Michelle Obama: The Natural
To the role of would-be First Lady, Michelle Obama brings modesty, dedication—and a reputation for truth-telling. Rebecca Johnson meets the candidate’s wife.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
Iowa in spring. A full nine months before the primaries, but Michelle Obama is already at work on her husband’s behalf. The setting: the Chit-n-Chat coffee shop in Waukee. Population 9,213. Percentage of population that is white: 97.7. The subject: values. Hers and his. “I married my husband,” she tells the crowd, composed equally of reporters and supporters, “because we shared the same Midwestern values: Keep your word, work hard, treat others with respect.”
As a topic, it’s a little disappointing. Who would ever come out in favor of shirking work? I had hoped for a little more of “He’s a man, just a man”—the speech in which she ribs her lionized husband for being so inept at the banal details of daily life—but those jokes, she tells me later, have gone a little flat. Once you’ve done them, you can’t keep doing them. That, and Maureen Dowd’s having chided her in The New York Times for assuming that the American public does, in fact, see Barack Obama as a god. “No harm, no foul,” Michelle Obama says of the criticism. “She obviously didn’t get me”—though she admits to subsequently toning down the irony. “If the joke is clouding the point, then let’s just get to the point.”
Of his wife, Barack Obama has said, “She is smart, funny, and thoroughly charming….If I ever had to run against her for public office, she would beat me without too much difficulty.” Watching her easy way with the crowd, you can see what he means. She writes her own speeches, speaks without notes, doesn’t seem uptight or anxious about being liked, and makes jokes about herself: “When my older brother got into Princeton, I thought, I’m smarter than him!” Moreover, she looks the part of the elegant working mom she was until last May, when she cut back on 80 percent of her $212,000-a-year job with the University of Chicago hospital system in order to concentrate on her husband’s campaign.
After the Chit-n-Chat speech, I sought out the sole black woman in the room, a distinguished-looking elderly lady who had watched Obama’s performance with a small, enigmatic smile. Willie Glanton, it turned out, was the first African-American female elected to the Iowa state legislature—and a hard-core Hillary Clinton supporter, until Barack and Michelle Obama came along and swept her off her feet. What, I wondered, did she like so much about Michelle Obama?
“She’s normal,” Glanton answered, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “She stands by her man.”
Normal. Interesting word. Certainly not one that applies to spouses Bill Clinton or even Elizabeth Edwards, who is battling metastatic breast cancer and lives in a $6 million, 28,200-square-foot house (the Obamas, by contrast, paid $1.65 million for their Georgian Revival home). Nor, frankly, is it a word that would have applied to Teresa Heinz, John Kerry’s oddly flinty wife, or Howard Dean’s MIA doctor wife. Or Cindy McCain, who once stole painkillers from the charity for which she worked. Or even the arctic Laura Bush, who can barely contain her contempt for the media in her rare public appearances. But, again and again, it’s a word that resurfaces with regard to the Obamas. “This is probably my twentieth interview on the subject, so I’ve really been forced to think about what makes Barack and Michelle unique,” says Michelle’s older brother, Craig Robinson, who works as the head basketball coach at Brown University. “And I think it’s that they come closer to being like us than any of the other candidates. They’re not extremely wealthy or lifelong politicians hungry for power. They seem like normal, honest people who are doing this for the right reasons.”
A few weeks after the Iowa speech, I met with Obama before a photo shoot at the Chicago Cultural Center, one of those massive downtown buildings whose elaborate Beaux Arts interiors make it a popular site for weddings. She arrived for the shoot wearing black leggings, a flowy tunic top, and flat shoes, looking a little tired. Apparently, the senator had surprised her by arriving home for a rare visit the night before. Given her somewhat fierce reputation, I was little surprised by her easygoing attitude to the clothes. “I think you all should decide,” she said, shrugging. “I can be comfortable in anything.” (On the rare occasion she finds a moment to shop, she says, she is drawn to Giorgio Armani or MaxMara for suits.)
Then it came time to do her hair. After half an hour with a curling iron, the hairdresser presented her with a mirror.
Obama looked at the intentionally messy hairdo with alarm. “The hair is not working,” she said, fingering a lank lock with alarm. “I look like I just got out of bed.”
