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Getting to Know You
Just a year ago, more people had a poor opinion of Michelle Obama (35%) than a good one (30%). During the primaries especially, she was too hot, and not in the way Maxim means it. She talked about America as being "just downright mean," and lazy, and cynical, how life for most people had "gotten progressively worse throughout my lifetime." Seeing an opportunity, conservative critics dubbed her Mrs. Grievance, called her bitter and anti-American, to the point that her husband had to defend her patriotism and call the attacks on her "detestable."
Her portrayal may have been a caricature, but it was also taking a toll. People who traveled with her from the earliest days in Iowa say she was a quick study, receptive to feedback on what was working and what wasn't. She began talking less about the country's problems and more about its promise. By the time the New Yorker parodied the parody of her as a machine-gun-toting revolutionary, she was reintroducing herself at the Democratic Convention as a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter, listing why she loved her country and why her husband was the man to lead it. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
And so the debate about What She Means shifted again, but this time it was feminists wondering if she or her handlers were using the J. Crew twin sets and Donna Reed hair to reassure white voters that "she's just like you." Under the liberal magnifying glass, Michelle was suddenly a victim, forced by her husband's ambitions and society's expectations to tone it down, soften it up, step back. "How will Michelle Obama feel as she becomes what she has long resisted an extension of her husband?" asked Rebecca Traister in a Salon article called "The Momification of Michelle Obama." She was giving up her job, her $212,000-a-year salary and her independence, which prompted the commentariat to lament the sacrifices she was having to make in terms of her identity. Even her own mother told People that "Michelle had worked so hard to get where she was. I kind of feel bad for her."
Asked about this analysis now, Michelle rejects the idea that she has had to sacrifice at all. "I know women who have given up a lot of themselves," she says. "And there were times in my marriage where I put stuff aside. This isn't one of those times." And she didn't change, she insists; people just had time to get to know her. On the other hand, she brought to the White House a longtime friend and marketing executive who, as social secretary, describes her job as managing "the Obama brand." In any case, by the time she held the Bible for her husband on Inauguration Day, her approval rating had jumped nearly 40 points. And she was just getting started.
After four months in the White House and two years on the campaign trail, she's learned how to help people relax around her so she can get down to business. She makes fun of herself and of her husband, and teases a male reporter about his struggle to accurately describe her outfit during her European tour. "You didn't know you'd be covering cardigans," she says, but that's O.K., since her husband doesn't know cable-knit from argyle either. When she tries to explain why she's constantly hugging people, she reaches out and grabs your arm and holds it. I'd be intimidated too to meet the First Lady, she says. "That's why I'm so touchy with kids, because I think if I touch them and I hug them, that they'll see that it's real, and then they'll relax and breathe and actually kind of enjoy the time and make use of it."
Put her in a room with black teenage girls and her message couldn't be more radical or more all-American: Anyone can be anything if they are willing to work hard enough at it. This is inspiration with an edge. The honors student who wrote her Princeton thesis about being black in the Ivy League knows that the difference between success and failure can be cruelly random. She knew lots of bright kids growing up, she says, "and you slowly see people slipping through the cracks, you know that there but for the grace of God." She had friends who could have thrived in college, but their parents didn't believe in going into debt to pay for it. "I saw kids like me who were using their loan money to help their parents pay the electric bill, and therefore they'd run out of money for books and couldn't feed themselves over the course of the semester ... So I just keep thinking about those kids who are missing opportunities by a hair, by a breath, by a parent, by a teacher, by a dollar amount, and I'm kind of working to make up some of that difference to the extent that I think I can." (See pictures of the civil rights movement from Emmett Till to Barack Obama.)
One of her fantasies during the campaign was that in her White House, famous people wouldn't just come in; they would go out into the community too. So on a cool day in March, she dispatched a regiment of role models to schools across Washington, including singers Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow, Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel into space. Michelle visited Anacostia High School, where violence is common and signs on the walls tell students which baby supplies will be available through the Baby Bonus Bucks Redemption Program. She sat with a group of 10 girls and three boys, who had been chosen, she told them, because "somebody in your school thought that you had a lot of potential." She recalled how she had lived close to the University of Chicago but never set foot inside growing up. "It was a fancy college, and it didn't have anything to do with me." Maybe you feel the same way about the White House, she suggested. "There are so many kids like that," she observes, "who are living inches away from power and prestige and fame and fortune, and they don't even know that it exists."
Which is why that night, the women leaders reassembled at the White House for a dinner with more than 100 students from schools across the city to celebrate Women's History Month. Tonight is your night, Michelle told the girls. So don't be shy. "Poke and prod and figure out how [these women] got to be where they are and what you can do in your lives to get yourselves ready for that next step. Tonight we just want to say, Go for it! Don't hesitate. Don't act with fear. Just go for it." Because all the women in the room, she told the girls, see a little bit of ourselves in you.
"It's one of those events," she says looking back, "that stand out in my mind as, This is why I'm here."