the community work she longed
for; it meant helping promising young people enter public service.
Public Allies found them, trained them and matched them up with
internships — all of which Michelle had to organize.

She created an office, a board of directors and a pot of money from
scratch, setting a “template” for 11 offices that would follow, said
Paul Schmitz, national Public Allies CEO.

Displaying fundraising and strategizing skills, Michelle put
together a board of people who could help Public Allies raise money and
“left it with about a one-year reserve, which none of our sites since
have had. She built it to last,” Schmitz said.

By 1996, the University of Chicago offered a job as associate dean
of students that extended Michelle’s work with volunteerism. As
director of the University Community Service Center, she located and
supported the volunteer work of students.

Hearing of her work, then U. of C. Hospitals president Michael
Riordan offered Michelle a job in 2002 as the hospital’s executive
director of community affairs, serving as liaison between the
institution and its surrounding community of rich and poor.

In “probably the most unique interview I’ve ever had,” Riordan
said, Michelle brought her younger daughter with her in a “little
car-seat carrier.”

Web sites pounce

Two months after Obama’s January 2005 swearing-in as U.S. senator,
Michelle was promoted to vice president of external affairs and
community relations. Tax returns showed her total compensation that
year went from $122,000 to $317,000, though hospital officials say some
of the latter figure includes a one-time pension payout and a bonus.

By then, among other things, Michelle had expanded a two-person
part-time office to a staff of 17, grown the number of volunteers into
the hospital from 200 to nearly 1,000, and quadrupled the number of
hospital employees who volunteered outside the hospital to 800,
officials said.

Even so, some have questioned if Obama’s new status triggered
Michelle’s promotion. Riordan insists the position had been discussed
well before Obama became U.S. senator.

“I wanted to send a strong message to our community that I was
committed to it, so I wanted to make this a vice presidential
position,” Riordan said.

“Michelle is the real deal and . . . really earned every bit of her promotion on her own.”

Web sites and Crain’s Chicago Business have noted Michelle’s June
2005 election to the board of directors of TreeHouse Foods — a post
that earned her $45,000 in 2005 and stock options that by the end of
2006, if claimed, would have reaped her $60,000.

“She got on the corporate board of someplace where she could make
money, and make money quickly,” said political consultant Joe Novak,
who operates a Web site that has criticized Michelle’s new TreeHouse
role.

“She’s cashing in because of her husband.”

Michelle
was on the TreeHouse board in November 2005, when one of its divisions
announced plans to close its pickle and relish plant in La Junta,
Colo., displacing 150 “mainly Hispanic” workers, Novak said. A year
later, her husband criticized Wal-Mart’s treatment of its workers.

“How can she defend TreeHouse while her husband is attacking Wal-Mart?” Novak said.

Obama spokesman Julian Green, in a prepared statement, said Michelle
applied for the TreeHouse job after a family friend who consults for
companies seeking to increase the minorities on their boards alerted
her to the opening. The friend thought Michelle would be an excellent
candidate for a corporate board, given her experience in both the
public and private sectors, Green said.

“Michelle has performed her duties diligently and her compensation
is commensurate with the company’s other board members,” Green’s
statement said. She’s proud of her service on several boards, including
Facing History and Ourselves, Muntu Dance Theatre and Sprague Memorial
Institute, Green said.

Some people sweat under the floodlights, but Michelle’s background
as a lawyer, community liaison, fundraiser and strategist should come
in handy if her husband runs for president.

The toughest part may be juggling the demands of a campaign with
work, marriage and motherhood — something Michelle has been able to do
so far, in part due to babysitting and other help from her mother and
close female friends.

Whatever happens, Michelle will find a way to make it all work, said Craig Robinson.

“There’s nothing too hard for her to do,” he said.

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

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