A few feet away, Ingrid Grimes, Obama’s hand-picked makeup woman, shook her head and muttered. Grimes met the Obamas four years ago, became a friend, and has been doing Michelle’s makeup on special occasions ever since. She knows her style inside out. And this was not it. “Her natural style is classic and elegant,” she later told me. “She doesn’t like a lot of fuss.” More important, and as we were witnessing, Michelle Obama does not have a problem saying no. “It’s partly her intellect,” Grimes explained. “She is a person who is comfortable in her skin. She’s clear and direct without ever being overemotional.”
The hairdresser made a few nervous stabs with a comb. “I think you should just put it up,” Obama said gently. He nodded and did exactly that. Underneath that exterior, she’s really not so tough. “I worked for John Kerry on the last election,” says Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Michelle Obama’s communications director, “and I can’t imagine him ever caring that my boyfriend and I broke up over campaign time commitments. She’s very aware of all the staff and the sacrifices they have made by uprooting their families to move here for this campaign.” Even her brother—he of the “Michelle doesn’t like to play games, because she can’t stand to lose” quote—calls Michelle one of his best friends. “She might seem intimidating at first because she’s so smart, but my sister is a very warm and sympathetic person. When the chips are down, she and my wife are the people I talk to.” And for the record, it’s not that Michelle can’t stand to lose. She doesn’t like to see anyone lose. “I’m competitive,” she says, “but I’d rather see everyone win.”
When we sat down together a few minutes later, the subject of normalcy came up almost immediately. “I say this not to be modest, but there are so many young people who could be me. There’s nothing magical about my background. I am not a supergenius. I had good parents and some good teachers and some decent breaks, and I work hard. Every other kid I knew could have been me, but they got a bad break and didn’t recover. It’s like I tell the young people I talk to: The difference between success and failure in our society is a very slim margin. You almost have to have that perfect storm of good parents, self-esteem, and good teachers. It’s a lot, which is why Barack and I believe so passionately about investing in education and strengthening institutions.”
Here’s what’s not normal about people who are running for office, or people who are married to people running for office: Just when you think you’re having a conversation about their childhood on the South Side of Chicago, they’ll take it global. The candidate can go on to outline proposals for remedying whatever societal ill he (or she) has just identified; the spouse, on the other hand, is hamstrung by the nature of her role, which is basically to humanize the policy wonk. Want to know more about the man? Check out the wife. And vice versa. When I ask how she would strengthen those institutions or where the money would come from, she turns suddenly demure. “I’m not running for president. I’m not a policy expert. He’s the candidate. What I’m doing is articulating what I see. This is my life. This is what I see in my world. I guess I am reflecting that back to people.”
Michelle Obama, née Robinson, met her husband in the summer of 1989, when, a year out of Harvard Law School, she was working as an intellectual-property lawyer at a corporate-law firm in Chicago. She was asked by the firm to mentor Obama, a summer associate who had just finished his first year at Harvard Law School. “There was this buzz about this guy,” she says, “and I remember thinking we probably had nothing in common—any black guy who came from Hawaii had to be weird.” Compared with her, he was. In his surprisingly candid first book, Obama writes compellingly about a youth beset with confusion over his place in the world and a simmering angst over his largely absent African father. He experimented with marijuana and cocaine, wore a black leather jacket, smoked cigarettes, and discussed Marx with his equally disaffected college classmates.
By contrast, Michelle Robinson was every parent’s dream. In elementary school, she was so advanced for her age, she skipped the second grade. In high school, she was the class salutorian, taking science classes at a local college. “I wanted to be a pediatrician,” she says, “until I realized science wasn’t much fun.” Even her mother was impressed by Michelle’s precocious pragmatism. In a rare appearance at a New Hampshire Women for Obama event, Marian Robinson described a daughter who was hardworking and had a “natural eye” for clothes but who was also practical. One day Michelle came home with a new Coach bag she’d bought with the money she’d earned from baby-sitting. How much did you pay for it? her mother asked. When Michelle told her, Robinson gasped. I would never pay that for a bag, she said. Yes, Michelle answered, but you’ll have to buy ten bags—I’ll only have to buy one.
“Michelle works harder than anyone I know,” says her brother, explaining the secret to her success. “I’d come home from basketball practice, and she’d be working. I’d sit down on the couch and watch TV; she’d keep working. When I turned off the TV, she’d still be working.”
