The Meaning of Michelle: A Once Wary First Lady Fights to Keep Her Job

She may have been wary of the role of First Lady at the start, but Michelle Obama is showing a flair for the job: to inspire, to speak about her husband and to rally the troops

  • Share
  • Read Later

Cover Photograph by Ben Baker / Redux

When properly executed, a First Lady’s life unfolds with the precision of manned spaceflight — a job exquisitely planned and breathtaking to watch. Take little Sydney Trapp, a 6-year-old in cornrows who stands with her violin among crumb-crusted fruit pies in Occoquan, Va., in early June.

“Surprise!” says Michelle Obama as she enters the store, called Mom’s Apple Pie Co., surprising no one. The mayor has been standing there for a while, along with assorted Secret Service agents and Sydney and her mother, who were invited by the First Lady’s staff for their photo-op potential. Even before Obama stepped out from her motorcade, the store’s employees had been calling their friends to announce the news. “Are we allowed to take pictures?” one asked.

(Download: The CNN-TIME Convention Floor Pass Mobile App)

Now, with the First Lady standing before her, Sydney creates the campaign equivalent of zero gravity. She asks permission to pull out her violin, then begins to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” conjured with the furious determination of a kindergartner who has mastered a new skill. As she finishes, the group, led by Obama, bursts into applause. Sydney takes her bows and then, without invitation, does what all young girls in the First Lady’s presence seem to want to do. She wraps her arms around Obama’s waist and squeezes tight. “You are awesome,” the First Lady says.

With that, a campaign moment is made. The photographers file their images, while video of the scene bounces off satellites to news stations across the country. “Adorable Girl Plays Violin for Michelle Obama and Melts the Nation’s Heart,” reads one headline. The fashion blogs comment on the First Lady’s sleeveless top, pink skirt and structured handbag. It’s just another day on the campaign trail for Obama. She shows up, and the world takes notice.

On Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., another campaign moment will be made when the First Lady addresses the first night of the Democratic National Convention. There is little suspense about the substance of her remarks. For months now, she has been telling the story of her family’s blue collar roots, her husband’s family side and the concern she has for the future of the country and the causes she cares most about. But if all goes as planned, the world will once again take notice, and her husband will once again be the political beneficiary.

(PHOTOS: Michelle Obama on the Campaign Trail)

Of course, it’s not the sort of notice that a President or candidate would receive. While her husband is scrutinized and barraged with questions and taunts, asked to account for his failures and project his vision, Obama glides through the campaign one step removed but no less fierce in her determination to win. “Are you in?” she likes to ask the friendly crowds of supporters who have shown up for the 62 fundraisers, lunches and receptions she has appeared at for the campaign through June. “Because I am so in. I am so fired up.”

In these settings, her job is not unlike her day job: to inspire, to speak about her husband in personal terms and to rally the troops, particularly women and blacks who see her as a one-of-a-kind role model for themselves and their children. (At an event at a hotel in Pennsylvania, the men’s room was overtaken by women, since so few men attended.) Obama talks about her blue collar upbringing and lists off a standard vision of an America that its sons and daughters would be proud to inherit. “I want to give them that sense of limitless possibility,” she says. “That belief that here in America, there is always something better out there if you are willing to work hard.”

But these events are mostly a sideshow. The national press is never going to lead its coverage with a campaign speech by the President’s wife, filled with mostly canned rhetoric. So the Chicago operation has crafted a different strategy to push the First Lady onto the nation, going around the national press, which — truth be told — no longer holds its old monopoly on informing the public. Her planners stage moments for Obama in pie shops, meant for viral appeal online, and send her out to do the rounds on television shows where few politicians dare to tread.

(PHOTOS: The Art of Political Stagecraft)

Obama invites a camera crew from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to Washington to film a skit in the East Room and challenges Ellen DeGeneres to a push-up contest on daytime TV. (Of course, the First Lady, who works out 90 minutes a day, sometimes starting as early as 5:30 a.m., pumps out 25, vanquishing DeGeneres, who manages only 20.) She reads off David Letterman’s top 10 list while holding a plastic mold of her husband as a head of broccoli and parries questions about his teenage marijuana use with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. There are appearances on iCarly, The View, Good Morning America, the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, among others. That last show got ratings on a par with those for the networks’ nightly newscasts, but the numbers matter less than the demographics. There are some audiences that only Obama can reach, they say around headquarters, and she does it well.

On top of the light stuff, Obama has her policy work. When she arrived at the White House, the focus was on military families and veterans. And that has not gone away. But it has been eclipsed by her campaign to persuade the U.S. food industry to help the nation eat healthier. To some degree, the industry has played along, making voluntary commitments to cut calories and unhealthy ingredients and curtail advertising of sugary snacks to children in exchange for some of Obama’s publicity magic. Her first book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, became a best seller. In a CNN poll in April, 71% of respondents had a favorable view of the First Lady.

