Michelle Obama’s eyes flicker tentatively even as she offers a trained smile. As her campaign plane arcs over the Flathead Range in Montana, she is asked to consider her complicated public image.
Conservative columnists accuse her of being unpatriotic and say she simmers with undigested racial anger. A blogger who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clintoncirculates unfounded claims that Mrs. Obama gave an accusatory speech in her church about the sins of “whitey.” Mrs. Obama shakes her head.
“You are amazed sometimes at how deep the lies can be,” she says in an interview. Referring to a character in a 1970s sitcom, she adds: “I mean, ‘whitey’? That’s something that George Jefferson would say. Anyone who says that doesn’t know me. They don’t know the life I’ve lived. They don’t know anything about me.”
Now her husband’s presidential campaign is giving her image a subtle makeover, with a new speech in the works to emphasize her humble roots and a tough new chief of staff. On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama will do a guest turn on “The View,” the daytime talk show on ABC, with an eye toward softening her reputation.
Her problems seemed hard to imagine last fall and winter. Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, appeared so at ease with the tactile business of campaigning and drew praise for humanizing, often with humor, a husband who could seem elusive.
Then came some rhetorical stumbles. In Madison, Wis., in February, she told voters that hope was sweeping America, adding, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” Cable news programs replayed those 15 words in an endless loop of outrage.
Barack Obamaoften blurs identity lines; much of his candidacy has seemed almost post-racial. Mrs. Obama’s identity is less mutable. She is a descendant of slaves and a product of Chicago’s historically black South Side. She burns hot where he banks cool, and that too can make her an inviting proxy for attack.
Fox News called her “Obama’s baby mama,” a derogatory term for an unwed mother. Christopher Hitchens, a Slate columnist, claimed — with scant evidence — that her college thesisproved she was once influenced by black separatism. National Review presented her as a scowling “Mrs. Grievance.”
The caricatures of Mrs. Obama as the Angry Black Woman confound her, friends say. Her own family crosses racial boundaries — her mother-in-law and a sister-in-law are white — and she has spent much of her adult life trying to address racial resentment.
Video: Michelle Obama gets makeover? In her freshman year at Princeton, a white roommate’s mother agitated for her daughter to swap rooms. Mrs. Obama was among a handful of blacks at a prestigious Chicago law firm. As a hospital executive, she navigated the often tense line between a predominantly white-run institution and a suspicious black community.
But the 44-year-old woman known even to friends as The Taskmaster sometimes speaks with a passion unusual for a potential first lady. She tells voters that “Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual — uninvolved, uninformed.”
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She says she intends to evoke a John F. Kennedy-like idealism and highlight her own journey, but in her commanding cadences, some people — and not just conservatives — hear a lecture.
Before her husband announced his candidacy, Mrs. Obama confided in friends: Barack and I will cut an unfamiliar figure to most of America.
“It’s such uncharted waters,” said Verna Williams, a Harvard classmate and friend. “In a sound-bite era, where you have to come with a quick and dirty take, she doesn’t fit what it means to be an African-American woman.”
Early questions on race
Michelle Robinson grew up in the black half of a divided Chicago. She and her brother, Craig, lived with their parents on the second floor of a bungalow. “Two bedrooms, if you want to be generous,” she says.
Her father, Frasier Robinson, was a pump operator for Chicago’s water department and a precinct captain in the Democratic machine. Her mother, Marian, brought workbooks home to keep her children ahead of their classes. The working-class neighborhood was filled with uncles and grandparents, block associations and oak trees. “We knew the gang-bangers — my brother played basketball in the park,” Mrs. Obama says. “Home never feels dangerous.”
In 1981, she left for Princeton, an overwhelmingly white institution that cherished its genteel traditions. She was one of 94 black freshmen in a class of over 1,100. Catherine Donnelly, a white student from New Orleans, was a roommate. Her mother spent months pleading with Princeton officials to give her daughter a white roommate instead. “Mom just blew a gasket when I described Michelle,” Ms. Donnelly recalled. “It was my secret shame.”
Mrs. Obama shrugs now. Some classmates resented blacks; some resented affirmative action. “Diversity can’t be taken care of with 10 kids,” she says. “There is an isolation that comes with that.”
Her brother, two years older, was a star basketball player at Princeton, but he felt similarly. “If you’re young and black and from the South Side, there are always going to be people who feel you should not be there,” Craig Robinson said. “You build up a thick skin.”
Black and white students rarely socialized. When Crystal Nix Hines became the first black editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, some black students wondered why she wanted to run a “white” newspaper. Mrs. Obama, however, was thrilled that a historic barrier had fallen.
That did not stop her, however, from confronting Ms. Hines, a friend, over an article that contained what Mrs. Obama took to be inappropriate characterizations of a black politician. “ ‘You need to make sure that a story like that doesn’t run again,’ ” Ms. Hines recalls her friend saying with utter calm.
Sociology became her lens to examine her anxieties about race. Mrs. Obama spent hours in the office of Professor Marvin Bressler. “She was troubled by the questions that troubled every student in that situation,” he said. “They all walk around saying, ‘Who am I?’ ”
In her senior thesis, she asked: Does immersion in an elite white institution draw blacks away from their community? She surveyed black Princeton alumni, finding their ties weakened after graduation.
