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It's all about priorities for Michelle Obama

August 22, 2007|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — The young professional woman was in a bind. She had a job interview scheduled with a prospective boss, but she didn't have a baby-sitter. Not even her Harvard law degree could help her.

So Michelle Obama -- still in maternity clothes -- strapped her newborn daughter, Sasha, in the stroller and headed out to meet Michael E. Riordan, president and chief executive of the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Luckily, Sasha kept her little mouth shut, but her presence that day in 2001 "was more than symbolic. It was significant," Riordan said in a recent interview. Obama "had her priorities in line. She really wanted to make that known to me. . . that family came first."

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 43, is not your mother's political spouse.

She is 5-feet-11 in her stocking feet, earned more than $300,000 last year -- husband's paycheck not included -- has two Ivy League degrees and was just named to Vanity Fair's 68th annual international best-dressed list.

But on the campaign trail, she has carved out a niche connecting with women over shared daily struggles: to get the kids up, their hair brushed, their lunch packed and out the door; to have a job and a family and not go crazy; to hope for better things for their daughters when they grow up and are off on their own.

As she crisscrosses the country on behalf of husband, Barack, Obama reaches out to and embodies a new generation of American women -- those much-studied multitaskers who hope to change the workplace but, in the process, inspire headlines like "Damned or Doomed," "Opt Out or Pushed Out," "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired."

Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, said the Obamas "capture absolutely perfectly what's going on with their generation."

"In my generation, our challenge was just getting our foot in the door on men's terms," said Williams, 55. When Obama brought her baby to a job interview, Williams said, she expressed "in a very self-possessed fashion, 'I'm a professional, and here's my infant.' "

Obama is a woman who has ratcheted her career up and down to accommodate both campaign and children, but she never leaves home without two BlackBerrys, one for the job and one for the campaign.

"I don't know about you," Obama told women at a recent fundraiser near Austin, Texas, "but as a mother, wife, professional, campaign wife, whatever it is that's on my plate, I'm drowning. And nobody's talking about these issues. In my adult lifetime, I felt duped." Emphatic nods all around.

"People told me, 'You can do it all. Just stay the course, get your education and you can raise a child, stay thin, be in shape, love your man, look good and raise healthy children.' That was a lie." Rueful laughter swept through the room.

America, Obama says, needs universal healthcare, access to child care and better schools. And she, herself, is looking "for someone -- not just a woman -- but someone who understands my struggles."

So is Deborah Roberts, also 43, who found Obama "inspirational." It was the first time, the Austin artist said, that she had heard someone say what she has silently believed for many years: "We can't do it all."

It's worse, Roberts figures, for African American women like herself, who often "have to be the mother and father and the breadwinner. There's so much pressure. . . . I applaud her for just stating that fact."

Applause is nice, but votes are nicer. And that's where the Obamas have a steep climb ahead. Roberts, for one, wavers between the junior senator from Illinois and the junior senator from New York.

Although Barack Obama has raised more money than any primary candidate in presidential history, he has made little headway against Hillary Rodham Clinton in national polls. While he does relatively well among younger voters, women belong to his chief rival, and the two split the African American vote pretty much down the middle.

Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, says Barack Obama has a lock on Democrats with an idealistic strain, who "love what the concept of voting for [him] would mean for the party and the country." But pragmatic voters who worry about tangibles like paying the bills right now are solidly in Clinton's camp.

Which means that Michelle Obama could be a potent weapon in her husband's campaign precisely because she is addressing the practical, particularly when it comes to the struggles of America's working families.

Obama got the job at the University of Chicago Medical Center and has since been promoted to vice president for community and external affairs, a position heavy on strategy and persuasion. The baby in the stroller, Sasha, is now 6 and older sister Malia is 9.

She regularly tells audiences that raising children is her top priority: In Austin's suburbs, she said: "If we can't keep our family whole and healthy, and we can't raise sane children, then how on earth can we expect you to trust us with the rest of the world?"

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