Barack's rock - Sen. Obama's blunt, tough partner, Michelle, helps shape her husband's politics and life and is integral to his White House run
By Christi Parsons, Bruce Japsen and Bob Secter, Tribune staff reporters
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published April 22, 2007
The featured speaker at a luncheon, Michelle Obama is about to ask a crowd of influential Chicago women to commit their hearts and wallets to her husband's presidential campaign.
But first she's going to make sure they know that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama forgot to put the butter away this morning.
"I'm like, 'You're just asking for it,'" she says, sending an exasperated look toward the candidate." 'You know I'm giving a speech about you today.'"
Ultimately, she praises her husband as a gifted leader who deeply understands the struggles of American women, and she asks far more directly than he does for the crowd's financial and political support.
But Michelle Obama, 43, has a reputation for telling it like she thinks it is -- whether about the butter, her husband's ongoing effort to quit smoking or his political priorities. And though she's lighthearted in her critiques, she never plays the role of the deferential political wife.
"He's a gifted man," she tells the audience, "but, in the end, he's just a man."
The fact that the crowd responds with laughter and a long, warm ovation is a good sign for the Obama team.
One of its most formidable tasks, after all, is to win over Democratic-leaning women tempted to help make Sen. Hillary Clinton the first woman president, and Michelle Obama figures prominently in the promotion strategy. She's a charismatic public speaker, an accomplished professional whose life as a working parent looks familiar to all kinds of women.
More than just a spokeswoman, she's a crucial part of the Obama package itself, complementing and shaping her husband in ways that are politically and personally significant.
The daughter of a tight-knit nuclear family, she's an anchor for a spouse who grew up all over the world and barely knew his father. Her background, deeply rooted in a working-class South Side neighborhood, lends credibility to her husband, who has consistently battled questions from some African-Americans about whether the son of an African father and a white American mother is authentically black.
Michelle Obama has listened to that talk many times before, even directed at her.
"I heard that growing up, 'You talk like a white girl,'
" Obama told the Tribune on Friday in her first solo interview since her husband announced his candidacy for president in February. "There isn't one black person who doesn't understand that dynamic. That debate is about the pain that we still struggle with in this country, and Barack knows that more than anyone.
"One of the things I hope happens through our involvement in this campaign is that this country and this world sees yet another image of what it means to be black."
Her ability to speak with authority on such tough issues is one reason the campaign thinks she will be a potent weapon in its arsenal.
In modern politics, the marriage partnership is integral to the quest for the presidency, as voters evaluate a candidate in light of the relationship with his or her spouse. Bill Clinton offered himself and his wife as a two-for-one deal, something that came back to haunt them when he put his wife in charge of a health-care initiative that failed. Then there's the George and Laura Bush approach, with her more traditional role.
There's little doubt which of those models the Obamas would follow. "She's tough," Obama, 45, said of his wife after she spoke at the luncheon Monday that launched a new group, Women for Obama. "There's something about her that projects such honesty and strength. It's what makes her such an unbelievable professional, and partner, and mother, and wife."
Her career, though, can cause him political discomfort.
Critics have pointed out that her income has risen along with her husband's political ascent. She sits on the board of a food company that supplies Wal-Mart, which Sen. Obama has denounced for its labor practices.
And Michelle Obama is a vice president of The University of Chicago Medical Center, where one of her signature responsibilities is guiding low-income patients away from the emergency room and into primary care elsewhere. While South Side activists praise her program, Barack Obama's union supporters have been critical of the management of many large hospitals for how they deal with charity care for the poor.
Nonetheless, Barack Obama and his campaign are certain she will prove a key asset in his drive for the White House. She has been gearing up for her new campaign role, with a new chief of staff, assistant and spokeswoman who have come on board since early March.
Americans are about to see much more of her and the independent style she says her husband admires.
"He's one of the few men I've met who is not intimidated by strong women," she said. "He relishes the fact that I'm not impressed by him."
