COVER STORY:MICHELLE OBAMA, five feet 11 inches tall, bends to reach the little hands stretched towards her. “What are you so excited about?” she asks.
“You!” shout 300 school children seated on cushions on the marble floor of the Library of Congress.
“Thank you,” Obama says. “We’re also excited about reading . . . The president reads so much. He knows all the facts.”
The president has proclaimed the 107th birthday of the children’s author Theodor Geisel – Dr Seuss – to be Read Across America Day.
Wearing a bright orange skirt and pink and white print top, Obama is a radiant flower flanked by men in dark suits. She beams as she surveys the sea of upturned faces, trying to give each child a special smile, a personal wave of the hand.
As she reads, “I do not like green eggs and ham,” Obama wrinkles her brow, wags a finger, feigns exasperation. The children giggle, fill in the blank words. When she rises to go, they flock to her. She stoops to their height, opens her arms in a wide embrace.
Obama is playing her favourite role: mom-in-chief. A glance at her schedule over a recent week makes clear her priorities: a tele-conference to promote the “Healthier US School Challenge” and her “Let’s Move!” campaign; two speeches marking International Women’s Day; participation in a White House conference on bullying in schools; and hosting a hockey game on the South Lawn. With vice-president Biden’s wife Jill, she’s also working to improve conditions for military families.
This first lady is a far cry from the gun-toting Black Panther caricatured in a New Yorkercover, from the “Mrs Grievance” and “angry black woman” pilloried by conservative commentators during the campaign.
Michelle Obama has defied those expectations to become the most popular figure in American public life. In a poll published this month by Quinnipiac University, she received an average “warmth rating” of 60.1 degrees on a scale of zero to 100. President Obama ranked fourth in the same poll, at 56.5 degrees. Sarah Palin, the siren of the right-wing Tea Party, scored 38.2 degrees. There must have been some satisfaction in that for Michelle Obama, after Palin mocked her campaign for school nutrition as the “nanny state” run amok. However, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, prominent Republicans with weight problems, have praised Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative.
Some observers wondered whether Michelle Obama, who as vice-president of Chicago University Medical Center earned more money than her then senator husband, could adapt to life in the White House. But the president’s aides needn’t have worried about her reputation for frankness. Obama’s first 13 months as first lady have been virtually flawless.
Laura Bush tended to fade into the wallpaper, while Hillary Clinton gave the impression of chafing at the subaltern post of first lady. Obama has embraced the function with a joy and enthusiam not shown by her predecessors.
Having established herself as a successful career woman, Michelle Obama had nothing to prove. She seems to relish the opportunity to be a housewife like her mother before her, and has given no indication of wanting to resume a career when her husband leaves office, in two years or in six.
“I have one of the best jobs in the world,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “Because I don’t have to fix the economy, thank goodness . . . I get to go read to kids.” Obama has made the fight against childhood obesity her cause. “I want to leave something behind that we can say, ‘Because of this time that this person spent here, this thing has changed,’” she told the New York Times. “And my hope is that’s going to be in the area of childhood obesity.” Obama became concerned about obesity when the family pediatrician said one of her daughters was becoming a borderline case. “Nearly one in three kids in this country is still overweight or obese,” she cautioned in a speech marking the first anniversary of Let’s Move! last month.
In just one year, Obama has made a difference. Food manufacturers have promised to cut 1.5 trillion calories a year from their products. Walmart says it will sell less fattening foods, and reduce prices on fresh fruits and vegetables.
She persuaded Congress to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and has signed up 2,000 professional chefs to help local schools develop healthier meals.
When Barack Obama entered politics in 1995, standing for the Illinois state senate, Michelle told him: “I married you because you’re cute and you’re smart. But this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do.” She nonetheless became his most ardent supporter.
Barack Obama has written about the stability that Michelle and their daughters bring him, even if there were sometimes tensions between family and his political career.
As a state senator, then as a US senator, the future President Obama commuted between Springfield and Chicago, Washington and Chicago. Michelle was often alone with their daughters. She asked two things of him when he decided to stand for president: that he spend at least one day a week with the girls, and that he quit smoking. It was Michelle who recently announced that Barack has been cigarette-free for almost a year.
Anxiety over her husband’s safety doubtless fed Obama’s reluctance to be a politician’s wife. When an adviser brought up the issue during the campaign, she joked, “Well, I’ve already gone out and increased our life insurance on him.” Oprah Winfrey asked Michelle what she prayed for the night before they moved into the White House. “That we stay whole as a family through this process,” she replied.
Most mornings, the Obamas see their daughters off to school together. Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, the First Granny, goes with the girls, so the security detail is less cumbersome. Michelle Obama starts work by 10.30am, then stops to do homework with Malia, 12, and Sasha, 10, around 4pm. “Then dad comes home and we all have dinner,” she told Winfrey.