(MORE: The Ascent of Ann Romney)

The thread that connects all these efforts is the one that Obama has fought hardest to achieve. She is now clearly comfortable with this phase of her life as a mother of two blossoming daughters, the wife of the most powerful man in the world and a role model for millions, with a megaphone as big as any in Washington. She still readily returns all the hugs she is offered, whether by children or adults. It wasn’t the job she ever expected to have, having been raised to make a career of her own. And she has every intention of returning to her career after her family moves out of the White House, which she hopes will happen in 2017. But in the meantime, she has freedom and purpose and a nation’s attention.

She may have been wary of the role of First Lady at one time, but now it is clear that she wants to keep at it — and not for the perks, like a chauffeured ride to the pie store, where she bought apple and sour cherry without the crumb crust. As she told a crowd of supporters in nearby Dale City just an hour earlier, “I look forward to being out there with you all every step of the way. I can’t wait to keep it going.”

Portions of this article are excerpted from the new TIME book The Essential Voter’s Guide, which features profiles of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as well as interviews with their families and campaign insiders. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/votersguide.

PHOTOS: Michelle Obama’s Defining Fashion Moments

155 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
FutureTimes
FutureTimes

She likes a wild monkey Not the future human model standard.

FutureTimes
FutureTimes

She like a wild monkey.

All human activities are to make better Human Generations.

That is why people build the new reproductive systems to make better human beings

Not to keep the bad seed or mix them with the good seed.

Even black persons want to be white persons.

Empower us:

www europeanspermbankusa com

www cryobank com

Demoncracy
Demoncracy

She likes a wild monkey.

To where do you want to lead the black dream ego?

To become black USA? Wrong.

See how sad your children to be born as black person.

Solve it by the new DNA technology: the black can be white.

Neslihan Kurosawa
Neslihan Kurosawa

Hi there,

It isn't so much about being glamorous  or stylish!  It is more about winning the hearts of female voters of America and making the Democrats look a bit more human as well as being on the same level as the ordinary everyday Americans, at  the end of the day.

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

*in the last 90 days of Bush, We were losing 800000 jobs a month ;

*Then came the stimulus from Obama, and USA has gained 100,000 jobs a month straight for the last 43 months !!! Though we have not gained full employment like the Clinton era, to wish away Bushes horrible 8 years is a crime !!

ARE WE BETTER OFF THEN 4 YEARS AGO ?

The answer is YES,YES,YES !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wrabble
Wrabble

 Before Democrats took majority control of both houses of Congress on 1/3/2007, there were 137M non-farm jobs.

There are now only 130M such jobs.  And the population has increased by 11M since then.

The labor participation rate (percent of Americans w/ jobs) has reached its lowest point since May, 1983.  The rate has fallen faster under Obama than it did at ANY time other than during the Great Depression.

Disquskurr
Disquskurr

There should be a law , that stops non_Americans from posting here.

Dude, I know you are not an American because you do not the SIMPLE FACT THAT there is a drought in most of the contiguous USA !!!

Drought means, there will drastically less farm jobs.

Now go back to your own country and post there !! You are fired !!!

Wrabble
Wrabble

YO GENIUS - the stats I posted are for NON-FARM jobs, not farm jobs!

And even if I did mention farm jobs, the stats were still true BEFORE the drought started this year.

If you wish to dispute the decline in jobs, please provide a link to a reputable source.

Demoncracy
Demoncracy

Is USA black? Is Obama's Care to White USA?

Why a monkey becomes your president and lead your USA?

Do your USA has No White Leader?

You can Not feel soup in the coffee.

If you mix both then it is a mess blur without taste.

rick rick
rick rick

Let'em eat cake, Michelle.  Time for a new vacation.  She's not going to be proud of her country unless the little people pick her husband again.  Let's move!  Ge t that body moving... keep moving, don't stop and think, all the way to the polling booth with your pre-marked voting ballot courtesy of those lying Democrats.

Acapitalistpig
Acapitalistpig

What a cream puff article. November can't get here fast enough to oust these statist elites.

life5678
life5678

Just watched Michelle give her DNC speech. She came off as disingenuous and contrite. It really seemed like she took Ann Romney's speech, did a comparison and tried to one-up. In fact, it seems the DNC is following in the exact same fashion as the RNC, with a Latino just before the wives, saying the exact same rhetoric but just different leaders. They gave absolutely nothing new, they get an F in originality. That's an hour I can't get back....

rick rick
rick rick

"Let'em eat cake" cares about two people--herself and her husband.The rest of the little people can go to hell for all she cares.

