Michelle Obama wowed them on fundraising trip to Miami

Michelle Obama at Miami's Jungle Island during her fundraising tour last week.
Michelle Obama at Miami's Jungle Island during her fundraising tour last week. Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

MIAMI — Michelle Obama glides into an empty Jungle Island banquet room looking fresh in a signature, white sheath dress that exposes toned arms and showcases that long, graceful neck.

If her style earns her comparisons to Jackie O, she won't complain.

''Especially after meeting Caroline, who is a grounded young woman, I'm like, if I'm compared to the woman who produced her, I'll take it,'' Obama says.

After a couple of media interviews, she'll do a private meet-and-greet with some of the bigger donors at this fundraiser, which is geared toward women. Then she'll address a larger crowd, paying $100 to $5,000 not only to support the presidential campaign of her husband of 15 years, but also to get within gawking distance of her.

After all, Michelle Obama is an ascending superstar. She's already been way YouTubed, already has survived the pratfalls of speaking too candidly, already has other women copying her look.

And already knows how to stay on message: ''My hope is to be able to bring in the voices of what's happening on the ground with women and families,'' she says in her poised, deliberate way. She's speaking not just of her work these days but also of what she hopes to accomplish if she becomes first lady.

The Harvard law grad who grew up working class in the South Side of Chicago has been outspoken enough to provoke scrutiny and inspire headlines about whether she's helping or hurting her husband's chances. She still hasn't lived down that February day in Wisconsin when she said, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.''

But mostly, Obama is smooth, smart, striking. And by some accounts, focused now on showcasing her softer side after some critics dismissed her as an ''angry black woman'' and Barack's ''bitter half.'' Never mind this month's satirical New Yorker cover that portrayed her husband as a terrorist and her as a black militant in camo.

''It's just like my mother said. Not everybody is going to like you. If I spend my time focusing on the few negative things out there, I couldn't get out of bed in the morning,'' says Obama, 44, who cuts a commanding figure at ''5-11 in my stockings.'' She met her husband when he was hired as a summer intern at the Chicago law firm where she worked and mentored him in the beginning.

Even after a taste of media bashing, Obama says she's not stressed.

"You know, there are just not that many controversial things that come out of my mouth. I have lived my life not really focusing on what might not work. I focus on the possibility. I think if I can play any role in helping to get somebody like Barack Obama to become the next president, all right. So somebody talks about me. So there are worse things.''

There is no question that Michelle Obama is the candidate's wife capturing the country's imagination. After her appearance on ABC's The View in June, the $148 black-and-white leaf print dress she had sported became a hot commodity at White House/Black Market boutiques.

Maybe the campaign would have her stumping for Barack seven days a week. But the Obamas don't play with the rule they made for their family when they began their White House bid.

Dad may have to be away from daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, a lot, but Mom, a primed professional with an impressive career in corporate law and public service, stays put as much as possible.

''I get up in the morning and get the girls ready to take them to camp. I do a day wherever and usually get back before they go to bed,'' says Obama, who insists you call her Michelle.

This morning, before she headed to Florida, one of the campaign's biggest battle grounds, she had to fix the girls' hair for ''crazy-hair day'' at camp.

Once in a while she'll do an overnight trip, like this one, which involved another fundraiser after the Jungle Island event — at the Miami Beach home of F.J. and Abigail Pollak, where guests, most of them former Hillary Clinton supporters, paid upwards of $5,000 each.

''I'll sleep over, but I'll be back before they get home tomorrow, so that way it feels like Mom just went to work,'' says Obama, who during an 18-minute conversation steers clear of politics and policy and focuses on family issues.

''I would love to use any platform that I have to bring more attention to the challenges families face just balancing it all,'' she says.

It's a struggle she understands, as she and her husband strive to raise grounded children while media exposure grows and the Secret Service invades their lives. But how much harder would it be to give the kids a semblance of normality if they wind up in the White House?

''For us the basic focus of a 7- and 10-year-old remains key. . . . They are at every birthday party. We make sure we are at every parent-teacher conference. We don't miss pot lucks,'' Obama says.

So far the girls have been cool, even about the Secret Service.