When I asked her what her parents would have done if she had brought home a B or a C on a report card, she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she answered, “because they never had to deal with that.” Her father worked as a pump operator for the city water department, and her mother stayed home. Money was tight—the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment where pizza was considered a big treat—but the Robinsons were shrewd enough to secure a spot for her in one of the city’s first high schools for gifted students. It meant a three-hour daily commute beginning at six in the morning, but it got her into Princeton, where she majored in sociology and got her first exposure to real wealth. “I remember being shocked,” she says, “by college students who drove BMWs. I didn’t even know parents who drove BMWs.”
After graduating cum laude, she went to Harvard Law School without taking any time off, a decision she later came to regret. “The thing about these wonderful schools is they can be surprisingly narrowing to your perspective. You can be a lawyer or you can work on Wall Street; those are the conventional options. They’re easy, socially acceptable, and financially rewarding. Why wouldn’t you do it?” Obama stops short of saying her job was dull, but around the time her future husband showed up, she had begun to suspect her heart would never be in the practice of corporate law.
When she first laid eyes on Barack Obama, Robinson was pleased to see that the secretaries in the firm were right—he was handsome. Moreover, his nose wasn’t nearly as big as it appeared in the picture he’d sent in for the firm directory. For his part, Barack was attracted to his future wife’s laugh, her intelligence, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, her vulnerability—as “if, deep inside, she knew how fragile things really were, and that if she ever let go, even for a moment, all her plans might quickly unravel.”
Nobody in her family thought the relationship would last. “We gave it a month, tops,” says brother Craig. “Not because there was anything wrong with him. He was smart, engaging, handsome, and tall, which is important for a five-foot-eleven woman, but we knew he was going to do something wrong, and then it was going to be too bad for him. She held everybody to the same standard as my father, which was very high.” When the relationship exceeded everyone’s expectations by lasting more than a month, she decided to test fate by having her brother play basketball with Barack. “My father and I had a theory that you can really tell what somebody’s personality is like by playing basketball with him,” says Craig Robinson. “So when she asked me, I thought, Oh, no, she’s going to make me be the bad guy. Thankfully, he was fine. Confident without being cocky, selfless without being wimpy, and willing to sublimate his ego for the team. I gave her a good report.”
Soon after she met Barack, Michelle Robinson’s world fell apart. First, her father, the person whose voice she still hears in her head when it comes to determining right and wrong, died of complications of multiple sclerosis, a disease he developed when he was just 30 years old. It was a bitter blow for Robinson, who adored her father as much as he adored her. “People ask me about my kids now,” says her mother, “and I say I am very proud, but I had to stop talking about them for a long time because my husband bragged about them so much.” A few months after her father died, Robinson’s best friend from college—a Jamaican-born daughter of two doctors—died of cancer at the age of 25. Robinson was with her when she took her last breath.
The two deaths caused Michelle to reassess everything in her life, including her job. “It made me realize that I could die tomorrow. I had to ask myself, Is this how I want to spend my time? I knew I would never feel a sense of passion or joy about the law. I was on a conveyor belt. Law school had just been the next step.” It may have also made her, not rebellious, exactly, but more apt to tell the truth. “Rebellion for me is articulating my views, trying to be honest about what I see. I don’t think a lot of people in the public arena do that, because why are people so amazed when I do?”
In the career that followed, working as an assistant for Chicago mayor Richard Daley, followed by three years at Public Allies, a nonprofit that places young people from diverse backgrounds in paid apprenticeships, and finally at the University of Chicago Medical Centers and its hospital system, where she has been trying to persuade low-income South Side residents to use community-based health clinics instead of the more-expensive, less-efficient emergency room, she has been universally praised for her hard work. “She never takes a pass,” says Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and chair of the University of Chicago’s hospital board. “Even after Barack announced, she’d come to every meeting overprepared. You never would have known what was going on in her life.”
As a politician’s wife, on the other hand, she has sometimes gotten into trouble for being too candid—as when she told a newspaper reporter a few years ago that she sometimes thinks politics is a waste of time, a quote that has been picked up again and again in subsequent articles. I wondered if she regretted the remark. “No,” she answered. “I think it’s what a lot of people feel but don’t articulate. That’s why they don’t vote. They’re cynical about whether politics can make things change. So I am trying very hard to tell the truth, but I am not going to be stupid about it.”
