For a woman who insisted she never wanted a political life, Michelle Obama now finds herself at the center of one of the most historic presidential elections in the nation's history. And she's become a potent campaigner for her husband, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. The 44-year-old Harvard Law School graduate drew thousands at an appearance in Delaware last week before returning to Chicago and daughters Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6. U.S. News caught up with Michelle Obama on her way to a women's roundtable in Connecticut. Excerpts:
You've said your husband's presidential run is now or never. Why?
One is practical. We've got small kids, and the thought of putting them through this very taxing endeavor again and again is to me almost unthinkable. The second thing is bringing in someone who is still very closely planted to the ground. Our lives are so close to normal, if there is such a thing when you're running for president. When I'm off the road, I'm going to Target to get the toilet paper, I'm standing on soccer fields, and I think there's just a level of connection that gets lost the further you get into being a candidate.
Was there a moment you realized your life would never be the same?
It's been very gradual, from the day Barack announced to 16,000 people standing out in the frigid cold in Springfield, Ill. You thought "Wow!" ok. You didn't expect that. And it's been that for the whole year.
What do you miss most about your old life?
Family time. Barack has been home with time off this year for maybe 10 days.
Did you ever think the two of you would end up playing this role in history?
Not at this magnitude, no! There is a special quality to Barack, for sure, that is unmistakable when you meet him. A great intellect, common sense, humor and self-deprecation, and a willingness to put himself in really hard situations to help the greatest number of people. I think I knew it was there, but I didn't believe the nation would be ready anytime soon to embrace someone so unconventional.
What about racism? Did you and your husband expect it on the campaign trail?
It's not just race, but his youth, his level of experience, his name, his background, everything—there's just so much that is unconventional. The question is, Is that too much for people? But our strategy is to be as honest and open as possible. Basically folks are the same. They want to feel like they can trust you. They want to feel like you'll listen. All [the other] stuff breaks down when people get to know each other.
In his comments before the South Carolina primary, was Bill Clinton intentionally creating a white-black scenario?
I wouldn't begin to second-guess somebody else's motives. I know that these campaigns are tough and hard fought. And there are always times when people say things that they shouldn't say, that aren't accurate, and I think that this was one of those cases.
What would be your White House role?
I think I can bring visibility and a voice to a whole range of issues, like work-family balance. We talk a lot about the struggle that women have just to survive in a climate where wages are decreasing, where you have to hold two or three jobs to cover the basics. All of these things lead to greater stresses on families in ways that we need to talk about.
Some fear for your husband's safety. How do you manage your concern for him and for your family?
Barack has Secret Service protection, and that in and of itself provides a level of security that didn't exist in our everyday lives. So, I think that the question of security has been a bit overblown. We didn't make the decision to enter this worrying about safety. When you look at people who came before us, people like Martin Luther King Jr., there was a real reason to be afraid. We're living in different times. As far as I'm concerned, whatever we are sacrificing is nothing compared to what others have sacrificed.
What inspired you and your brother? And if you hadn't chosen law, what might you have done?
We had very hardworking parents. They didn't go to college, but they believed in the importance of education; they were staunch supporters of us, so we always had two parents telling us how wonderful we were. In terms of other careers, I think I gave up the notion of being a pediatrician after I realized that organic chemistry was going to be [required.] [But] I don't think I have put my heart and soul into the notion of being a lawyer.
Excluding births and marriage, can you share a special moment in your life, a time you like to think back on?
We have just some of the most wonderful times when we visit Barack's grandmother in Hawaii. Those are always wonderful times, warm weather, a time to be together and laugh, when everybody's relaxed, no schedules, no nothing, just a lot of good fun together.