'As strong ... as he is'
Michelle Obama had a storybook home as a child. Despite the fact that her father had multiple sclerosis, he went to work every day as an employee of the Chicago water department and still managed to attend all of his children's extracurricular activities. Her mother was a patient tutor always available for her son and daughter.
"We learned from the best how a happy home should operate," Michelle's brother, Craig Robinson, said. "Michelle has very high expectations based on that."
Barack Obama saw his father just once after he left the family when Barack was a toddler. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, raised partly by his grandparents while his mother was overseas.
He met Michelle Robinson when he was a summer associate and she was his mentor at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin. The two began to date. And when he met her family, he later wrote, he recognized the stability he'd never had, and he wanted it for himself.
After the Obamas married in 1992, Barack Obama would come to realize that living up to those standards wasn't easy.
During a period when he was in the Illinois Senate, his wife made no secret of the fact that, too often, he didn't seem to be thinking of his family as much as he thought of himself. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote that she would tell him: "I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone."
Nor was Michelle Obama's message reserved for her husband. She unflinchingly pushed back against political aides she felt were intruding too much on family time, especially where it concerned daughters Malia and Sasha.
"She is as strong and stubborn as he is," said Dan Shomon, an aide to Obama during his unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) eight years ago. "Barack was stuck in Springfield quite a bit in 1999, because of overtime special sessions, and we had to call Michelle and ask her to go to events.
"She would help if she could," but her family came first.
If Michelle Obama's expectations are hard to live up to, friends think they're also very influential in her husband's understanding of the role of the family in society.
He made news on Father's Day 2005 when, speaking to a mostly black audience, he said that men need to take more responsibility for the care of their children.
"There's a big part of his message that is about personal responsibility," said Shomon. "It's that you can't teach kids to learn if the TV's on. You've got to turn the TV off and take personal responsibility, not just at home but in the community and in the world. That comes from Michelle."
Perhaps in no other matter is she more insistent than on the topic of his cigarette smoking. She's passionate about it, partly because her parents smoked. As children, she and her brother pulled the tobacco out of their parents' cigarettes and doused them with hot sauce.
With her husband, she has been unrelenting in getting him to stop, for his own health and as a good example for Malia, who has asthma. (Michelle said he has never smoked in the presence of her or their girls.)
Her support for his presidential bid came with a contingency clause: no cigarettes. And he announced he had quit days before declaring his candidacy.
"To me it's a role model thing," she said. "You can smoke or you can be president."
City Hall connections
Barack Obama's political career has been in overdrive since he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. But some of his deepest political roots trace to his wife's connections in Chicago's Democratic circles.
In the summer of 1991, Valerie Jarrett, then Mayor Richard Daley's deputy chief of staff, interviewed a young Sidley Austin attorney named Michelle Robinson. After the 90-minute conversation, Jarrett offered her a job, but Robinson called back a day later, not to say "yes" but "maybe." First, she said, her fiance wanted to meet Jarrett.
By that time, Obama the independent-minded community activist had privately expressed his political ambitions. This job would put his wife-to-be squarely in the offices of the man whose father had perfected the Democratic machine.
"My fiance wants to know who is going to be looking out for me and making sure that I thrive," Jarrett recalled Robinson telling her.
So the three of them -- the prospective boss, the job applicant and the man she would marry a year later -- piled into a booth at a seafood restaurant in the Loop and got to know each other over a long dinner.
At the end of the evening, Jarrett turned to Barack and asked, "Well, did I pass the test?" Obama smiled, put his head down, closed his eyes and said, "Yeah, you passed the test."
That was the start of a long relationship that has paid off politically for Barack Obama, connecting him to Daley's inner circle.
At City Hall, Michelle Obama forged close and lasting friendships with Jarrett and many other top Daley aides, including former Corporation Counsel Susan Sher and David Mosena, who was the mayor's chief of staff when Michelle Obama first joined his administration. She left in 1993.
