Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is the wife of the 44th and incumbent President of the United States, Barack Obama, and is the first African-American First Lady of the United States. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Obama attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School before returning to Chicago and to work at the law firm Sidley Austin, where she met her future husband. Subsequently, she worked as part of the staff of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and for the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, she helped campaign for her husband’s presidential bid and delivered a keynote address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She is the mother of two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and is the sister of Craig Robinson, men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University. As the wife of a Senator, and later the First Lady, she has become a fashion icon and role model for women, and an advocate for poverty awareness, nutrition and healthy eating.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois, to Fraser Robinson III, a city water plant employee and Democratic precinct captain, and Marian (née Shields), a secretary at Spiegel’s catalog store. Her mother was a full-time homemaker until Michelle entered high school. The Robinson and Shields families can trace their roots to pre-Civil War African Americans in the American South. Specifically, she is descended from the Gullah people of South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. Her paternal great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, was an American slave in the state of South Carolina, where some of her paternal family still reside. Her maternal great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, also a slave, became pregnant by a white man. His name and the nature of their union have been lost. She gave birth to Michelle’s biracial maternal great-great grandfather, Dolphus T. Shields.
Michelle grew up in a two-story house on Euclid Street in Chicago’s South Shore community area. Her parents rented a small apartment on the house’s second floor from her great-aunt, who lived downstairs. She was raised in what she describes as a “conventional” home, with “the mother at home, the father works, you have dinner around the table”. The family entertained together by playing games such as Monopoly and by reading. They attended services at nearby South Shore Methodist Church. The Robinsons used to vacation in a rustic cabin in White Cloud, Michigan. She and her brother, Craig (who is 21 months older), skipped the second grade. By sixth grade, Michelle joined a gifted class at Bryn Mawr Elementary School (later renamed Bouchet Academy).
She attended Whitney Young High School, Chicago’s first magnet high school, where she was a classmate of Jesse Jackson‘s daughter Santita. The round trip commute from the Robinsons’ South Side home to the Near West Side, where the school was located, took three hours. She was on the honor roll for four years, took advanced placement classes, a member of the National Honor Society and served as student council treasurer. Michelle graduated in 1981 as the salutatorian of her class.
Michelle was inspired to follow her brother to Princeton University; Craig graduated in 1983. At Princeton, she challenged the teaching methodology for French because she felt that it should be more conversational. As part of her requirements for graduation, she wrote a thesis entitled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” “I remember being shocked,” she says, “by college students who drove BMWs. I didn’t even know parents who drove BMWs.” While at Princeton, she got involved with the Third World Center (now known as the Carl A. Fields Center), an academic and cultural group that supported minority students, running their day care center which also included after school tutoring. Robinson majored in sociology and minored in African American studies and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985. She earned her Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard Law School in 1988. At Harvard she participated in demonstrations advocating the hiring of professors who were members of minorities and worked for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, assisting low-income tenants with housing cases. She is the third First Lady with a postgraduate degree, after her two immediate predecessors, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush. In July 2008, Obama accepted the invitation to become an honorary member of the 100-year-old black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, which had no active undergraduate chapter at Princeton when she attended.
She met Barack Obama when they were among the few African Americans at their law firm, Sidley Austin (she has sometimes said only two, although others have pointed out there were others in different departments), and she was assigned to mentor him as a summer associate. Their relationship started with a business lunch and then a community organization meeting where he first impressed her. The couple’s first date was to the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing. They married in October 1992, and have two daughters, Malia Ann (born 1998) and Natasha (known as Sasha, born 2001). After his election to the U.S. Senate, the Obama family continued to live on Chicago’s South Side, choosing to remain there rather than moving to Washington, D.C. Throughout her husband’s 2008 campaign for President of the United States, she made a “commitment to be away overnight only once a week — to campaign only two days a week and be home by the end of the second day” for their two children.
She once requested that her then-fiancé meet her prospective boss, Valerie Jarrett, when considering her first career move. Now, Jarrett is one of her husband’s closest advisors. The marital relationship has had its ebbs and flows; the combination of an evolving family life and beginning political career led to many arguments about balancing work and family. Barack Obama wrote in his second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, that “Tired and stressed, we had little time for conversation, much less romance”. However, despite their family obligations and careers, they continue to attempt to schedule date nights.
The Obamas’ daughters attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a private school. As a member of the school’s board, Michelle fought to maintain diversity in the school when other board members connected with the University of Chicago tried to reserve more slots for children of the university faculty. This resulted in a plan to expand the school. Malia and Sasha now attend Sidwell Friends School in Washington, after also considering Georgetown Day School. Michelle stated in an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that they do not intend to have any more children. The Obamas have received advice from past first ladies Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton about raising children in the White House. Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mother, has moved into the White House to assist with child care.
