May 11th, 2007, 02:45 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: Cave Creek
Can't say 'potential first ladies' anymore...
Michelle Obama Campaigns Her Way
By Judy Keen
(May 11) - Spend a few minutes with Michelle Obama and it quickly becomes clear that nobody tells her what to say.
Obama watches election returns with his family, Nov 2004.
Her husband, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama , is a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, but in an interview with USA TODAY, she admits she hasn't thought much about what she'd do as first lady. "I survive this stuff by not getting too far ahead," she says.
Most presidential candidates and their spouses are wary of blunt talk because they fear saying something that might alienate voters or blow up into a damaging news story.
Not Michelle Obama, who says campaign advisers haven't handed her any scripts. That's apparent when she explains that she doesn't want to be "so tied to all that he (Barack) is that I don't have anything for me." It's also evident as she describes the "tension and stress" in their relationship a few years ago when he was focused on his political career and she was home alone with their two kids.
Her charismatic spouse draws huge crowds, has raised as much money as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and could become the first African-American president. Barack Obama's less famous wife, though, warns that his superstar glow will fade as voters learn more about him.
She tells USA TODAY she wants them to know that he's not the "next messiah, who's going to fix it all." She's just as direct with her audience here: "He is going to stumble -- make mistakes and say things you don't agree with."
When she's asked what happens when her husband wants her input on policy issues, her reply isn't surprising: "Do you think I would ever hold my tongue?"
Obama, 43, says she has overcome the qualms she once had about her husband's political career and presidential ambitions. She says she's comfortable being his emissary, collecting the concerns and hopes of the voters she meets and sharing them with him. A vice president of the University of Chicago Hospitals, she now works part time and limits her campaigning to day trips so she can make breakfast for their daughters - Malia, 8, and Sasha, 5 - and be home in time to tuck them in at night.
She used to have a cynical view of politics, she says, because politicians she admired - but won't identify - were "afraid of taking a stand because they don't want to lose their seat or their position."
"I never had doubt about what Barack could offer, and that's what kind of spiraled me out of my own doubt," she says. "I don't want to be the person that holds back a potential answer" to the nation's challenges. She had to overcome concerns that her husband could get "chewed up" by the whole "messy business" of politics, she says.
Obama is learning that being the spouse of a presidential candidate can put her at risk of getting chewed up a bit herself.
Her speeches this week in New Hampshire include references to Sen. Obama's "strange name" and his big ears. She doesn't repeat anecdotes from previous speeches about his inability to make beds or put the butter away after making toast - comments that prompted New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to write last month that some voters find such teasing "emasculating."
Michelle Obama dismisses such criticism.
"If you're 23 and reading Maureen Dowd's article, you could be crushed. If you're 43, it's sort of like OK, well, she obviously doesn't know who I am, and she doesn't understand," she says. "I get way more affirmation, right? I was in a roomful of hugs today."
Even so, Obama's professional life has resulted in other sorts of scrutiny from the Chicago media, particularly about her finances.
Soon after her husband joined the Senate in 2005, Michelle Obama - who a month earlier had been promoted to her current job - was named to the board of TreeHouse Foods. Wal-Mart is among the company's largest customers. Sen. Obama had been critical of the retail giant's labor practices. Michelle Obama received $51,200 for her board activities in 2006, according to the Obamas' tax return.
The couple's 2006 income was $991,296, including her TreeHouse compensation, investments and royalties from his books. Sen. Obama earned $157,082 in Senate salary last year and his wife earned $273,618 from the University of Chicago Hospitals, his campaign said last month.
She told the Chicago Tribune in April that she's not using her husband's influence "to build my career."
Michelle Obama has a résumé packed with accomplishments. But her campaign appearances are not meant to signal that Obama & Obama offer voters "two for the price of one," which is what Bill Clinton told voters they would get in 1992 if he and Hillary Rodham Clinton moved into the White House.
Instead, Michelle Obama's casual, no-notes talks focus on the commitment to perseverance and hard work she learned from her late father - who worked for the Chicago water department even after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis - and her mother, who has worked at a bank since raising her two kids.
Obama says her husband shares those values and is "confident without being cocky" and "the real deal." She doesn't talk about race or the prospect that she and her husband would be the first African-American first lady and president.
Obama's openness doesn't extend to discussions about what sort of first lady she would be, what policies she might want to influence or whether she would work outside the White House. "I'm really thinking one foot in front of the other," she says. "What do we have to do today? This week?"
