The woman behind Obama
As his career soars toward a presidential bid, wife Michelle keeps his feet on the ground
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.''
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.
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.
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.''
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.''
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.''
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.''
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 fiancι,' 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.
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.''
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.
"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.
Contributing: Art Golab, Eric Herman, Annie Sweeney, Steve Patterson