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What Michelle Obama Would Bring to the White House

10 minute read
curtis sittenfeld

Michelle Obama is tall, smart, funny, relaxed and basically so glowy and poised — if she’s attractive in pictures, she’s flat-out gorgeous in person — that it almost seems as if she already is the First Lady.

Or at least this is the conclusion I came to after sitting down with her at Denver’s Westin Tabor Center during the Democratic National Convention. I’d been tagging after her for a couple of days, from one rapturous audience to another, including the crowd at a community-service event for soldiers, at which an Iraq-war veteran introduced her by announcing, “Ma’am, I know you weren’t in the military, but I’d follow you anywhere.” If all that hadn’t quite convinced me (it was the Democratic Convention, after all), I’d guess it took roughly the first 30 seconds of our interview for me to fall for her. It happened when I asked whether she gets bored giving the same speech over and over, and she cheerfully replied, “Yeah, absolutely.”

It had never been that I didn’t like Michelle Obama. (Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary Clinton in Missouri’s Democratic primary.) But after writing a novel about a First Lady based loosely on Laura Bush, I saw Michelle as, well, controversial. Back in June, when she made a visit to The View to talk about policy issues such as panty hose (in case you missed the episode, she’s con), the appearance was widely considered part of a charm offensive intended to rehabilitate an image damaged by, among other things, the now infamous remark she’d made during a speech a few months before: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” I also knew that some people found Michelle to be variously “mean,” “uppity” and “radical” — not me, mind you, but people. Plus, this very magazine had asked on its cover in June, “Will Michelle Obama Hurt Barack in November?”

To be sure, there are Americans who will never vote for Barack Obama — and by extension are unlikely to be fans of his wife — because he’s black. There are also those who’ll never vote for him because he’s a Democrat. But are there people who would vote for him but who have been put off by Michelle?

Perhaps, but I’ve encountered more people who, if anything, seem more infatuated by Michelle than by her husband — including the white woman I know who bought her first-ever issue of Ebony magazine because Michelle was on the cover, and the cameraman I met in Denver who finagled a fist bump with Michelle and then proclaimed that he would never wash his hands again. He assured me he was usually jaded in these kinds of situations, but Michelle was the second coming of Jackie O.!

During our interview, I asked Michelle what accounts for the discrepancy between the admiration she inspires among such voters and the kind of blogosphere and talk-radio slurs that prompted the New Yorker, even if in jest, to run its notorious cover cartoon of her standing with her husband in the Oval Office, sporting an Afro and an AK-47. “I’ve realized that there are two conversations that go on,” she said. “There’s one at the punditry level — the polls, the writers, the folks in the know, they have one set of conversations — and then there’s what’s happening on the ground. Early on, I learned to base my reactions on what I see on the ground, because that to me is a more accurate reflection — even, as it turned out, in the primary. If you read the papers, you wouldn’t have predicted the outcome of Iowa. But if you were in Iowa, you could feel the clear possibility of what the outcome would be.”

My own theory is that the media, bolstered by conservative wishful thinking, got bored with the early Michelle Obama narrative — that she was a successful professional with a blue-collar background, degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and a penchant for making wifely jabs about her husband’s morning breath — and switched to the Michelle-as-liability narrative to keep things entertaining. Certainly it seems that Michelle has paid as steep a political price for her national-pride remark, which some of us were not actually offended by, as Cindy McCain has for any of her own shortcomings.

The delicate dance that Michelle is required to perform calls to mind the axiom that blacks must be twice as good as whites to get half as far. A few Democrats — and feminists — expressed disappointment at her convention speech, with its subtext of, Ignore my race and my Ivy League education and look how warm and maternal and unthreatening I am. But others, including, presumably, Michelle herself, recognized this soft approach as a necessity.