However, she adds that she doesn't envision herself advising her husband directly. Instead, she says, "as individual professionals -- you talk about your fears, you talk about your challenges, and you get feedback, and then you go off and make decisions based on what you think is best."
Barbara Pressly, 69, a former state senator from Nashua, isn't interested in another "husband and wife team" in the White House.
"I don't expect the president's spouse to have a specific job," she says in Windham, where Michelle Obama spoke. "A spouse grows into a spot, and there shouldn't be any requirement or expectation that she has a policy role."
Maria McNaught, 58, of Merrimack, disagrees. "Most first ladies have sort of faded into the woodwork," she says after listening to Obama in Windham. "She won't."
Paul Amato came to the Old Town Hall here to listen to Obama talk about her husband's presidential campaign. Afterward, he was asked what he liked best about her.
He doesn't mention her degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School, her high-powered job, her sales pitch for her husband or her homily about the values she learned from her parents. Instead, Amato, 54, who owns a candle factory in Milford, says he admired her comment that "she's going to be home for dinner" with her girls.
Obama's emphasis on being a working mom meshes with her goal of connecting with voters, particularly women who might be inclined to make Sen. Clinton the first female president. That message "certainly will resonate with some women," Gutin says. "I've always maintained that we take some measure of the candidate by looking at his or her spouse."
If that's the case, part of Obama's job is to tamp down the heightened expectations that some voters have invested in her husband since he burst onto the national political stage with a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
"It's important at this time for people to feel like they own this process and that they don't turn it over to the next messiah, who's going to fix it all, you know?" she says. "And then we're surprised when people turn out not to be who we've envisioned them to be.
"There is a specialness to him," she says, but "if he's doing his job, he's going to say things that you don't agree with."
She refuses to buy into the expectations of some supporters that her husband could unite the country and recreate the "Camelot" of John F. Kennedy's presidency. "Camelot to me doesn't work," she says. "It was a fairy tale that turned out not to be completely true because no one can live up to that. And I don't want to live like that."
Michelle Robinson grew up on Chicago's South Side in a small apartment behind windows and doors reinforced with iron bars. Frasier and Marian Robinson expected their son Craig and his sister, who is 16 months younger, to think for themselves and to excel, and both children were competitive in school and sports.
Michelle's friend Valerie Jarrett, an executive at a Chicago housing company, says Michelle's childhood instilled in her the idea that family comes first. "She grew up in a family where her father and mother were both ever-present in their lives, not just emotionally but physically," she says.
One of the reasons Michelle hesitated when Barack Obama decided to run for president, Jarrett says, was that she knew it would affect her children.
"You have to ask yourself, are you prepared to make that sacrifice? -- After really thinking it through, she decided she was."
Craig Robinson, now the head basketball coach at Brown University, says his sister "really does hate to lose, and that's why she's been so successful."
After graduating from law school, she came home to Chicago to work at a corporate law firm. She was an associate when she was assigned to mentor Barack Obama, a summer associate.
"I found him to be charming and funny and self-deprecating, and he was very serious but he didn't take himself too seriously," she tells her audience in Windham. They married in 1992.
The Obamas didn't always agree on his political career. She told the Chicago Sun-Times three years ago that she sometimes felt "politics is a waste of time."
In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he wrote that during his failed congressional campaign in 2000, she told him, "You only think about yourself. -- I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone."
Michelle Obama tells USA TODAY that "there was a lot of tension and stress." She overcame it, she says, when she realized "that I needed to focus on what kept myself sane instead of looking to Barack to give me the answers and to help fulfill me. -- I need support. It doesn't always have to come from him, and I don't need to be angry because he can't give me the support."
Now, she says, her mom and her friends also provide that support.
Obama and her husband have acknowledged concerns about their personal security. Last week, the Secret Service began protecting him and their home - the earliest for any presidential candidate. The reasons for the move have not been disclosed. "It's a good thing and something that we are appreciative of," she says.
"She's wonderful - so comfortable," says Bette Bramante, 56, a music store owner from Durham. "I love to hear her talking about what they want to do for the country."
"The power of the State looks real different when you're on the other side of the bayonet." Chris Hayes
May 11th, 2007, 02:49 PM
Join Date: May 2002
Bill Clinton was made to be first man