MARCH 26, 2008
It is impossible not to be at least a little awed by Michelle Obama. It's not just the height (5'11"), the style (among Vanity Fair's best-dressed on the planet), and the air of supreme confidence (the woman sports sleeveless tops at major photo ops). There is also her up-by-the-bootstraps backstory as a South Side of Chicago girl gone double Ivy (Princeton and Harvard Law, thank you very much), followed by her years spent juggling a successful legal career while raising two daughters. And, of course, there is her famously un-Stepford stump style—the sarcasm, the candor, the compulsion to ignore the cardinal rule of political wifedom by portraying her husband as something less than God-made-flesh—that thrills even as it unnerves, prompting eyebrow-arching and hand-wringing over how sassy is too sassy. Even Barack jokes—a bit self-consciously, at times—that Michelle is tougher, smarter, and "a little meaner" than he is.
A charmed (or intimidated) press has embraced this Tough Broad narrative, proclaiming Michelle "strong-willed," "gutsy," "regal," "steely," "direct," "forthright," "unscripted," "mordant," "outspoken," "cool in temperament," and "military" in bearing. It's "clear that nobody tells her what to say," notes USA Today. The Wall Street Journal recently recounted Michelle's dressing-down of a TV cameraman who dared "place [his] hand" on her press secretary, while the March 10 New Yorker tells how Michelle once confronted a mob questioning Barack's "loyalty to the community" at a Chicago campaign event during his Senate run: "She came out the back door, and there were a bunch of hoodlum thugs ready to do a full-blast demonstration," recalled former Black Panther associate Ron Carter. "She put on her street sense and asked all the guys, 'Y'all got a problem or something?' They all froze, guys who would slap the mayor, who would slap Jesse Jackson in the face, even." Barack Obama may be auditioning to be the most powerful man in the world, but Michelle is the one with the force-to-bereckoned-with reputation.
Such distinction carries clear risks. Throughout the campaign, tongues have now and again clucked over whether Michelle is perhaps too edgy. Last April, op-ed queen Maureen Dowd set the political class atwitter by scolding Michelle for infantilizing and "emasculating" Barack with her exasperated-wife shtick about how stinky and snore-y and sloppy he can be. Afterward, there was a noticeable decline in Michelle's Barack-directed zingers. No matter: As the spotlight intensifies, whenever Michelle stumbles (say, by remarking that her husband's candidacy has made her proud of America for the first time in her adult life), the political establishment resumes its whispered debate over whether she is becoming "a problem." Brickbats like "ball-breaker" and "henpecked" are bandied about, and, in the distance, you can hear the low grinding sound of conservatives sharpening their claws.
And yet: While much of Michelle's resume screams Successful Superwoman, she hardly strikes me as the stuff of which revolutions are made. She was raised with deeply traditional notions about family life that are reflected in her own home today. If anything, tensions within the Obamas' marriage seem to have centered around Barack's lack of investment in fashioning a domestic tableau reminiscent of a "Leave it to Beaver" retro fantasy, where everyone gathers around the table for dinner each night and Mom and Dad are always on the scene for bedtime. And, despite her overachieving Type-A urges and obvious talents, Michelle has typically been the one to adjust her personal ambitions to accommodate the needs of her clan. She has long served, to use Barack's word, as the family's "rock," providing the emotional, practical, and even financial stability to enable her high-flying husband to go out and conquer the world. Michelle Obama may be tougher, tarter, and more accomplished than most occupants of the East Wing, but she isn't a mold-shattering new breed of First Lady, or even the fierce symbol of feminism that was Hillary Rodham Clinton circa 1992. She is, rather, a hybrid model: a fresh, modern exterior wrapped around a fundamentally traditional core—which, for the purposes of her husband's campaign, seems to me the best of all possibilities.
SMART, COMPETITIVE, ORGANIZED and ambitious, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson had all the early markings of a classic striver. Raised on Chicago's South Side by parents of modest means but high expectations, she worked her butt off to get into first the local magnet school, then Princeton, then Harvard Law. At every step, Michelle tells us, she confronted folks who told her she wasn't smart enough or didn't have high enough test scores to reach her goal—especially when compared to her older brother, Craig, a top student and basketball star for whom everything in life came just a little bit easier. Michelle worked that much harder to prove the doubters wrong, and, after conquering academia, she landed at the blue-chip corporate firm of Sidley Austin. There she met Barack Obama, when, in 1989, she was assigned to mentor the dashing summer associate. It took a while for her to succumb to his charms. (She initially rejected his affections, insisting it would be "tacky" for the firm's only two black employees to hook up.) But, once she fell for him, the romance proceeded like any modern fairy tale: First came love, then came marriage, and by 2003 Michelle Obama found herself pushing two baby carriages, working as a community outreach coordinator for the University of Chicago, and sitting on a handful of corporate and non-profit boards. She was, in other words, completely overwhelmed. Factor in a loving but ambitious husband increasingly away from home, and it is little wonder that Michelle recalls her days as a working mom as a struggle to keep both career and family afloat, while perpetually convinced she was failing on all fronts.
In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Michelle observed: "What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first. ... And, for women, me is fourth, and that's not healthy." This is not a radical observation: Get a half-dozen gals together with a few bottles of Beaujolais, and a similar theme will eventually emerge. (Trust me on this.) Looked at one way, Michelle was issuing a pointed call for female selfempowerment; but, looked at another, she was offering a poignant commentary on how things have long run chez Obama. For all the talk about this being a partnership of equals, the domestic roles Michelle and Barack have assumed are, in many ways, strikingly stereotypical. He is the dreamer, the visionary, the inspirational leader. She is the workhorse, the general manager, the hyperorganized multitasker who makes the trains run on time. Their friends talk about the compromises the couple has made, but the examples commonly cited hardly make the exchange seem equitable. Michelle didn't especially want Barack to run for state Senate, much less U.S. Senate, and certainly not president. At every step, he talked her into it. (No question, the man is quite the talker.) Michelle, in turn, found herself endlessly rearranging and reducing her own work schedule to ensure that their daughters weren't getting lost in the shuffle.