"I worried about that at first. I explained this is for people who are high profile. These folks help keep us safe. This is how it will work, and this is how it will affect your life. With my kids, and probably with most kids, if you're honest about what to expect, and what happens fits their expectations, they trust what you are telling them.''

But is she ever afraid for her husband and her family?

"I don't live in fear. It's not useful.''

In October, Nancy Gilbert, a Boca Raton businesswoman whose husband Mark is on Barack's national finance committee, observed Michelle in action during four back-to-back fundraising events in London while making time to smooth out some homework drama back home.

''She sold me hook, line and sinker when I watched her having an interaction with her children,'' says Gilbert, who runs a tour company in Israel.

Obama's cellphone lost its signal in the middle of a call to the kids in Chicago, who were being cared for by her mother. Gilbert handed over her phone.

'It was something about finishing your homework or only getting to do something after you've finished your homework. She was in this hallway between events and resolved the issue for her kids and then went back to what she was doing seamlessly. As a working mom I could really relate. I had many times when I would say, 'One moment, please.' ''

Janet Reno, attorney general under Bill Clinton, met Obama for the first time at Jungle Island.

''I thought she was sharp, bright, extremely personable. Her emphasis on family struck me as extremely important,'' says Reno, who had supported Hillary Clinton and is ''waiting to see'' how the campaign unfolds before she decides to back Barack actively.

University of Miami President Donna Shalala, Clinton's secretary of Health and Human Services, met Obama later in the evening at the Pollaks' party.

''It was my impression that it wasn't like somebody handed her a bunch of talking points. She spoke from the heart. You could tell she's highly intelligent and sophisticated but has a common touch. I was very impressed,'' says Shalala, who also supported Hillary.

Crystal Connor-Lane, a lawyer with the South Florida firm Becker & Poliakoff, has met Obama a couple of times.

''She talked about health care, family values, being a mother,'' Connor-Lane says after the Jungle Island event. "She was right on point. She is so comfortable in her own skin. Being a black woman myself, there is a fine line you have to walk sometimes. If you're intelligent, and you speak your mind, then you're angry. It's an awful place to be, but she's just the right person to overcome it. She is obviously a role model to me and to black women across the country.''

But Obama prefers to focus on the possibility that she and her husband could be role models to all sorts of people if they make it to the White House.

''I think it's going to be important for under-represented minorities all over this country,'' says Obama, whose father was a city worker. "I didn't grow up with money. I didn't grow up with access. I also know stuff doesn't come out of the blue. My dad had a job, and he had a job all his life. And he could always pay his bills. My mom could stay at home. We went to neighborhood schools, and they weren't phenomenal. But they were decent. . . . And it made a difference.''

Her husband had a similarly challenging upbringing.

''Part of our message is that we're not miraculous,'' she says. "We had access to good resources. Not even perfect resources, but more than what we've got now. And if we can roll back just a little bit to get there. . . . ''

Some people are threatened by the idea that Michelle Obama would be an opinionated first lady who would spend too much time advising her husband and not enough time throwing tea parties.

''I do firmly believe that the person who is elected to office is the person who is accountable to the people. He is going to be the one answering the phone at 3 a.m., not me. I'm going to be asleep,'' she says. "If the call is coming in about my girls, I'll be there.''

Shalala derides the notion that a president's spouse shouldn't offer her opinions.

''That's silliness. We might as well go back to when we didn't educate women,'' Shalala says. "For those of us who served in the cabinet, it is helpful to have a candidate who is married to a strong woman because that means they are comfortable with strong women. I think John McCain is comfortable with strong women, too.''

Even if Obama is conscious of presenting her softer side these days, you still get grit. Sure, there are the naysayers, but:

''Look at where Barack Obama is,'' she says. "He is the presumptive Democratic nominee. A year and a half ago, nobody would have predicted that this could happen in this country.

"The overwhelming reality that has gotten us to this point and will help get us hopefully as a nation to a new point is the reality that America is full of decent people who are really tired of division and back-biting. Folks are struggling. And that struggle far outweighs their fears and their skepticism. And there will always be people who are not ready. But look at where we are.''

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