All have long since left the city payroll as well, but are loyal to the mayor and now the Obamas. Their careers also have frequently overlapped, and together they make up a network that reaches into virtually every aspect of Chicago politics.
After leaving City Hall, Jarrett went on to lead the Chicago Transit Authority. She recruited Michelle Obama to the transit agency's citizen advisory committee. Mosena, who now is president of the Museum of Science and Industry, served with Obama on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
Currently, she works as the $273,618-a-year vice president for community and external affairs at The University of Chicago Medical Center. Her boss there is Sher.
City Hall records show Michelle Obama, then still named Robinson, began work as a $60,000-a-year mayoral assistant in September of 1991. She didn't stay long in the mayor's office. Within weeks, Daley promoted Jarrett to run the new Department of Planning and Development. Obama followed.
She had no background in economic development, but Obama served as a troubleshooter for Jarrett.
"She had this incredible ability to be a problem solver," said Beth White, an assistant to the planning commissioner at the time. "She was just totally unflappable."
Obama also picked up a reputation for being blunt. Once a junior staffer wanted a promotion and came to White and Obama to talk about it. Obama walked the woman step-by-step through her shortcomings, White recalled.
"It wasn't a put-down," White said. "It was simply, 'You're not ready for this and here's why.' She did it kind, but firm. A lot of people are uncomfortable doing that."
After only 18 months at the city, she left to launch the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a group that sought to build future community leaders by arranging apprenticeships for young adults with non-profit organizations. Barack Obama was on the founding board of Public Allies, and it was he who recommended his new wife for the job as the Chicago chapter's first executive director, recalled Paul Schmitz, the current president of the group, which is now headquartered in Milwaukee and has chapters in many cities.
Those who worked for her at Public Allies recall how she challenged them to step outside their zones of comfort, especially those of class and race.
"The most powerful thing she ever taught me was to be constantly aware of my privilege," said Beth Hester, a former staffer. Hester, who is white, said Obama helped her overcome her tendency to avoid difficult situations with people of different races or cultures. "Michelle reminded me that it's too easy to go and sit with your own," Hester said. "She can invite you, in kind of an aggressive way, to be all you can be."
After three years at Public Allies, Obama was recruited away by the University of Chicago to launch a similar volunteer program based at the Hyde Park school.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, she had steered away from a potentially more lucrative career in private practice. Friends thought her salary was paltry compared to what she could command at a top law firm.
Her wages later became public when her husband began his political career. And as his career began to take off, so did scrutiny of their household income. It rose right along with his political career.
Not long after Barack Obama entered the U.S. Senate, for instance, his wife was offered a position on the board of TreeHouse Foods, a Westchester-based maker of specialty foods.
In 2006, the company paid her $51,200 for her board activities, according to the Obamas' just-filed federal income tax return. Factoring in stock options and other payments, the value of her compensation package for serving on the TreeHouse board last year was $101,083, a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows.
TreeHouse packages pickles and other private-label foods for retailers. By far its largest customer is Wal-Mart. Barack Obama has been sharply critical of Wal-Mart's business and labor practices -- criticizing the giant retailer last fall for paying low wages and poor benefits while making big profits.
And at the hospital, Obama was promoted to vice president for community and external affairs in March 2005, two months after her husband took office in the U.S. Senate. (Jarrett said Michelle Obama was repeatedly offered the promotion before that election but turned it down.) The promotion more than doubled her salary from the hospital.
The salary questions strike Michelle Obama as sexist and unfair.
"I'm a vice president at an academic medical center," she said. "Barack and I have built a joint life together that consists of having two strong individual people who have built careers.
"Barack hasn't relied deeply on me for his career path, and I haven't relied on him at all for mine. ... I understand why people want to make sure that somehow I'm not using my husband's influence to build my career. And I haven't."
