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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Michelle Obama, 1st lady of USA

IN February, as Barack Obama gained what appeared to be unstoppable momentum against rival Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic Party's nomination for president, his wife, Michelle, put her foot in it. But she would soon learn a valuable lesson from first lady Laura Bush.

Michelle Obama connects with audiences more easily than her husband, Barack.

Passionate but usually poised, Michelle Obama, who grew up steeped in black culture in the once segregated South Side of Chicago, was speaking to an audience in Milwaukee and, reflecting on her husband's successes to that point in his bid to become the US's first black president, she said: "For the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.

Partisan Republicans pounced as her comments appeared to indicate she was dismissing seminal moments in recent US history, such as the US victory in the Cold War and dramatic technological advances that had helped cement America's military and economic dominance in the world.

It also appeared to reflect a self-reverential element of racial politics; an implication that before now Americans were not good enough to even consider, let alone elect, a black man as president.

Michelle Obama weathered the cable television and blogosphere storm, then witnessed a moment of grace as the first lady leaped to her defence.
"I think she probably meant 'I'm more proud', you know, is what she really meant," Laura Bush said on breakfast TV. "You have to be very careful in what you say. Everything you say is looked at and in many cases, misconstrued." It touched Michelle Obama, who sent Laura Bush a thank-you note, addressed "Dear Madam First Lady".

Michelle Obama found respect for the "calm rational approach" the first lady took in her role at the White House, adding: "I'm taking some cues. The reason I like her is because she doesn't fuel the fire."

This week, following president-elect Barack Obama's historic victory over John McCain last week, Laura Bush took Michelle Obama on a tour of the White House in what aides said was a warm and friendly occasion.

While Barack Obama and George W. Bush discussed affairs of state in a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office, the first lady and the first lady-to-be were upstairs inspecting the 132-room stately mansion. Much of the discussion centred on how the Obama girls - Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 - could adapt.

"They talked about family life, particularly about their children," Laura Bush's spokeswoman Sally McDonough said. The Obama girls will be the youngest children in the White House since Caroline and John Kennedy Jr.

Laura Bush, a former librarian, and Michelle Obama, a lawyer, are two very different characters.

Laura Bush has exuded an almost mystical air during her years at the White House, somewhat disconnected in her public musings from a tumultuous presidency that has aged her husband. Softly spoken, reflective and clearly generous of spirit, she has been like a quiet, peaceful tributary while the raging river roars nearby.
She has been clearly pained at what her husband has gone through. George Bush on a personal level is almost always liked by those who meet him but the first lady has watched as the once popular governor of Texas has become even more despised nationally than Richard Nixon was when he left office in 1974.

Michelle Obama, 44, will take note how fortunes can change. For now, her husband enters the White House with the goodwill of most Americans. There is what she has learned from observing Laura Bush's behaviour. Then there's her political persona, well honed during the course of the campaign this year and following her gaffe in Milwaukee.

The Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate embodies the modern woman. She is a working mother, down-to-earth and glamorous. (This year she topped Vanity Fair's best-dressed list.) The common touch is regularly on show.

Appearing earlier this year on the nationally syndicated women's chat show The View with Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters, among others, Michelle, a statuesque 180cm tall, glided in wearing a stunning black and white leaf print sleeveless dress, bought from an affordable boutique called White House-Black Market. It retailed for about $US148 and became an overnight sensation, selling out in shops across the US.
Acknowledging the plaudits from The View's hosts about her dress, Michelle said: "I got this dress, then I put a pin on it," referring to a flower on the shoulder strap, "and you got something going on."

"It's fun to look pretty," she added, noting she had high-end clothing as well as chain-store clobber.

Just before last week's election she appeared on late-night chat show The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and noted her autumn-gold skirt and jacket ensemble was purchased online from J. Crew.

"You can get some good stuff online," she said. Within 24 hours, J.Crew was cashing in on the would-be first lady's endorsement, advertising the ensemble as "Michelle Obama's look" and urging shoppers to "buy now before it sells out".

But there was political savvy in her comments, too. Leno had asked if her outfit was worth $US60,000 ($93,000), a joke referencing the breaking controversy at the time over the more than $US150,000 spent on clothes for Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Michelle Obama's upscale but suburban working mum, J. Crew look was, whether she meant it or not, the perfect political pitch.