The most poignant comment I heard her make during the days I followed her was one she shared with a group of five female newspaper columnists. As a professional black woman who grew up in a stable family and now has a stable family of her own, she told the columnists, “Sometimes I do feel as if people don’t believe I exist. I’m probably the first person of my kind the nation has seen out there.” Or, as Whoopi Goldberg put it during Michelle’s June appearance on The View, “I have to say I’m really glad to see you because … any time you see black folks on the news, particularly women, they have no teeth, and the teeth that they have have gold around them, and they can’t put a sentence together.”

(See photos of the Obamas on the campaign trail)

When we talked, I wondered whether it really should be Michelle’s responsibility to refute such biases. Michelle replied that she’s used to it. “That has been my experience my whole life,” she said. “That’s why education is so important. That’s why giving all kids a chance to go away to college is important. We grow up in our communities and our neighborhoods and our families, and we know what we know. It’s no fault. It’s no blame. But when people have a chance to interact and have conversations — you don’t even have to live under the same roof. There are many people who went to college with me who got to see me and know me, and whether [or not] they knew me personally, they took away the experience. That’s the nature of life when you’re in the minority in most situations … I feel like that’s a role that I should play.”

The fact that she has played it for so long helps to explain the apparent ease with which she has handled the intensity of the campaign. “When you’re a person like me, who steps outside the normal boundaries of what their life is supposed to be like — say, going to Princeton — you’re worried that maybe you’re not prepared, because everybody has told you you probably won’t be, and then you get there and you’re like, I’m prepared.” She laughed. “I think many of us are more prepared for certain situations than we imagine.”

If the past 20 months have had their rough patches, what’s surprising at this point is how unguarded Michelle still seems: the most endearing and entertaining parts of her public appearances are ad-libbed, whether she’s bragging to a Denver audience that she’s wearing sensible shoes (the member of her staff in particularly high heels that day was “going to be sorry in the end,” Michelle joked) or referring to Barack, as she did at the convention’s black caucus, as “this guy that I know, this man that I married,” before mischievously adding, “his cute self.” Anyone who doubts her off-the-cuff charm should Google the clip in which she’s giving an outdoor speech and her dress flies up in the wind. Deftly catching it, she tells the audience, “I don’t mean to flash you guys … I’m not going to be on YouTube.”

And this is Michelle Obama’s greatest gift: her ability to relate to regular people, and vice versa. Even though she’s taller and fitter and better educated than most of us, she is completely and totally believable as a person who lives in the same world we do, who consumes the same pop culture (Us Weekly, anyone?) and shops at the same stores (Target, Gap) and struggles with most if not all of the same personal and professional juggling acts.

Few political spouses in recent memory, and even fewer First Ladies, have seemed this familiar. Take, for example, Laura Bush. I’m a fan of our current First Lady, in large part because she comes across as a truly kind, decent person. Her combination of obvious intellectual curiosity, compassion and total discretion intrigues me — so much so that I decided that the next best thing to knowing what someone like her thinks and feels would be imagining it. But if Laura inspires my affection and sympathy, I don’t exactly relate to her, or I relate only to certain elements of her story — her love of reading, her past as a Democrat — that stand out all the more because the rest of her life seems so foreign. She is of an older generation and has made choices, like quitting her job after getting married but before having children, that are the choices of another time. Michelle Obama, by contrast, had a higher income than her husband for part of their marriage.

And contrary to her claims, Michelle is not the first person of her kind I’ve seen; she’s actually recognizable as a very particular type, though it took me until after the convention to figure out what that type is. I suspect this person will be familiar to anyone who has, in the past 25 years, been a young, college-educated woman in her first real job: you’re, say, 22 and somewhat clueless, and you go to work in an office where there’s a woman eight or 10 or 12 years older than you who’s not only visibly good at her job but also confident and friendly and well-dressed and busy with a life that features a cute husband and a nice house and maybe even a couple of kids. And you think maybe, if everything goes right, your own life could turn out like hers.

Sittenfeld is the author of Prep and American Wife (Random House)

(See photos of the Obamas on the campaign trail.)

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