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Mar.18, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 10

Features

Mrs. Obama goes to Washington

From Chicago to Princeton to Pennsylvania Avenue, the interests that define Michelle Robinson Obama ’85 haven’t changed

By Peter Slevin ’78
Published in the March18, 2009, issue


Craig Robinson ’83 and Obama at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008.
Rick Friedman/Corbis
Craig Robinson ’83 and Obama at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008.

Bruce, who lived next door to Obama and was a good friend of her roommate, the late Suzanne Alele ’85, recalled Obama being “where the party was” at a time when non-Prospect parties revolved around music and dancing more than alcohol. He remembers her, nearly 6 feet tall, appearing in Princeton fashion shows to help student designers.

Duke University professor Sharon Holland ’86 grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a doctor. She says her years at Princeton “were some of the best times, but they were also really difficult times. There were beginnings of a lot of resentment about affirmative action. People asked you over dinner what your SAT scores were.”

Holland found an intellectual and social home at the Third World Center (renamed in 2002 the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding) where Beard and Obama held work-study jobs answering telephones, typing memos, and organizing events. While there, Obama established an afternoon tutoring program after seeing a single mother struggle to find quality care for her son. She later said that, facing limited opportunities for minorities at Princeton, “we created a community within a community and got involved at places like the Third World Center.”

“Michelle was always rooted in her values,” says Beard, who admired her thoughtfulness and her integrity. “Unlike the rest of us who were 20 and thought we knew so much and were reactive, Michelle would have her thought process. Her thoughts were never the popular opinion or the Prince-ton opinion or the black opinion.”

One of Beard’s memories is a prosaic detail: the two of them driving University vans on Third World Center errands. “If I drove, I would speed. Michelle would drive the speed limit. We were 20 years old; we were supposed to speed and do dumb, reckless things. Michelle would always do the right thing.”

Obama “is also a fighter. She has feistiness in her spirit,” Beard says, yet the most enduring memory of her Princeton identity is that she was “always grounded.” The two stayed in occasional touch, and Beard attended the inauguration.

“The Michelle of today isn’t very different from the Michelle at Princeton,” says Beard. “She’s just the grown-up version. Certainly more exposed, more educated, more worldly, wiser, broader. She’s a mom. She’s married. But in her core, I know her, I recognize that it’s the same person.”

Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said that she got a “great education” at Princeton and that the experience reassured her that a young black woman from a big city belonged in the big leagues. It appears that she did not return to campus between graduation and a campaign fundraiser in 2007. Not long before that, she accepted Bressler’s invitation to join the sociology department’s advisory board, but has not attended a meeting.

Obama said in her thesis that her years on campus would influence her ambitions and the next steps she would take — first to Harvard Law School and then to a corporate law firm in Chicago, where she met her husband. She wrote that life at Princeton imparted “certain conservative values.”

Back in Chicago, as a 25-year-old associate at Sidley Austin, she soon felt unfulfilled. Several events converged — the jolting deaths of her father and Alele, who died of cancer, and her involvement with Barack Obama. He, too, had returned to Chicago from Harvard to find his future. A former $12,000-a-year community organizer on the South Side, he sought work that felt connected to working-class society and its needs.

“When you know you’ve been blessed and know you have a set of gifts, how do you maximize those gifts so you’re impacting the greatest number of people?” Michelle Obama recalled the couple asking themselves, when she spoke to PAW in 2007. “And what do you do? Is it community organizing? Is it politics? Is it as a parent? Our answer at some level is it can be all of that.”

On her first date with Barack, they saw Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing.

Obama quit Sidley Austin for a job in Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office, working for Valerie Jarrett, now a close friend and White House adviser. Her path took her to the city planning department and then to Public Allies, an AmeriCorps mentoring program whose Chicago office she created. From there, she moved to the University of Chicago and a series of community-service and outreach jobs in Hyde Park, a racially and economically diverse neighborhood known for its independence from the city’s infamous machine politics.

When Obama left the university to join the campaign in 2008, she was a hospital executive earning about $300,000 a year — more than her husband’s salary as a U.S. senator — in a role designed to bridge the divide between the university medical center and the surrounding communities, largely black and working class. “I know the community does not trust and understand the university, and the university does not trust and understand the community. Until you can bridge those gaps and hear out both sides and understand why are they afraid,” she told The Washington Post, “you can’t really have a conversation.”

She worked on the medical center’s Urban Health Initiative, which hospital leaders described as a plan to make quality health care more available through nearby community clinics. The goals were twofold: to help patients become healthier by making primary care more accessible, and to cut down on unnecessary, and expensive, emergency-room visits. A small but vocal group of critics contends the plan denies treatment to poor patients, a claim the university and many South Side doctors dispute.

Jarrett, who served on the university and medical center boards, calls Obama’s impact on the university “tremendous,” citing her organizational skills and ability to listen. “She helped put in place the building blocks of this new relationship,” Jarrett says.