“The path I have chosen to follow by attending Princeton,” Mrs. Obama wrote in the introduction, “will likely lead to my further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society, never becoming a full participant.”
Mitchell Duneier, a sociology professor at Princeton who reviews undergraduate theses, noted that Mrs. Obama rejected some of her own theories. “Her senior thesis is being misread as if it is a polemical essay about her alienation,” Professor Duneier said.
Epiphany leads to home
Michelle Obama recalls gazing out the window of her plush 47th-floor office in downtown Chicago and realizing that she could barely see, literally or metaphorically, her beloved South Side.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, Mrs. Obama took a job at what is now Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm. She had a handsome salary and the prospect of better to come.
Then a close friend from college died. So did her father, who had long suffered from multiple sclerosis; Michelle so adored him that she would curl up in his lap even as an adult.
“I looked out at my neighborhood and sort of had an epiphany that I had to bring my skills to bear in the place that made me,” she says in the interview. “I wanted to have a career motivated by passion and not just money.”
Eventually, she started the Chicago chapter of a training program called Public Allies. One day, looking for young leaders, she might knock on doors at Cabrini-Green, a public housing project so violent and neglected it would later be mostly demolished. Another day, she discovered Jose A. Rico, a young Mexican so alienated that he insisted on remaining an illegal immigrant rather than pursue citizenship. What is your goal? he recalled her asking.
To open a high school for Latinos, he replied. Mrs. Obama nodded: Good, tell me exactly how you would do it.
“Michelle was tough, man; she let nothing slide,” said Mr. Rico, now principal of Multicultural Arts High School in Chicago, which he helped start.
She preached the gospel of the second and third chance, insisting that the white youth from Swarthmore work alongside the former gang member.
Every Friday, the young people would sprawl around Mrs. Obama’s office, swapping frustrations. When a white college student complained that Mr. Rico took forever to write a simple memorandum, Mr. Rico recalls responding, Who are you to speak, when you babble in pidgin Spanish and act arrogant?
Blacks accused whites of being clueless. Whites said blacks masked insecurity with anger. Mrs. Obama probed carefully, sometimes dialing up the heat before turning it down.
“I hate diversity workshops,” she says. “Real change comes from having enough comfort to be really honest and say something very uncomfortable.”
Mr. Rico is intrigued to see her on television now. “Her style is still to say: ‘Hey! I’m going to tell you where I stand, and you figure out where you stand,’ ” he said.
By 2001, Mrs. Obama, married for nine years and the mother of two daughters, had taken a job as vice president of community affairs at the University of ChicagoMedical Center. She soon discovered just how acrimonious those affairs were.
Hospital brass had gathered to break ground for a children’s wing when African-American protesters broke in with bullhorns, drowning out the proceedings with demands that the hospital award more contracts to minority firms.
The executives froze. Mrs. Obama strolled over and offered to meet later, if only the protestors would pipe down. She revised the contracting system, sending so much business to firms owned by women and other minorities that the hospital won awards.
In the mostly black neighborhoods around the hospital, Mrs. Obama became the voice of a historically white institution. Behind closed doors, she tried to assuage their frustrations about a place that could seem forbidding.
Like many urban hospitals, the medical center’s emergency room becomes clogged with people who need primary care. So Mrs. Obama trained counselors, mostly local blacks, to hand out referrals to health clinics lest black patients felt they were being shooed away.
She also altered the hospital’s research agenda. When the human papillomavirus vaccine, which can prevent cervical cancer, became available, researchers proposed approaching local school principals about enlisting black teenage girls as research subjects.
Mrs. Obama stopped that. The prospect of white doctors performing a trial with black teenage girls summoned the specter of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the mid-20th century, when white doctors let hundreds of black men go untreated to study the disease.
“She’ll talk about the elephant in the room,” said Susan Sher, her boss at the hospital, where Mrs. Obama is on leave from her more-than-$300,000-a-year job.
New role, new script
Rather than pulling Mrs. Obama behind a curtain, her husband’s campaign is pushing her farther out on stage. She remains a charismatic presence, and when she gives her husband a fist dap or talks of him as a father, she is telling voters, this is a regular guy. This South Side woman anchors him in her reality.
In coming weeks, Mrs. Obama will visit the spouses of military personnel and talk of the patriotic duty to provide these families with care and services. And the campaign has hired Stephanie Cutter, a veteran strategist, as her chief of staff, who will seek to deflect attacks.
Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, a close ally of the Obama campaign, says Mrs. Obama must stop sounding like a lawyer trying to win an argument. The trick, she said, is “not pushing so hard to persuade people that Barack is the right one.”
“All she has to do is be likable,” Mrs. McCaskill said.
Mrs. Obama has already had to check her brutally honest approach to talking about race. Now she co-stars in a campaign that would as soon mute most discussion of race.
As her plane descends into a northern Montana valley, she sounds like a woman who wishes she could sit voters down for a long talk. “You know, if someone sat in a room with me for five minutes after hearing these rumors, they’d go ‘huh?’ ” she says. “They’d realize it doesn’t make sense.”
She extends her long arms, her voice plaintive. “I will walk anyone through my life,” she says. “Come on, let’s go.”
This story, After Attacks, Michelle Obama Looks for a New Introduction , originally appeared in The New York Times.
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times