Michelle Obama steps into spotlight tonight

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2008 

WASHINGTON — She's graced the cover of warm-and-fuzzy family magazines, been caricatured as an angry black nationalist, dished the dirt with the women on "The View" and been labeled one of the world's best-dressed women.

So who is Michelle Obama?

The nation will get some answers Monday night when the wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama delivers a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention. It's a coming-out address designed to introduce her to a public that seems to know little about her beyond some of the controversial gaffes she's made on the campaign trail.

"It's the opportunity for Michelle to tell the story of her life," said Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago businesswoman, longtime Obama family friend and senior adviser to Obama's campaign. "It will be a very personal story that she tells. We want to give them (voters) a sense of the Obama family and how they would be in the White House."

What Michelle Obama says and how she presents herself to the conventioneers in Denver and a national television audience could affect the presidential campaign. Americans don't vote for first ladies, presidential historians and first-lady scholars say, but how a candidate's spouse or family is viewed can reinforce positive or negative feelings in voters' minds. Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, buttressed her husband's image as the youthful leader of a new generation of American politicians.

In a recent Rasmussen Reports survey, 61 percent of Americans said that their perceptions of presidential candidates' wives were at least somewhat important in how they voted. Women seem to give them more scrutiny: Seventy-one percent of the women in the survey said that spousal perception was important, compared with 48 percent of the men.

Michelle Obama, a 44-year-old lawyer, hospital executive and mother of two, will present herself as the quintessential up-by-your-bootstraps American success story. Born Michelle Robinson, she was raised in a one-bedroom apartment in a brick bungalow on Chicago's South Side.

Her mother, Marian, was a stay-at-home mom. Her father, Fraser, worked for the city water department as he battled multiple sclerosis. Both instilled a drive to succeed in their two children.

Michelle's older brother, Craig, was a star athlete who earned a scholarship to Princeton University. Today he's the head basketball coach at Oregon State University. He'll introduce his sister at the convention Monday night.

She followed him to Princeton, where she graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and a minor in African-American studies. She went on to Harvard Law School, where she earned her degree in 1988.

She joined the prestigious Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin, where in 1989 she was assigned to mentor a young summer associate whose picture she found unimpressive.

"I thought, 'OK, he's probably not all that terrific, and he's probably kind of a clown,' and then I found out that his name was Barack Obama," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004. "And like everybody else, I thought, 'Well, what kind of name is that?' "

They were married three years later.

Michelle Obama has worked for the University of Chicago since 1996. She's the vice president of community and external affairs for the university's medical center, though she's been on leave since January to help with her husband's campaign.

Recent polls show that voters like Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, almost equally, though many people also indicated that they either don't know a lot about them or don't have opinions either way.

Michelle Obama has been more visible on the campaign trail than Cindy McCain has, increasing her chances of on-the-stump mistakes and making her an inviting target for her husband's opponents.

She generated controversy in February when she said "for the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country." A Fox News Channel video scroll referred to her as Obama's "baby mama" and a commentator on the same conservative network wondered aloud whether a seemingly playful fist bump that she and her husband had exchanged was a "terrorist fist jab."

In June, the Obama campaign, on a Web site it had created to debunk rumors, said that Michelle Obama had never spoken from the pulpit of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ and used the phrase "whitey." Rumors were circulating on conservative Republican blogs and talk radio shows that she'd launched into such a diatribe at the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church and that it was captured on tape.

"She has been absolutely savaged by the talk shows. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity pull her apart almost every day," said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at New Jersey's Rider University and the author of "Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch." "They think she's unpatriotic and has a hidden agenda."

The New Yorker magazine added fuel to the fire with a July cover cartoon depicting the Obamas standing in the Oval Office with a picture of Osama bin Laden over a fireplace with an American flag burning in it. Barack Obama, in Muslim garb, is fist-bumping an angry-looking wife clad in combat fatigues, with a cartridge belt and rifle slung over her shoulder and a 1960s Angela Davis-style Afro atop her head.

The Obama campaign called the cartoon "tasteless and offensive." Jarrett said Michelle Obama shrugged off the magazine cover and other incidents as "par for the course" in the age of negative campaigning.

"She's strong and has a good sense of self," Jarrett said. "She knows who she is and where she comes from."

Politically attacking or satirizing the wives of political figures is nothing new. Foes of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry tried to paint his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as an abrasive, rich, foreign-born environmentalist-radical.

Hillary Clinton was blasted as a power-hungry spouse who wanted to be co-president when her husband occupied the Oval Office. Some people criticized Betty Ford for being too candid and outspoken about her breast cancer surgery.

Some political observers think that there's a racial element to the criticisms of Michelle Obama, who, if her husband is elected, would be the first African-American first lady in American history.

"It (first lady) is one of the ultimate symbols of grace, femininity and American womanhood. It will take some Americans a moment to have that symbolized by a black woman," said Keli Goff, a political commentator and blogger. "On top of that, with Michelle Obama, there's the stereotype about 'the angry black woman.' Some of her mannerisms will be looked at through a different magnifying glass because she is black."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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