Obama joined the board of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the elite private school attended by her daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, before they moved into the White House. Also on the board is a longtime friend, Ariel Capital Management founder and CEO John W. Rogers Jr. ’80, a former Princeton basketball captain who first knew her nearly 30 years ago as Craig Robinson’s teenage little
sister.

Lab, as the school universally is known, has a distinguished history and a strong reputation for cultural diversity. The poet Langston Hughes was once artist in residence. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is a graduate, as is Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a close basketball-playing friend of Rogers and the Obamas. Michelle Obama is among a group that believes Lab, a school coveted by parents across the city, drifted from its commitment to the diversity represented in Hyde Park.

“She has this enormous passion to make sure the Lab school remains this diverse, welcoming place for people of color and people of different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Rogers says. “It took a lot of courage and conviction to push the agenda — not only to push the diversity, which can be uncomfortable in a public setting, but also the admissions policy.”

As Rogers describes it, when other board members resisted Obama’s argument, she said, “Let’s just look at the facts. Let’s look at the numbers.” Board members from the University of Chicago, he says, fought against allocating more slots for diversity, arguing that it would deny needed slots for faculty children and hurt the university’s recruiting efforts. In the end, university president Robert Zimmer weighed in, and Lab’s leaders agreed to expand the school to become more diverse.

Rogers has seen the Obamas often in the past two hectic years. He was a backstage presence during many key campaign moments. A co-chairman of Barack Obama’s inaugural committee, he had raised big money and occasionally accompanied the Obamas on campaign trips. He watched as Michelle emerged.

“When she got up in front of these large crowds, hundreds and hundreds of people, she just came alive. The charisma came through,” Rogers recalls, adding that behind the scenes, with the candidate and his tight circle of advisers, “she felt completely comfortable communicating. They were all equal participants. Of course, Barack was the leader, but it was a mutual respect among all the key players.”


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3 Responses to Mrs. Obama goes to Washington

Ricardo Fernandez, Harvard '77 Says:

2009-03-20 11:16:49

It is a delicate balancing act to engage in journalism while producing a testimonial, but surely the Chicago bureau chief of the Washington Post and Princeton alumnus Peter Slevin should have been up to the task... So, we are told that Michelle Obama earned $300,000 a year in her position as a liaison between the University of Chicago hospitals and "the community." One suspects that is not a reference to the Hyde Park community, which hardly needs a liaison, but to the economically depressed and socially dysfunctional, high-crime community that exists partly within and around the rarefied Hyde Park (Jackson Park-Englewood). We learn also that this community distrusts the university. But at $300,000 a year to "bridge the gap" with the needy, is it really a fair statement on Michelle Obama's part to say that the university "distrusts" the community? Does not the very existence of the position she occupied--among other outreach efforts--belie that characterization? We learn that Mrs. Obama speaks compassionately and often of "the least of these"--but not why that phrase from the Gospel of St. Matthew apparently does not extend to the littlest humans in the womb who would be stripped of all legal protection if the radical abortion-on-demand agenda of the Freedom of Choice Act, which her husband supports, were enacted. We learn of her concern for greater diversity at the elite Lab School in Hyde Park, where her daughters were enrolled before entering the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC. But not why it is that the termination of school vouchers enabling mostly poor black school children in the nation's capital to attend better private schools rather than be consigned to the failing public school system--as Sasha and Malia have been able to do--is a reflection of concern for the least among us, or a manifestation of being our brother's keeper. It is at the least a sign of intellectual honesty--from the perspective of journalism--to raise these contradictions, or seeming contradictions. It would, of course, strike a discordant note in an uncritical testimonial or admiring profile written for a sympathetic audience.

Dorene Cornwell '85 Says:

2009-03-25 10:57:22

Full disclosure: Michelle Obama and I may have breathed the same air at an event or two, but I did not know her while at Princeton. I once saw a cartoon of Ron and Nancy Reagan alongside Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev. In the cartoon, the Gipper is saying to Nancy something like "Don't worry honey, I'll get you a PhD in philosophy in the morning." As a member of the class of 1985, I think it's wonderful that no one is ever going to have reason to write that kind of cartoon about Michelle Obama. More to the point, I do not get the previous commenter's issue about $300,000 healthcare executive salaries. If other healthcare executives routinely earn that much or more being liaisons to their particular communities, however, dysfunctional those communities may be, why would it not be appropriate for Michelle Obama also to make that kind of money? That point is not necessarily an opinion about whether any healthcare executive should be earning that much money, but that would be a different problem. I also think work as a healthcare executive is considerably more respectable than some of the work done in recent years in the overleveraged world of speculation and chasing financial bubbles.

Clifford Bryan Says:

2009-08-31 10:28:13

Michelle Obama is a wonderful First Lady.
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