If anything, she connects better with people than her husband. She is not as particular as the president-elect and is ready to down a cheeseburger ahead of her husband, whose regular diet on the campaign trail was salmon, rice and broccoli.
Barack Obama lost weight on the campaign and whenever he was in those greasy diners he tended to order take-away food, the suspicion being that the candidate would dump it away from the public glare or at least pass it out to other less fussy staff.
But Michelle Obama loves her champagne, along with clothes and a manicure. Some of her friends describe her as very "girly" at times, and there are moments on the stump when her voice sounds almost like that of a teenager when she talks about her "kinda skinny, cute husband". She also has said her husband can be "snorey" and "stinky" in the morning.

That the Obamas are also physically appealing and youthful is clearly one of the factors that helped Barack Obama sweep the youth vote last week, two to one. And the two are clearly deeply attracted to one another. The joke among the press corps on the Obama campaign plane was how much looser and more relaxed Barack Obama looked after he had spent the night at home with his wife.

Michelle Obama grew up in a lower middle-class family and landed at Princeton in the 1980s. The university started taking black students after World War II and her senior thesis for the sociology department was a study on whether African-American graduates of Princeton identified with white society as they enjoyed upward mobility.

As Newsweek reported: "Beneath its academic formalism, her writing has a rueful quality: she clearly (and accurately) expected to be drawn into the white world upon graduation but wrote that, even so, she expected to 'remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant'."

She says now, marvelling at the position she and her husband find themselves in: "As a black girl from the South Side of Chicago I'm not supposed to be here." But she was rising fast before now, having landed a job as a lawyer at an elite Chicago law firm, where she first met her husband, who was working as an intern for the summer. She then worked as a high-level hospital administrator.

Apart from the rock of the family, her husband has also called her "the closer" on the campaign trail because her charisma on the hustings helped sell the Obama candidacy to wavering women.

"Is there anything that people get from me on this campaign? (It's) that Barack gets it. He gets it: he is approaching this as a father, as a son and as a husband. He knows the struggles of this country," she would say on the stump, relaying Barack Obama's biography, growing up in a dysfunctional family, his Kenyan father leaving when Barack was two, then spending much of his youth being reared by his white grandparents in Hawaii.

Michelle Obama also speaks of the thrill of first seeing Barack Obama working as a social worker, watching him speak to struggling out-of-work families and his determination to stress to young black men the importance of their responsibility if they become fathers. She would almost whisper to her audience: "I married Barack because of his values."

After seeing her speak, the common refrain from suburban mums across the US was "she sold me". Indeed, Barack Obama won the female vote easily last week at 56 per cent to 43 per cent. While Democratic presidential nominees usually win the female vote, Barack beat his two predecessors' performance: John Kerry (51 to 48) and Al Gore (54 to 43).

Michelle Obama combines glamour - she finds it thrilling and flattering to be compared with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - with intellectual heft. There is an independent streak that has echoes of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first modern first lady, who held press conferences and wrote newspaper and monthly magazine columns.
But she is clearly of a mind to try to maintain a traditional and graceful air as Laura Bush has shown.

Above all, Michelle Obama says her priority in the White House will be Sasha and Malia. She called Hillary Clinton this week for advice on how the Clintons managed to bring the well-adjusted Chelsea through her teenage years in the White House fish bowl.

"What gets me up in the morning for this campaign are my girls," she said recently. "When I get tired and get a little discouraged over this last year, I think of them and the kind of world that I want to hand over to them. What Barack and I said when he started this run was we wanted to keep life as normal as possible for the girls," adding it is important the girls have at least one parent athome.
Her guiding lights in her public comments appear to be her loyalty to her working-class roots, her femininity and her streak of youthful optimism about better days ahead.

"The challenge that I have, to (the) extent it is a strength or a weakness, is I wear my heart on my sleeve, there is a level of passion. It's the risk you take, but one of the things is more people get to know me and get to know our family. It will become clear who I am and what I care about. So I don't worry about it."
Geoff Elliott is The Australian's Washington correspondent.

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