Michelle Obama Still Struggling to Define Her Role as First Lady

The first African-American first lady works find her way on the public stage.


On Feb. 10, 2007, Sen. Barack Obama stood in the sunlight on the steps of the Illinois Old State Capitol to announce his candidacy for president. While commentators focused on the son of a white mother and African father potentially ascending to the nation's highest office, his wife, Michelle, the great-great granddaughter of a slave, perhaps offered just as remarkable a story.

Following her husband's victory in November 2008, observers speculated how Michelle—as the first African-American first lady—would define her role and incorporate her experiences as a lawyer and as the mother of two young girls. Since then, she has won wide praise for her personal style and down-to-earth manner, says Myra Gutin, author of The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century (1989), but "after only 18 months, it's too early to know what Michelle Obama's legacy will be." The record suggests she is struggling to find a way to satisfy the public's preference for a noncontroversial "mom-in-chief" along with her own desire to make substantive contributions. Finding that ideal mix may prove challenging.

This story on Michelle Obama is reprinted from U.S. News & World Report's special collector’s edition on the fascinating women who influenced America’s presidents and their times.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson grew up on Chicago's South Side. Though her parents did not have much money—her father had a job at the city waterworks while her mother was a full-time homemaker—they provided Michelle and her older brother Craig with the love and discipline they would need to excel in school. Impressively, both graduated from Princeton, after which Michelle went on to Harvard Law. Her first job at the Chicago law firm now called Sidley Austin lasted only a few years, but it had an outsize effect on Michelle's career path: She was asked to mentor a gifted Harvard Law student and 1989 summer associate named Barack Obama. Though she initially hesitated at the idea of an office romance, she finally agreed to date him. They married in 1992.

[See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Michelle thought her husband would write and teach law. She considered politics a waste of time, but in 1996 Obama ran for the Illinois state Senate. When he won his seat, Michelle objected to his spending several days a week in Springfield while she worked full time and managed their home. By 2000, two years after the birth of their daughter Malia (a second, Natasha, known as "Sasha," would follow in 2001), and amid an unsuccessful run for Congress by Obama, the marriage had become "strained," journalist Richard Wolffe wrote in Renegade: The Making of a President (2009).

Michelle was still ambivalent when Obama announced his apparent long-shot candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 2004. According to David Remnick, author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010), Obama promised he would quit politics if he lost—a move he admitted to friends would make his wife happy. But after a Democratic opponent imploded in messy personal disclosures, Obama won the nomination. Just months later he gave a tour de force speech at the Democratic National Convention. When he won the Senate seat in November, the couple catapulted onto the national stage and people began mentioning Obama as a future presidential candidate.

The explosion of press attention in 2007 seemed to catch Michelle unprepared. Just a few years earlier, she had been largely unknown outside Chicago. Naturally outspoken and occasionally biting in her humor, she now had her every word weighed. Though many commended her warm, spontaneous style and energy, she made some mistakes. Not everyone approved of her discussing Obama's shortcomings around the house (such as a habit of "leaving his underwear in the kitchen"). But far more damaging was her February 2008 comment at a Wisconsin event that "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." Though she later tried to clarify her remark, her poll numbers plummeted, and the Obama campaign moved quickly to remake her image, Gutin says.