“That’s the beauty of living above the office: Barack is home every day. The four of us sit down to eat as a family. We haven’t had that kind of normalcy for years. And now I can just pop over to his office, which sometimes I’ll do if I know he’s having a particularly frustrating day.” At a luncheon for journalists last month, Obama divulged one source of their happiness: “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and laughter is the best form of unity I think in a marriage.” It’s not unusual to see the first couple kiss or hold hands. While they waited for heads of state and government to arrive at a reception at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, the President playfully called called her “Flotus” (the acronym for first lady of the United States). They exchanged whispers and flirted like teenagers.
“I’m so proud of him,” Obama told Winfrey. “He has never disappointed me. First and foremost he’s my husband, my friend, and the father of my children.
“That didn’t change with his hand on the Lincoln Bible. But it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the gravity of what he’s doing. The way I can honour that is by working by his side and adding value to what he’s doing in any way that I can. That’s my part in this. I am supporting the president of the United States.”
Race is a constant, if often unspoken, factor in the Obama presidency. As the Senate majority leader Harry Reid so politically incorrectly put it, Obama won the 2008 election because he was “light-skinned” and did not speak in “Negro dialect”. Barack Obama was raised by his white mother’s family. It was Michelle who grew up in a blue collar family on the south side of Chicago, who participated fully in the African American ascension made possible by the civil-rights movement.
As Obama noted in his landmark speech in Philadelphia: “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” Husband and wife have both been the targets of racism. More than two years after he took office, Obama’s bona fides as a “real” American are still being questioned, most recently by the Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.
But the most vicious attacks have been against Michelle. When a gorilla escaped from a South Carolina zoo in 2009, a local Republican activist said: “I’m sure it’s just one of Michelle’s ancestors – probably harmless.” Later, an image of an ape’s face was superimposed over Michelle Obama’s on a photograph posted on the internet. Such outrages may explain the vulnerability, that “hint of uncertainty” which Obama wrote of seeing in his wife’s eyes.
Obama repeatedly defended his wife during the campaign. He met with executives at Fox News to insist they treat her more respectfully. When rumours circulated that Michelle had used the term “whitey” in a (non-existent) tape criticising Caucasian Americans, Obama gave an angry television interview, saying: “If they think that they’re gonna try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful . . . These folks should lay off my wife.” The highly charged political atmosphere helps explain why Michelle Obama has charted such a carefully inoffensive course as first lady.
In US history, there were two first lady traditions, says Kate Betts, the author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style. Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton personified 20th century feminism, fighting for their political beliefs in Congressional hearings. The other trend, from Dolley Madison to Jacqueline Kennedy, was to use their own elegance to influence American women, and to enhance their husbands’ careers.
“What makes Obama exceptional is that she seems so at home in both camps,” Betts writes. “The whole debate about style and substance suddenly seems passé, an anacronism of the gender wars, a false dichotomy enforced by narrow-minded men and women at war with themselves.” Obama recently described her fashion philosophy as: “Be happy with what you’re in. Feel comfortable. Feel confident.” Her example has made the cardigan jumper an acceptable substitute for tailored jackets. She has made it chic to wear off-the-rack sundresses and floral prints from Gap and J Crew.
Somewhere along the presidential campaign trail, Michelle Obama’s style shifted from pin stripey or tweed power suits to bright colours and unconventional shapes. She has fun with clothes and is obviously, as she says herself, “comfortable in my skin”. On election night, as the thrill of sending a young, handsome, African American family to the White House sank in, Obama walked on stage in Grant Park in a daring red and black “lava lamp” dress by Narciso Rodriguez. An online opinion poll by USA Todayshowed a majority of Americans didn’t like the dress, but no one forgot it.
“What Michelle wore” has become a marker for historic events. There was the pale greenish-gold lace coat and dress by the Cuban-born designer Isabel Toledo for the President’s inauguration; the one-strap, white chiffon gown by Jason Wu for the inaugural ball; Rachel Roy’s simple, ivory satin sheath at this year’s State of the Union address.
Obama favours young American designers such as Rodriguez, Toledo, Wu and Roy. When she chose a crimson gown by the British designer Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen for the state dinner for the Chinese president Hu Jintao in January, old-timers such as Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg carped that she was unpatriotic.
The first lady works out in the White House gym several times a week, jumping rope, kickboxing, running on the treadmill and lifting weights. No one complained when Jackie Kennedy wore sleeveless sheaths, or when Hillary Clinton donned shorts on summer holiday. But Michelle Obama’s muscular body conveys a power and sensuality that critics find unsettling. When Obama bared her arms during one of her husband’s speeches to Congress, political commentator David Brooks was quoted in the New York Timesas saying: “She’s made her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.”
Barack Obama is beginning to organise his re-election campaign. Michelle Obama says she’ll put off electioneering for as long as possible, but when the time comes, she’ll be ready. As a US citizen, she says: “I want that man in office, so I will do what I need to do to help make sure that people know as much about him as they can.”