TreeHouse Chairman Sam Reed declined to answer questions about her selection to his board. But the hospital executives who promoted Obama say their decision was based on outstanding performance in the past and, they hoped, in the future.
Hospital officials say the salary was in line with compensation received by the medical center's 16 other vice presidents, more than a dozen of whom earned in excess of $300,000. She also earned about 25 percent less than her counterpart at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
"My concern was that somebody was going to recruit her," said former U. of C. hospitals President Michael Riordan.
Losing Michelle Obama, he said, would have been a damaging blow.
A thorny assignment
For all its national prestige, the University of Chicago Medical Center had a local public-relations problem.
The academic center was spending millions of dollars on care that would have been more effectively dispensed by a primary care provider. It was a dicey issue because it put the prestigious hospital in the position of telling its low-income, underinsured and mostly African-American neighbors to go somewhere else.
Michelle Obama was charged with tackling the problem -- a delicate matter not just for her but potentially for her husband. A close ally and supporter of Barack Obama, the Service Employees International Union has been one of the hospital industry's fiercest critics of how it handles care for the uninsured.
But the U. of C. program has won praise from community health providers because Michelle Obama was addressing the larger public concern at hand. Her goal was to help patients develop relationships with primary care physicians and thus avoid the more serious problems that had sent them to the ER in the first place.
Obama was particularly qualified to finesse the issue.
Because she is of color, that gives her some credibility," said Wendy Cox, chief executive of Chicago Family Health Center.
In early 2005, Obama assembled a meeting of health-care providers and members of the community to ask for their help. She talked about the black community's distrust of the health-care system and about how the lack of health insurance prevents people from seeking less expensive, preventive care.
Berneice Mills-Thomas, executive director of clinic operator Near North Health Service Corp., said the meeting differed markedly from many she had with University of Chicago Hospital executives over the years.
"Her meetings stood out from others because our goals were also her goals," said Mills-Thomas.
The team got to work. Obama started a screening system in the ER waiting room, where people routinely showed up with a lunch and camped out to wait for a doctor, to search for people who didn't belong there.
After treating those individuals, hospital employees would sit down and talk with them. Obama's staff referred them to specific clinic doctors and scheduled appointments.
Coming from someone else, the message might have inflamed relations with the community.
But Obama spoke as the parent of an asthmatic child, one who knew firsthand the importance of actively managing care. When she was a child growing up not far from the hospital, she recalled, family members would simply wait until they got really sick and then go to the best ER they could find.
"It's the most ineffective way to provide care," she said. "And it's the most expensive."
After just a year, the effects of the outreach program don't show up in the hospital's bottom line. Still, officials think they're starting to chip away at one of the worst recurring problems of the health system.
In the portrait activists often paint to illustrate the problem, the uninsured patients are the victims of the system. While Obama agrees with that, she also says individuals have an obligation to take care of themselves.
"It's mutual responsibility," she explained in the interview. "Whatever health-care solution we bring to the table, people have to use it. People have to put good food in their bodies. People have to take their medication as directed. People can't sit and completely blame outside forces."
It's a perspective reflected in her husband's viewpoint on health care and other issues.
"This is how he thinks about the problems that we face," she said. "You can't just talk about improving education without talking about improving pay for teachers or making sure that parents are doing their part. ... People have to change their behavior in addition to systems and institutions changing."
When the Obamas agreed he'd run, they hoped there was a real possibility to effect fundamental change in the country as a whole.
"We made a promise to each other that this campaign would be about telling the truth and being authentic and connecting with people," she said, "getting people excited not just about Barack but about politics."
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IN THE WEB EDITION
Read the entire series at chicagotribune.com/obama
Part 1: Outsider found ways to fit in, March 25
Part 2: Obama's mom: Not just a girl from Kansas, March 27
Part 3: Portrait of a pragmatist, March 30
Part 4: Showing his bare knuckles, April 4
Part 5: Building a money machine, April 13