This disparity did not go unnoticed in the Obama household. There is an oft-cited passage near the end of The Audacity of Hope in which Barack admits that, after the arrival of their second daughter, Sasha, "my wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained. 'You only think about yourself,' she would tell me. 'I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone.'" This uncomfortable situation ground on under mounting layers of stress and resentment until, Michelle reveals, she came to terms with the reality that Barack had no intention of assuming a greater share of the domestic burden. As she told Vanity Fair last year, "One day I woke up and said, 'I can't live my life mad. This is not fun.' I thought the help I needed had to come from Barack. It wasn't that he didn't care, but he wasn't there. So I enlisted moms and baby sitters and got help with the housecleaning, and I built that community myself." Again, on one level, this is a tale of personal growth that would make Oprah proud: Michelle took stock of her needs and found a way to address them herself, without relying on a man. On the other hand, there is something more than a little traditional about Michelle's sense of what responsibilities rest squarely on the shoulders of the Mommy.
As for Barack's sacrifices, the only significant one we hear about is Michelle's refusal to uproot the girls and move with him to Washington after his Senate win. Beyond that, we are left to consider the adjustments Barack has been asked to make around the edges of everyday life. For instance, Michelle stresses that, when Barack is home, she expects him to contribute to running the house—washing clothes, taking out the trash, making the bed. It's important for their daughters to see him doing that, she told Vanity Fair: "I wasn't content with saying, 'You're doing important things in the world, so go off and be important and I'll handle everything else here'—because the truth is, if I did that, I'd probably still be angry." But, since even a garden- variety senator is only home a few days a week (and in hot demand even then), having Barack fluff and fold the occasional load of underwear is, in practice, largely symbolic. Running a household is a full-time job, and someone who only occasionally drops in on the effort can bring as much disruption as relief. So much for struggling together to achieve a work-life balance.
NOW, MICHELLE HAS LEFT her job for the duration of the campaign—and, with a little luck, for the next four or even eight years. One can only imagine her ambivalence about this decision. Months after she cut her work schedule last May, Michelle's boss at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Susan Scher, told Vanity Fair, "Her involvement in her work life has been so serious that it's not easy to just say, 'Never mind.'" But, when asked directly if it was hard setting aside her career, Michelle has repeatedly demurred. She has allowed that it feels a little weird to be unemployed after a lifetime of striving but declines to elaborate much beyond that. Rather, she points to the unique opportunity Barack has to Make a Difference. Besides, she insists she isn't defined by her work but by her role as a mother—and so putting her own ambition on hold won't spur an existential crisis.
As for her on-the-trail patter, Michelle is far from a feminist bomb-thrower, instead relying heavily on conventional, even old-fashioned, material. She gigs Barack for being too much of a guy: messy, thoughtless, and only marginally competent when it comes to life maintenance. More than once, Michelle has laughed about how she assigns Barack easy-to-manage projects, like procuring balloons for their daughter's birthday party, rather than anything more involved, like picking out goodie bags—"You'd walk in there and wander around the aisles for an hour, and then your head would explode." It's a folksy, humanizing shtick guaranteed to have women nodding en masse in amused agreement precisely because it is such well-trod territory. Women have long bonded over the knowledge that their men, though masters of the universe, are a disaster on the home front. It is a semi-comic routine as old as marriage itself: Sure, my husband can slaughter a mammoth with his bare hands, but can he put his club away? Can he pick his loin cloth up off the floor? And God forbid I ask him to supervise the kids' birthday down at the tar pits. No one would make it home alive. The fact that Michelle tells such tales on her hubby may be a departure for political wives. Yet, for wives in general, it is anything but new.
In this way, Michelle is comforting and likeable because she is deeply familiar. On the campaign trail, women are always gushing to reporters about how normal Michelle seems and how they feel they can relate to her. She may be black. She may be an overeducated lawyer. She may top six feet in her Jimmy Choos. But, when she talks smack about her husband's hygiene, she sounds like any old housewife gabbing to her girlfriends about what a hopeless mess her man is. It's a clever approach, winning Michelle props for being outspoken and un-Stepford, even as she avoids alienating more traditional voters by keeping her focus on the family.
Assuming she can maintain this balance, Michelle has a good shot at skirting the political sinkhole into which Hillary Clinton tumbled all those years ago, when the change Hillary stood for became a long-term liability for her husband. To be fair, that was a different time. But Hillary put herself out there as a dramatic rejection of all who had come before—campaigning as a potential co- president while her husband promised "two for the price of one." She had no intention of getting personal or providing a humanizing peek at the First Family (except maybe Socks) or talking about the everyday challenges she and Bill had tackled as working parents. She seemed to scorn such warm-and-fuzzy nonsense and, by extension, those for whom such triviality was of interest.
Michelle, by contrast, is happy to talk—laugh, even—about her domestic travails. This automatically makes her seem less alien and more sympathetic. It also allows her to stake out a middle ground—modern enough to talk about her marital stresses and maternal anxieties, traditional enough to suffer them in the first place—in a cultural battle that still too often divides women. For my part, I just want to buy the broad a drink and salute her for surviving the madness thus far. Let Barack handle bedtime duty for the night.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issues of the magazine.