Through the primaries, Michelle Obama was such an effective proxy for her husband that Obama aides nicknamed her "the Closer" because she'd get more commitment cards signed at her rallies than the candidate did at his. At 44, she is vivid, engaging, part therapist, part professor, part girlfriend who comes over for coffee and tells you hard truths about the stupid mistakes you're making.
But in recent weeks, Michelle has also become a favorite target of conservatives, who attack her with an exuberance that suggests there are no taboos anymore. The latest strike came from the Tennessee Republican Party, which posted a YouTube ad ridiculing Michelle's now famous "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" remark. That prompted Barack Obama to throw down a gauntlet of his own. "I would never think of going after somebody's spouse in a campaign," he told Robin Roberts of Good Morning America. "She loves this country ... And especially for people who purport to be promoters of family values ... to start attacking my wife in a political campaign, I think, is detestable."
Such pushback may have been an act of chivalry in the face of talk-radio furies and bloggers attacking, as one commenter did, "the bitter, anti-American, ungrateful, rude, crude, ghetto, angry Michelle Obama." But it also may signal that as attention turns to the general campaign, Michelle could be a liability as well as an asset. Her speeches can sound stark and stern compared with her husband's roof raisers. He's all about the promise; she's more about the problem. It's not just that she says times are hard and "we're not where we need to be"; with that, the vast majority of the country agrees. She goes further, worrying out loud about the country's lack of fairness, the corrosive cynicism of its citizens and how Americans "spend more time talking about what we can't do, what won't work, what can't change" than about what is possible. "The challenges that we are really facing have very little to do with health care and all the practical things that people like to think about," she told TIME. "At our core, it is how we see one another. That's how it all starts for me." So the test may be, in the weeks ahead, How will voters see her? And is her understanding of the state of our union one that they share?
It's a little brazen for Obama to say his wife can't be a target when he uses her as a shield, like a charm against charges that his own biography is somehow too exotic, too alien, too Jeremiah Wright and not enough Norman Rockwell. In his telling, her life as a Chicago city worker's daughter whose family ate dinner together every night, who made it from public schools to the Ivy League to the long, twisting road to the White House, is a tribute to "an America that didn't just reward wealth but the work and the workers who created it."
In the early going, Michelle Obama was not an obvious conservative target, since in some obvious ways she's so conservative herself. When asked what her priorities as First Lady would be, she said her only cause would be giving her children a decent upbringing in the White House. She seems indifferent to the prospect of her power. She doesn't expound on her husband's five-point plans; she just tells her story, whose bass notes are the deep hum of family, work, sacrifice, aspiration. You can watch her in her triple pearls, hear about her love of mac and cheese and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and imagine her as the most traditional First Lady since the ones named Bush.
In her stump speech, her tribute to her father can bring a crowd to tears. Struck with multiple sclerosis, he went to work on crutches; he never was late, never gave up and never complained. He put two children through Princeton, writing each check with pride. "My father, like most Americans, just wanted to know that after a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice that one day, he could put his feet up and look over all that he had done and retire with a little respect and dignity," she says. "That's what most Americans want."
She says she tells the stories to let people know we're not so different from one another, since if we don't realize how much we have in common, we'll never get anything done. And then she lays out her case: the days when a father could support a family on a city worker's salary are long past. She paints a picture of crumbling neighborhoods and failing schools, unavailable health care, shrinking pensions, single parents working double shifts. "This has been the case for my entire lifetime," she says, and warns that "we're raising a generation of 'young doubters,'" children who are insular and timid. "They don't try, because they already heard us tell them why they can't succeed."
This is, apparently, too much for some conservatives. They hear "whining" from a woman preaching a "Gospel of Misery," about everything from her student loans to the high cost of piano lessons. When she describes the steadily deteriorating conditions during her lifetime, they counter with the stats: rising home ownership, falling poverty, a quadrupling of the population with a college degree, an explosion of science and technology and opportunity. When she says that "before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls," conservative blogger and radio star Hugh Hewitt levels his warning: "Whenever someone from the government comes to you and says, 'We have to fix your soul,' be very afraid ... No one believes outside of the hard-core left that government can fix your soul." The National Review put a glowering picture of Michelle on its April cover, called her "Mrs. Grievance" and declared that "Michelle Obama embodies a peculiar mix of privilege and victimology which is not where most Americans live."
They are probably right to think that most Americans have a happier impression of the past 40 years. But the skies have clouded in the past year, and this time around, the attacks make one wonder how those who find Michelle Obama's gritty realism out of bounds would mount a campaign in this climate. By suggesting everything is swell? By gliding silently over the battered economic landscape at home in order to talk instead only about terrorism abroad? That is certainly not where most Americans live either.
Those who hear Michelle in person often talk about feeling that they are seeing for the first time a political figure who understands what their lives are really about. "It was like she was telling our story," says Amindi Imoh, 18, a sophomore at the University of South Carolina whose parents emigrated from Nigeria in 1981, who was especially moved by Michelle's description of her childhood. Michelle admits that she's had to learn to be more careful about everything she says. "She doesn't want to become the news," says a campaign aide. "She wants to be a character witness for her husband."