“Michelle does not have a high tolerance for anything that is unproductive,” Valerie Jarrett says, defending the quote. “When Barack was in the Illinois State Senate, Democrats were in the minority, and it was impossible to get anything done. Seeing him in Springfield, not with her, and not getting anything done—that was frustrating. But if Barack can lead the country and get things done, that gets her blood going.” Jarrett, who was often present in the Obama household when the presidential bid was being discussed, insists that the decision to run was one Barack and Michelle made together. “I never heard him say, ‘I want to do it. Can you support me?’ ” she remembers. “Instead, they both asked themselves, Does this make sense for us?”
Back in Iowa. Obama is touring a residential facility for drug-addicted mothers in a hardscrabble Des Moines neighborhood. It’s one of those rare, gemlike places, with a director passionate about the cause, a higher-than-usual rate of success for treating addiction, and a long waiting list—that week, they were admitting a thirteen-year-old girl with a methamphetamine addiction and a six-month-old baby. As Obama questions the director about Medicaid reimbursement rates, it’s clear that although she’s not the candidate, she knows the problems facing America’s medical system firsthand. Afterward, she and an entourage of a dozen, including a local camera crew, knock on a resident’s door to get a look at a typical room. A small, towheaded boy in long shorts and a sleeveless shirt opens the door, takes one look at Obama, yells “Eek!,” and runs to hide in a closet.
“That’s how I feel,” she says.
Keeping life normal while her husband runs for president of the United States has been a challenge. “Being public figures was not something we planned for. This is an oddity,” she says. “You just have to say, This is interesting. Being able to travel and connect with people, it’s been very positive and a real blessing.” To keep things as normal as possible, Michelle’s mother will soon be retiring from her job as a secretary at a bank—in order to help watch the Obama daughters, Malia, nine, and Sasha, six. Robinson says the job is pretty easy: “Michelle is such a disciplinarian, there really isn’t much for me to do. They pick up their plates, scrape them, and put them in the dishwasher.” Obama is almost always home in time to put them to bed. She is not the kind of working mother, says Jarrett, who keeps her children up late so they are awake when she gets home. “She makes her schedule fit theirs,” she says. “In return, she expects a lot from them.”
The Obamas are the kind of parents who spend most of their free time with their children. Barack Obama travels with a Web camera on his laptop and makes a point of checking in with his children daily. “He’s always in a better mood after he speaks with the girls,” says Jarrett, who occasionally travels with the campaign. Ask Michelle Obama to name a favorite movie, and she looks pained and asks if Shrek counts. As for books, she laughs at the question. “I’m lucky to get through an article in The New Yorker!” (When she did have time, Toni Morrison was her favorite author.) As bad as the time crunch is now, it was worse when the children were smaller. Both the senator and his wife have been frank about their marital troubles during those years, when the bulk of child rearing fell on her shoulders, even as she tried to maintain her demanding career. “If a toilet overflows,” she likes to say in one of her standard “stumps,” “we women are the ones rescheduling our meetings to be there when the plumber arrives.” At the interview that landed her the University of Chicago job, she actually brought her baby with her, an incident that is charming in the retelling but must have been extremely stressful at the time.
Every year, Michelle Obama considers quitting her job and staying home full-time to take care of her children. “It was a gift having my mother home every day. I want my kids to feel that way,” she says. But having experienced the pleasures of work outside the home, she is reluctant to give up her independence. “Work is rewarding,” she says. “I love losing myself in a set of problems that have nothing to do with my husband and children. Once you’ve tasted that, it’s hard to walk away.”
Then, too, there is that little-discussed fact that staying home with children can be—how else to put it?—less than intellectually stimulating. “The days I stay home with my kids without going out, I start to get ill,” she says. “My head starts to ache.” When she mentioned it to her mother, Marian Robinson told her daughter she didn’t think Michelle could handle the boredom of staying home with kids. Obama was surprised to hear that taking care of her had been boring, but now she embraces the idea of discussing it openly. “I like to talk about it,” she says, “because I think every couple struggles with these issues. People don’t tell you how much kids change things. I think a lot of people give up on themselves. They get broken, but if we can talk about it, we can help each other.”
Instead of quitting her job or divorcing her husband, Obama decided to make peace with the situation. “I spent a lot of time expecting my husband to fix things, but then I came to realize that he was there in the ways he could be. If he wasn’t there, it didn’t mean he wasn’t a good father or didn’t care. I saw it could be my mom or a great baby-sitter who helped. Once I was OK with that, my marriage got better.”
You mean, it takes a village?
“Oh, no,” she laughs. “Don’t say that!”
“The Natural” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the September 2007 issue of Vogue.
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