Following law school, she was an associate at the Chicago office of the law firm Sidley Austin, where she first met her future husband. At the firm, she worked on marketing and intellectual property. She continues to hold her law license, but as she no longer needs it for her work, it has been on a voluntary inactive status since 1993.
In 1991, she held public sector positions in the Chicago city government as an Assistant to the Mayor, and as Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Development. In 1993, she became Executive Director for the Chicago office of Public Allies, a non-profit organization encouraging young people to work on social issues in nonprofit groups and government agencies. She worked there nearly four years and set fundraising records for the organization that still stood 12 years after she left.
In 1996, she served as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, where she developed the University’s Community Service Center. In 2002, she began working for the University of Chicago Hospitals, first as executive director for community affairs and, beginning May 2005, as Vice President for Community and External Affairs. She continued to hold the University of Chicago Hospitals position during the primary campaign, but cut back to part time in order to spend time with her daughters as well as work for her husband’s election; she subsequently took a leave of absence from her job. According to the couple’s 2006 income tax return, her salary was $273,618 from the University of Chicago Hospitals, while her husband had a salary of $157,082 from the United States Senate. The Obamas’ total income, however, was $991,296, which included $51,200 she earned as a member of the board of directors of TreeHouse Foods, and investments and royalties from his books.
She served as a salaried board member of TreeHouse Foods, Inc. (NYSE: THS), a major Wal-Mart supplier with whom she cut ties immediately after her husband made comments critical of Wal-Mart at an AFL-CIO forum in Trenton, New Jersey, on May 14, 2007. She serves on the board of directors of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
2008 Presidential election
Although Obama has campaigned on her husband’s behalf since early in his political career by handshaking and fund-raising, she did not relish the activity at first. When she campaigned during her husband’s 2000 run for United States House of Representatives, her boss at the University of Chicago asked if there was any single thing about campaigning that she enjoyed; after some thought, she replied that visiting so many living rooms had given her some new decorating ideas.
At first, Obama had reservations about her husband’s presidential campaign, due to fears about a possible negative effect on their daughters. She says that she negotiated an agreement in which her husband was to give up smoking in exchange for her support of his decision to run. About her role in her husband’s presidential campaign she has said: “My job is not a senior adviser.” During the campaign, she has discussed race and education by using motherhood as a framework.
In May 2007, three months after her husband declared his presidential candidacy, she reduced her professional responsibilities by 80 percent to support his presidential campaign. Early in the campaign, she had limited involvement in which she traveled to political events only two days a week and traveled overnight only if their daughters could come along; by early February 2008 her participation had increased significantly, attending thirty-three events in eight days. She made several campaign appearances with Oprah Winfrey. She wrote her own stump speeches for her husband’s presidential campaign and generally spoke without notes.
Throughout the campaign, the media often labeled her as an “angry black woman,” and some Web sites attempted to propagate this image, prompting her to respond: “Barack and I have been in the public eye for many years now, and we’ve developed a thick skin along the way. When you’re out campaigning, there will always be criticism. I just take it in stride, and at the end of the day, I know that it comes with the territory.” By the time of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in August, media outlets observed that her presence on the campaign trail had grown softer than at the start of the race, focusing on soliciting concerns and empathizing with the audience rather than throwing down challenges to them, and giving interviews to shows like The View and publications like Ladies’ Home Journal rather than appearing on news programs. The change was even reflected in her fashion choices, wearing more informal clothes in place of her previous designer pieces. The View appearance was partly intended to help soften her public image, and it was widely-covered in the press.
The presidential campaign was her first exposure to the national political scene; even before the field of Democratic candidates was narrowed to two, she was considered the least famous of the candidates’ spouses. Early in the campaign, she told anecdotes about the Obama family life; however, as the press began to emphasize her sarcasm, she toned it down. New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd wrote:
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 … But it may not be smart politics to mock him in a way that turns him from the glam JFK into the mundane Gerald Ford, toasting his own English muffin. If all Senator Obama is peddling is the Camelot mystique, why debunk this mystique?
On the first night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Craig Robinson introduced his younger sister. She delivered her speech, during which she sought to portray herself and her family as the embodiment of the American Dream. Obama said both she and her husband believed “that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond, and you do what you say you’re going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” She also emphasized loving her country, in response to criticism for her previous statements about feeling proud of her country for the first time. That keynote address was largely well received and drew mostly positive reviews. A Rasmussen Reports poll found that her favorability among Americans reached 55%.
On an October 6, 2008 broadcast, Larry King asked her if the American electorate was past the Bradley effect. She stated that her husband’s achievement of the nomination was a fairly strong indicator that it was. The same night she also was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show where she deflected criticism of her husband and his campaign. On Fox News’ America’s Pulse, E. D. Hill referred to the fist bump shared by the Obamas on the night that he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination as a “terrorist fist jab”; Hill was taken off air and the show itself was cancelled.
