Michelle Obama steps up front

Candidate's wife will share life story

Election 2008

August 25, 2008|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,Chicago Tribune

DENVER - Michelle Obama likes to describe herself in simple terms - a mother, a lawyer and a wife who grew up in a blue-collar family in a Chicago working-class neighborhood.

Republicans have been busy trying to paint her in a less flattering light, as a loose and less-than-patriotic cannon who uttered controversial - she says misunderstood - comments about her pride as an American being stoked only for the first time with her husband's presidential bid.

The goal for Michelle Obama during this week's Democratic convention is not all that different from her husband's: She has to seize the moment and define herself rather than let the caricature sketched by her critics settle in the mind of voters.

Her biggest opportunity will come today as she headlines the convention's opening night with a prime-time televised speech that will reach millions of viewers.

She will share stories about her life, starting with her childhood growing up on the top floor of a brick bungalow in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. She will talk about how she met and fell in love with her husband in an office romance at a Loop law firm.

"So far, the public has only seen the sound bites and the YouTube version, and you have not heard from Michelle," said U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat. "It will be a proud moment to see the unedited version, the smart, graceful Harvard-educated lawyer, mother and supportive spouse."

She is under pressure, political analysts said, to charm a national audience while convincing voters that she is very much like many working women who must juggle a job (most recently as an executive at the University of Chicago Hospitals) and raise a family simultaneously.

The speech will serve as a preview of what she would be like as first lady, said Bill Whalen, research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a conservative think tank. Her challenge, he said, is not so much what she says but how she presents it.

"The muttering you hear is that she has a little too much edge," said Whalen, a Republican speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson. "She's too smart and too accomplished to stand out there and smile for 15 minutes. The challenge is to get up there smooth and charming and not have too much attitude."

Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama campaign and a longtime friend of Michelle Obama's, said the convention will serve as a "watershed moment" for the would-be first lady. Her mission, Jarrett said, is to introduce the Obamas as people who overcame obstacles, worked hard to get a good education and are now fulfilling the American dream.

"It is intended to be very personal, open and very revealing about who they are," Jarrett said. "America will know their values, their life decisions and what drew them to one another." On the campaign trail, Michelle Obama has not shied from speaking her mind about her husband. Early on, she connected well with voters, following up with small groups after her husband had spoken to much larger audiences. It prompted campaign workers to nickname her "The Closer." However, a poll taken last spring by the Pew Research Center for the People & Press showed that while opinions about Michelle Obama and Republican John McCain's wife, Cindy, were mostly positive, Obama had emerged as a more high profile and controversial spouse. In the poll, 22 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Michelle Obama, compared to 16 percent for Cindy McCain.

Many political analysts dismiss the notion that voters' views about a presidential contender can be substantially influenced by the candidate's spouse. But Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, thinks spouses can matter.

"Spouses aren't viewed as being as threatening or as partisan as their husbands," said Burden, who has analyzed polling data from several presidential elections. "Because they are not running for office themselves, they can do things voters of both sides of the aisle can appreciate, involving illiteracy, health care, the environment or children. They often have the background to make those kinds of things credible."

Except for minor tweaking, Michelle Obama finished writing her convention speech weeks ago, aides said. After returning from a family vacation in Hawaii last week, she focused on getting daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, ready to return to school. The three, minus Barack Obama, who stayed behind in the Midwest, arrived in Denver yesterday afternoon. Also traveling with them was Michelle Obama's widowed mother, 71-year-old Marian Robinson.

Aides to Michelle Obama promised she would be highly visible during the entire convention, co-chairing a public service event, attending a round table with female governors and getting to know delegates.

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