Election 2008

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Campaign Profiles: Michelle Obama

July 31, 2008
by Liz Colville
Called “The Closer” by her husband, Michelle Obama is an outspoken, forthright mother of two who has spent years working in the health sector, but put her career on hold to take up the role of campaigner and potential First Lady.

Her Background

Michelle Robinson grew up on the South Side of Chicago, a hard-working student who went on to Princeton and Harvard Law. When she’s not on the campaign trail, Mrs. Obama works full-time at the University of Chicago Medical Center and is a mother of two girls, aged 7 and 10.
Her father’s death from complications of multiple sclerosis and the death of her best friend at age 25 prompted the future Mrs. Obama to shift careers. Her attitude became “I could die tomorrow,” and she quit practicing corporate law; instead, she began working closer to the people as an assistant to the mayor of Chicago, for a nonprofit organization, as associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago, and finally as a community affairs executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center. In a July 26 article in Britain’s Telegraph, she describes the transition from law: “I had to ask myself, is this how I want to spend my time? I knew I would never feel a sense of passion or joy about the law. I was on a conveyor belt. Law school had just been the next step.”
Speaking to the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Council in June of this year, Mrs. Obama noted that she was drawn to her husband twenty years ago by his work as a community organizer in Chicago, meeting dozens of people Obama worked with in a church basement and hearing him discuss “the world as it should be” versus “the world as it is.” She hesitated to date Obama for some time, and was only sold by the idea after hearing him “eloquently” speak to a group of people facing a myriad of difficulties in their lives.

Her Campaign

Mrs. Obama has become a constant on the campaign trail, participating in interviews, making stump speeches, and otherwise spreading the Obama message around the country. In an interview with Katie Couric in February of this year, Mrs. Obama broaches the subject of “over-the-top” campaigning, noting that she and her husband have had to differentiate between the “emotion” side of campaigning and the “change” that the Obama camp is promising. “You pull people in with inspiration, but then you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and you have to make sacrifices and have to have structure.”
Mrs. Obama has proven in recent months that she is not content to be the “national hostess who serenely presides over the White House Christmas festivities,” as Maureen Dowd sardonically described the First Lady role. But she intends to add a little rebellion, a term she has used to describe her candid approach at the podium and in the face of the press. Some have called this anger; others have called it unfriendly. The media treatment of Senator Clinton, which has included similar remarks, “is a good preview,” Dowd wrote in a recent New York Times column, “for how Republicans will attack Michelle.” But others have suggested that this is Mrs. Obama’s “moment in the sun”—and a lot could go right and wrong.

Michelle Obama vs. Cindy McCain

The contrast between Senator McCain and Senator Obama is as starkly presented in their wives as it is in the candidates themselves, and some argue that the women could be a greater deciding factor than ever before. In the blog The Moderate Voice, editor-in-chief Joe Gandelman writes, “When every factor is being exploited and used in what is likely to be a—kindly excuse the word—bitter election, the spouses can indeed play a role in winning over or turning off some voters. This could count among swing voters and in vital swing states.” Gandelman reports on a June ABC News/Washington Post poll showing Mrs. Obama favored by voters, in spite of recent criticism of her outspoken comments in the media. The poll also found that Mrs. McCain was “less defined” in voters’ minds. This could have a lot of consequences. Both camps might try to define Mrs. McCain in their own ways, and Mrs. Obama might find herself increasingly scrutinized. Most likely, both will. “Expect the political wives’ names to come up—and expect them to have some highly quotable comments as election day drawers closer.”

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