First Lady of the United States
Public image and style
With the ascent of her husband as a prominent national politician, Michelle Obama has become a part of popular culture. In May 2006, Essence listed her among “25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women.” In July 2007, Vanity Fair listed her among “10 of the World’s Best Dressed People.” She was an honorary guest at Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball as a “young’un” paying tribute to the ‘Legends,’ which helped pave the way for African American Women. In September 2007, 02138 magazine listed her 58th of ‘The Harvard 100’; a list of the prior year’s most influential Harvard alumni. Her husband was ranked fourth. In July 2008, she made a repeat appearance on the Vanity Fair international best dressed list. She also appeared on the 2008 People list of best-dressed women and was praised by the magazine for her “classic and confident” look.
At the time of her husband’s election, some sources anticipated that as a high-profile African-American woman in a stable marriage she would be a positive role model who would influence the view the world has of African-Americans. Her fashion choices were part of the 2009 Fashion week, but Obama’s influence in the field did not have the impact on the paucity of African-American models who participate, that some thought it might.
She has been compared to Jacqueline Kennedy due to her sense of style, and also to Barbara Bush for her discipline and decorum. Her white, one-shoulder Jason Wu 2009 inaugural gown was said to be “an unlikely combination of Nancy Reagan and Jackie Kennedy”. Obama’s style is described as populist. She often wears clothes by designers Calvin Klein, Isabel Toledo, Narciso Rodriguez, Donna Ricco and Maria Pinto, and has become a fashion trendsetter, in particular her favoring of sleeveless dresses that showcase her toned arms.
She appeared on the cover and in a photo spread in the March 2009 issue of Vogue. Every First Lady since Lou Hoover (except Bess Truman) has been in Vogue, but only Hillary Clinton had previously appeared on the cover.
The media have been criticized for focusing more on the first lady’s fashion sense than her serious contributions. She has stated that she would like to focus attention as First Lady on issues of concern to military and working families. U.S.News & World Report blogger, PBS host and Scripps Howard columnist Bonnie Erbe has argued that Obama’s own publicists seem to be feeding the emphasis on style over substance. Erbe has stated on several occasions that she is miscasting herself by overemphasizing style.
Work undertaken and causes promoted
During her early months as First Lady, she visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens. She also sent representatives to schools and advocated public service. On her first trip abroad in April 2009, she toured a cancer ward with Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She has begun advocating on behalf of military families. Like her predecessors Clinton and Bush, who supported the organic movement by instructing the White House kitchens to buy organic food, Obama has received attention by planting an organic garden and installing bee hives on the South Lawn of the White House, which will supply organic produce and honey to the First Family and for state dinners and other official gatherings.
Obama has become an advocate of her husband’s policy priorities by promoting bills that support it. Following the enactment of the Pay equity law, Obama hosted a White House reception for women’s rights advocates in celebration. She has pronounced her support for the economic stimulus bill in visits to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and United States Department of Education. Some observers have looked favorably upon her legislative activities, while others have said that she should be less involved in politics. According to her representatives, she intends to visit all United States Cabinet-level agencies in order to get acquainted with Washington.She gained growing public support in her early months as first lady. She is notable for her support from military families and some Republicans.As the public is growing accustomed to her, she is becoming more accepted as a role model. Newsweek described her first trip abroad as an exhibition of her so-called “star power” and MSN described it as a display of sartorial elegance. There were questions raised in the American and British media regarding protocol when the Obamas met Queen Elizabeth II, and Michelle reciprocated a touch on her back by the Queen during a reception, purportedly against traditional royal etiquette. Palace sources denied that any breach in etiquette had occurred.
On June 5, 2009, the White House announced that Michelle Obama was replacing her current chief of staff, Jackie Norris, with Susan Sher, a longtime friend and adviser. Norris will become a senior adviser to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Then in February 2010, the resignation of White House Social Secretary, Desiree Rogers was announced to be effective the following month. Rogers had been at odds with other administration officials, such as David Axelrod, and then the White House State Dinner faux pas occurred on November 24, 2009. Rogers was replaced by Julianna Smoot.
After a year as First Lady, she undertook her first lead role in an administrationwide initiative. Her goal was to make progress in reversing the 21st century trend of childhood obesity. She stated that her goal is to make this effort her legacy: “I want to leave something behind that we can say, ‘Because of this time that this person spent here, this thing has changed.’ And my hope is that that’s going to be in the area of childhood obesity.” She has named the movement “Let’s Move!“. This effort does not supplant her other efforts: supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family, encouraging national service, promoting the arts and arts education, and fostering healthy eating and healthy living for children and families across the country. She has earned widespread publicity on the topic of healthy eating by planting the White House Kitchen Garden, the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt served as First Lady. Her 2012 book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America is based on her experiences with the garden and promotes healthy eating. Her call for action on healthy eating has been echoed by the United States Department of Defense, which has been facing an ever expanding problem of recruit obesity.