New First Lady steps back into the shadows

Michelle Obama was an accident waiting to happen – until she became one of the key factors behind her husband's victory. Just don't expect her to stay in the limelight

David Usborne,Illinois
Thursday 06 November 2008 01:00

Cast your eyes along North Jefferson Street in Chicago and you will spot Sepia, a restaurant in a converted printer's building that purrs understated sophistication. It happens also to be the favourite eatery in town of the future first lady, but it would never tell you so. That would be altogether too crude.

Mrs Obama, 44, who likes to lunch here with friends and never leaves without a little dessert, hardly comes from a family of privilege. She was raised in a blue-collar neighbourhood of Chicago's South Side and her father worked for the city's public water department. She has not forgotten her roots, but it is her modern urbanity that will be most noticed when she arrives at the White House.

Hers is a style learnt from undergraduate years spent on a scholarship at Princeton, the Ivy League university, and a soaring legal career, both in a Chicago law firm and then in the Mayor's office before moving to her most recent post as vice-president of the University of Chicago hospitals.

That she is a woman of her own accomplishments is by now well-known. (Indeed, book royalties aside, Michelle has been the main income provider to the Obama household.) But her introduction to the American public over the past several months has not always gone smoothly.

If Mrs Obama ever underestimated the perils of political exposure, she surely did not after the brouhaha she stirred in February when, reflecting on the success of her husband in the Super Tuesday primary contests, she told an audience in Washington, that, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country". Republicans pounced on the remark as somehow unpatriotic.

For a few weeks thereafter, Ms Obama took a more backseat role in the campaign as advisers fretted that if America had doubts about electing its first African American president, it was also anxious about a first lady who was also black but also perhaps a bit too clever. Racism and sexism might have been conspiring against all efforts to make the country love her.

But later in the campaign, she seemed to find her stride. She was caught on camera delivering a so-called "fist bump" to her husband as he prepared to give a key speech after securing the nomination, a fleeting moment that underline the youth and hipness of wife and husband. And she began to surface on popular daytime shows, notably showing off her dancing moves with Ellen DeGeneres.

She was widely praised for her confident and often touching speech introducing her husband to delegates at the Democratic convention in Denver. "What struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, and even though he'd grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine," she said. "He was raised by grandparents who were working-class folks like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did."

Once in the White House, Mrs Obama will surely be a force as informal adviser to her husband just as she has been during the 21-month campaign. Standing in Grant Park here late on Tuesday, he saluted "my best friend for the last 16 years, the rock of our family, the love of my life". He has said that his wife is not just a source of strength but also a gentle critic who keeps him grounded, chiding him for the more mundane things in life, such as not putting his dirty socks in the laundry.

Exit polls on Tuesday suggested that she is now well positioned to excel in the White House. A healthy 60 per cent of all voters agreed that Michelle Obama will make a "good" first lady. If she does not mean to stay in the shadows, the public this time may be ready for it.

It was her improving standing that encouraged campaign advisers to send Mrs Obama out on the campaign trail on her own. While Cindy McCain mostly stayed by her husband's side during the battle for the White House, Mrs Obama regularly drew crowds on her own that numbered well in the thousands.

"I think her biggest asset will be her charisma," Carl Anthony, chief historian at the National First Ladies Museum, said last night. "It is partly her training as an attorney that allows her to light up a room."

If America must adjust to seeing her in the White House so must members of her own family. Among those expressing happy astonishment yesterday was her brother, Craig Robinson, a basketball coach at the University of Oregon who spoke also at the convention. He admitted yesterday that he would never have imagined her being first lady. "Astronaut perhaps," he said.

Michelle has indicated her interest also in contributing directly to community service programmes and improving the quality of support to military veterans. "When you are raised in a home ... [in which] you have love and security and you have people who are sacrificing for you ... you have an obligation to give back," Mrs Obama said in a recent interview, reflecting on the simplicity of her childhood. "That's why community service has been such a big part of my life."

There has been no suggestion of Mrs Obama taking on a more formal role in the Obama administration, the way that Hillary Clinton led her husband's healthcare reform effort. And Mrs Obama has been clear that her top priority in the White House will be as "Mom-in-Chief".

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