Michelle Obama and the Roots of Reinvention

How the First Lady learned to dream big.

By Geraldine Brooks
Photograph: Photo by: Matthew Rolston

Soon after her son-in-law’s campaign began, Robinson left her job as a secretary to help look after the Obama girls, Malia, now 10, and Sasha, 7. The day we talked, she was due to pick them up from day camp. Nowadays, she explained, "Michelle causes a lot of confusion wherever she goes. Me, I can take the kids without calling attention." Were the girls worried, I asked, about the possible move to Washington? "They’re not focused on going to Washington. What they’re focused on is getting a dog," which, Robinson says, is their promised compensation if the family ends up moving.

Later, I ask Obama about a poignant quote in The Audacity of Hope: Malia, then 6 years old, told her father that she wanted "a simple life." Her face softens. "Yeah," she says. "That’ll make you cry. Malia was wise at 6, and she’s only gotten wiser." She is keenly aware that Malia’s current life, with TV crews at her birthday party, is far from simple. Especially when Dad’s around.

When you ask Michelle Obama what she would do as first lady, it’s her habit to deflect the question by saying that the size of her role will depend on how well her girls handle the transition. Asked which first lady might be a model, she replies that she finds something admirable in all of them. It sounds like a learned response, not something the blunter, franker Obama would have said a year earlier. When she sees my skeptical expression, she quickly adds that the very experience of being out there and being judged has made her see how hard a job it is, whether for Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. "There’s no clear definition of the right way to do it, and everybody has an opinion about when you’re doing it wrong."

Coping with Obstacles

Kati Marton, who studied the last 12 first ladies for her book Hidden Power, says Michelle Obama could make history in the White House. Yes, Hillary Clinton was a professional woman of achievement who landed in a traditional role. But Obama is a "dramatic departure," Marton says: someone with urban, working-class roots who "not only survived but thrived as a black woman at Princeton — still something of a white WASP bastion in the 1980s.’‘ Obama has "an unbelievable opportunity to seize the day and make use of the world’s grandest stage," Marton adds, and she couldn’t have done better than to take Jackie Kennedy as her style icon. "By choosing that classical, chic, but not boldly adventuresome style, Michelle Obama allays fears that — let’s face it — the notion of an African-American first lady stirs in the hearts of many."

Assuming her daughters make a seamless transition to White House life, Obama says, she would focus on "work-family balance." It’s another answer with too-perfect political pitch. How far would an Obama administration go in opposing corporate lobbies that have kept employee gains to a minimum on issues like family leave and pay equity? The campaign’s "policy people’‘ are working on the specifics, she says; her job is to raise the issue’s profile, and she has her own struggle as reference point.

"What I found myself — and most of my friends — doing," Michelle says, "is, we just cope. We’re taught that as women: Just handle it. Just adjust. We accommodate things that aren’t healthy instead of turning around and going, ‘This has got to change.’"

Right out of Harvard Law, Michelle Robinson took a job working on intellectual property issues for the bluechip Chicago firm Sidley & Austin. "That was what you were supposed to do after going to a good law school: Go to a big firm and make money. When you’re a kid like me who paid for her education on loans, the idea of making more money than both your parents combined ever made is one you don’t walk away from. Two years in, I was doing fine, enjoying it, but I wasn’t bounding out of bed in the morning."

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