Wrabble
Wrabble

Chicago

Obama

Chicago

Obama

Chicago

Obama

Chicago

Obama

Chicago

Obama

Chicago

Obama

Chicago

Obama

Chicago

Obama

Alexander Scipio
Alexander Scipio

"Fights to keep her JOB"!?!?

FLOTUS is not a job. She's the guy's wife, period. Unelected. Unburdened by responsibility, unaccountable, but somehow able to spend $10M of my money on vacay.

Jan is too long to await her departure. GTFO.

anon76returns
anon76returns

Her vacations were self-funded, and it's unlikely that you could have had to pay $10M in taxes and still managed to waste so much of our time with your contributions to this thread.

Wrabble
Wrabble

"Her vacations were self-funded, "

No federal funds were used? Interesting....but false.

Wrabble
Wrabble

Yeah, the Marxists have the election sewn up! 

They might as well not bother to contribute time or money on Barry's behalf, but focus on local elections.

And they don't need to vote more than 3 or 4 times, not the usual ten to twenty times!

;)

Wrabble
Wrabble

I LOVE READING comments by liberals!  They continually reveal their extreme desperation!

Have you EVER seen so much vitriol and hatred?

They are about to explode with frustration.  They thought they could implement their communist agenda with zero opposition and now their Marxist train is about to be derailed!

anon76returns
anon76returns

Read any of the entries by Bear1909 on this thread.  Then get back to me on vitriol and hate.

Wrabble
Wrabble

 Oh boo hoo.

Democrats perfected the art of vitriol and hatred starting around 2001.  It's too bad if they are getting back a tiny fraction of what they've sown these last 12 years.

If you want to see REALLY hateful and incredibly violent stuff, visit Wonkette.com.

Wrabble
Wrabble

Democrat Plantation:  It's not just for Blacks anymore!

Anyone can enslave himself to corrupt Dem politicians and failed ideology in exchange for a few handouts now and then!

kiefo
kiefo

Anyone actually think that in only four years Michelle Obama has gone from declaring "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country!!!" to loving and admiring the United States?  Anybody?

filmnoia
filmnoia

Michelle nailed it tonight, and it doesn't matter what you haters, racists and goose stepping little twerps think. The arc of history isn't bending towards you.

Wrabble
Wrabble

 filmonia, yeah we know, anyone who disagrees with your Marxist philosophy is a "racist."

sacredh
sacredh

I don't understand all the interest in the recipe for the beer they brew at the White House. I want them to bottle Michelle's bathwater. I'd drink that.

tinking
tinking

...Michelle loves being 'Queen' - 'just loved the interview where she talks about how various family members fight over which Secret Service agents each family member will have for the day....and we just learned that Valery Jarrett has her own entourage of Secret Service agents - is that legal because it sounds like abuse of taxpayer dollars?

tinking
tinking

I learned nothing new from this article - it was an ad, a puff-piece.

valwayne
valwayne

We are just hours into the first night of the Democrat convention and we've found out that Obama had the party expunge the word "GOD" from appearing anywhere in the Democrat platform for the first time in the history of the parties. Obama has also deleted the 2o08 reference to JERUSALEM as the Capital of Israel. As of today the democrat party is officially "GODLESS and ANTI-ISRAEL" , and it took Obama to do it!

sacredh
sacredh

Those are only a couple of reasons why I'm voting for Obama.

LiberalLies2012
LiberalLies2012

Awaiting MOOOOOOOOOOOChelle to come stomping out to support her husband's re-election and to save her own Hollywood lifestyle in the people's House.  

Sorry MO, but your days are numbered.  Time to give up ALL those staff members that are at your beck and call.  You are about ready to move back to Chi-town.

csacpt
csacpt

 BTW, we do not much care for the taste of the "cake" you think we should eat!

tinking
tinking

Michelle has a lovely and very, very expensive wardrobe - it's hard to take the hypocrisy of the Democrats when they spew hate at Ann Romney for being equally well-dressed.

La_Randy
La_Randy

It is almost assured that Ann will have less staff members at her beck and call, huh. She will probably need that many to take care of the horse.

I can see it now, Rafalca the White House Pet.

anon76returns
anon76returns

Oh, it is assured alright.  Considering she's never going to be FLOTUS, I doubt her staff situation is going to change much from its current incarnation.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

It could be because Mormons swear a blood vengeance against

this country.  Google it.

anon76returns
anon76returns

I grew up with plenty of Mormons- trust me, none of them had sworn blood vengeance against anyone.  Their idea of expletive-laden was any sentence containing the word 'dang'.

tinking
tinking

grow up amp; stop the hate

lokiii
lokiii

The first lady has no job.  The people elected her husband.  I still remember Hillary getting slapped down over this.