More than most presidential candidates, Barack Obama has a complicated and rather exotic personal back story. On Monday, the task of telling Barack Obama’s story will fall to his wife—and Michelle Obama can be expected to rise to the occasion, though the moment will not be without dramatic tension.
Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to an 18-year-old white woman from Kansas and a twentysomething exchange student from Africa who abandoned the family two years later. He was raised partly in Indonesia by his peripatetic mother, who briefly remarried, and partly by his maternal Midwestern grandparents, who lived in Honolulu. The far-flung nature of his origins—his seeming distance from Middle America—is why some opponents have tried to float the canard that Obama lacks “American roots” or is even secretly Muslim.
Michelle, the keynote speaker on Monday, must introduce her husband to America. In events like these, it is the political wife’s job to give voice to her pure adoration for her stellar husband—to take the podium and enumerate the reasons she loves her man and why we should love him, too, or at least vote for him. She is our moral guide to the candidate, our vouchsafe for his character. This might seem to be a tall order for Michelle Obama, who does not exactly come off as the adoring type. Instead, she has famously tended to express her affection for her husband through a boundless capacity to deflate him, with jokes about his morning breath and his habit of forgetting to put away the butter after he makes breakfast. “He’s a gifted man, but in the end, he’s just a man,” is one of her well-known utterances.
One imagines convention organizers waiting with bated breath, hoping against hope that Michelle, with her comic and theatrical sensibilities at the microphone, won’t suddenly decide to go off on one of her riffs about how when the toilet overflows, it’s never the man who stays home to wait for the plumber.
Organizers needn’t worry. During the course of the campaign, Michelle has become quite good at exactly what needs to be done on this occasion. “Who is Barack Obama, the man, the father?” she asked a crowd in New Hampshire during the primaries. “What is his character? What are his values?” Rather than deflating her husband—or, rather, in the course of deflating him—Michelle emphasizes the regular-guy aspect of Obama. He is hardly an exotic specimen, she will say; he’s just a typical overworked family man who likes to go out to dinner and come home to spend time with his daughters, Sasha and Malia, both of whom make the bed better than he does.
“He was raised in his grandmother’s home, and his grandmother is from Kansas, eating tuna with pickles in it,” she once told an interviewer, stressing the prosaic nature of his origins. Michelle will probably also use a few other strategies to describe who Barack Obama is.
First, she will probably talk about how she initially heard about Obama in the summer of 1989, when she was working as an associate at the Chicago law firm now known as Sidley Austin. Michelle, who, like her husband, went to Harvard Law School, graduated in 1988 and had been working at the firm for about a year when she was assigned to mentor Obama, who had just completed his first year at Harvard. First-year law students weren’t usually hired by Sidley, and Michelle, hearing a lot of buzz about this summer associate, felt annoyed and resolved to dislike him. As she would put it later, she figured people were just impressed by a black man who could talk straight, and Obama himself sounded like an unlikely character. A black guy, raised in Hawaii? She figured he would be “nerdy, strange, off-putting.”
But then Obama began to court her. After some resistance, his mentor succumbed to his charms and consented to go on a date with him. Their early excursions included a meeting he was leading in a church basement. There, she says, he took off his coat and tie and began to talk to a roomful of poor Chicagoans he had met during his stint as a community organizer. He wowed her with his speech, just as he would later wow America with his keynote at the 2004 convention.
“I knew he was special and that he connected with the people,” she told a crowd during his U.S. Senate race. “That is how I fell in love with him.”
By telling of her own emotional journey, from feeling skeptical about his résumé and upbringing to falling in love with his eloquence and moral values, Michelle becomes the traditional proxy for the audience. She acknowledges that it’s OK if your first impulse is to find Obama’s background puzzling or even to dismiss him—because she did once, too. The idea is that you, too, will soon perceive the many ways he is wonderful; you, too, will fall for him, just as she did. She is here to walk us through the process. It’s a clever, nuanced expression of wifely adoration.
The other person we are likely to hear Michelle talk about is her late father, Fraser Robinson. Because it is not only Michelle’s job to explain Barack Obama: She also must explain herself, now more than ever, given that she has become a celebrity in her own right and controversial in many quarters. Surveys regularly show that Michelle gets much more media coverage than Cindy McCain, and both her negatives and her positives tend to be higher. She is a more high-profile and more polarizing potential first lady.
There are many reasons for this. Her “deflating” comments about her husband can come off as either endearing or a little mean. Her statement in February that this is the first time she has been proud of her country drew criticism and attack videos. She has also said there is an “inconvenience factor” to the presidential campaign and that this is the only chance Americans will have to vote for Obama. Rightly or wrongly, some of her statements have contributed to the image of hauteur. But she has also been unfairly targeted by opponents determined to paint her as a black militant, a kind of Angela Davis in a designer sundress—a charge that is absurd.
To counter this, she works hard to assure middle-class audiences that she and Obama are just like them: the parents of small children who were until recently beset by debt, including a mortgage and student loans. “Deep down inside, I’m still that little girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago,” she habitually says, talking about her dad, who for most of his adult life worked as a “stationary fireman” at a Chicago water treatment plant, tending boilers, despite being afflicted with multiple sclerosis. She may—as she often does—wax nostalgic about how it used to be possible for a working man to support his family and for a mom to stay home.
Often, she uses the example of her dad when addressing the topic of family life, expressing her view that things used to be easier for parents, that family life has gotten harder, more complicated and stressful, with two parents often required to support a household.
This nostalgia is a tricky part of her presentation. Michelle did grow up on the South Side of Chicago, in a middle-class neighborhood that during her girlhood was transformed by white flight. Chicago was a city of enormous racial tensions in the 1960s and ‘70s. Some things may be worse than they were then, but many things are better—a fact she does not talk a lot about, which is how she has gotten a reputation for being more bleak than her husband. Her purpose, however, is not to engage in a long discussion about 1970s America vs. the present. It is to invoke her father as representative of hardworking Middle America, a Middle America for whom things are tough just now.
She may be best known for her zingers, but in the end, what Michelle Obama does best is reassure Americans that she and Barack Obama are just like everybody else. That they, too, as Langston Hughes put it, sing America and are America.