WASHINGTON — Since he stepped onto the national political stage, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has been compared to a rock star, a superstar, and even an NBA all-star.
“I’m LeBron, baby,” he told Chicago Tribune reporter and biographer David Mendell, referring to LeBron James of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers.
But if the Cavaliers’ loss in this year’s NBA finals proves anything, it’s that even NBA all-stars aren’t always perfect.
And if Michelle Obama has shown voters one thing this campaign season, it’s that neither is her husband. He has big ears, she has said. A funny name, too. He doesn’t put the butter away. He has trouble making beds. He’s not the “next Messiah who’s going to fix it all. In the end, he’s just a man.”
Michelle Obama — a Princeton graduate, Harvard-educated lawyer and, until recently, vice president of the University of Chicago Medical Center — is the least famous spouse of the Democratic front-runners. Former President Bill Clinton is his wife’s biographer of her qualifications to be president and would be a roaming ambassador in a Hillary Clinton administration. Elizabeth Edwards, meanwhile, essentially serves as a second campaign manager to her husband and has made headlines by delivering punches to rivals and opponents.
But so far in this presidential race, it’s clear that Michelle Obama is playing a different kind of role in her husband's campaign. She makes no qualms about checking Obama’s ego, appearing politically hesitant, and acting as an enforcer of sorts. But one facet remains a mystery: What kind of first lady would she be?
This question is something rarely asked of the better known and understood Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards.
Despite their checkered marital history, the Clintons have publicly emerged as a true partnership on the campaign trail. At the Iowa State Fairgroundsearlier this month, he kept his arm around his wife’s shoulders, as she wrapped one arm around him.
“Who do you think will be the best president?” he asked the crowd — before answering his own question that even if she weren’t his wife he would still be campaigning for her.
“In 2008, I will celebrate my 40th year as a voter,” he said, “and in those 40 years… she is by a long stretch the best qualified non-incumbent I have ever had a chance to vote for in my entire life.” After his introduction, Hillary embraced her husband, only to then remind voters of their prevailing partnership. “We’ve traveled a lot of miles together over the last 35 years,” she told the crowd.
Elizabeth Edwards also has done the campaign drill before, and this time around has taken on a more active — and more outspoken — role as his fiercest protector and adviser. According a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Matt Bai, it was Elizabeth who told her husband not to listen to his advisers and to choose poverty as his primary focus. She also set off a national media frenzy by calling into MSNBC's "Hardball" to ask that guest Ann Coulter stop attacking her husband. And most recently, in a not-so subtle shot at Hillary Clinton, she said in an interview that her husband would be a better advocate for women than Clinton would.
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While Elizabeth Edwards takes on the role of a mother bear protecting her cub, the source of Barack Obama’s most frequent affronts — when they don’t come from his rivals — is his wife. First lady author and commentator Carl Sferrazza Anthony says that “she has been trying to kind of take [her husband] down a peg or two in public, not to so much emasculate him, but to say, ‘Hey, he’s a regular guy.’ She obviously loves him. Barbara Bush used to do that too.”
But her efforts to make Obamareal also have attracted criticism. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wondered back in April why she didn’t like this realness with Michelle and Barack.
“I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal — comic routine that rests on the presumption that we see him as a god,” she wrote. “But it may not be smart politics to mock him in a way that turns him from the glam J.F.K. into the mundane Gerald Ford, toasting his own English muffins. If all Senator Obama is peddling is the Camelot mystique, why debunk this mystique?”
Also, unlike Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama has made it clear that she’s not a strategist for her husband’s campaign.
“My job is not a senior adviser,” she has said. ”I am here as a wife.”
Her spokeswoman, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, adds that Mrs. Obama serves as her husband’s “surrogate ear. Her expertise is who he is as a person,” and she relays that to voters and brings back their concerns to the senator.
Michelle Obama has avoided offering details on what she will focus on as first lady. Her spokeswoman said that her first priority would be as a mother, wife, then “really assessing what the country needs” and “rising to the occasion.” For someone who does not hesitate to offer her opinion, Michelle will not interfere with her husband’s policies, McCormick Lelyveld said.
Sferrazza Anthony finds it interesting, however, that seeing as “they both met through the legal profession… there are going to be issues that they discuss. She has sort of said she doesn’t influence his policy. I have found it interesting the press hasn’t looked deeper into what she means by that? Perhaps that means there is legislation they disagree on.”
McCormick Lelyveld maintains that the Obamas keep politics out their home.
But inside her home, Michelle Obama has also become something of an enforcer. As her smoking husband has tried to quit the habit, per his wife’s demand, Michelle’s brother Craig Robinson joked to The New York Times in May that Obama didn’t need a nicotine patch. “Michelle Obama! That’s one hell of a patch right there!”
At a May ice cream social in New Hampshire, Michelle Obama stood on what seemed to be a figurative and literal pedestal to introduce her husband. “I’m the better looking one. I’m smarter, too,” she said.
As the crowd laughed, her husband nodded, offered a half-smile, and looked down, rocking his body as if waiting for his wife’s latest ego-knockdown to end. When she finished, there was an awkward half-hug and kiss embrace, with neither spouse seeming to know how to interact with the other.
Spokeswoman McCormick Lelyveld said that when “she teases him, there is a method to her madness.” She shows that “ he is a real person, he is reachable, he is human and he is just one man.”
In other words, he’s not LeBron James after all.
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