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

First lady Michelle Obama ’85 listens to children at Mary’s Center, a community social-service center, in Washington in February.
First lady Michelle Obama ’85 listens to children at Mary’s Center, a community social-service center, in Washington in February.
Gerald Herbert/AP Images

It was Inauguration Day.The 44th president had just taken the oath of office, and his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson ’83, was checking out his sister’s new digs, better known as the White House. A staff member, one of 93 who work for the first family, gave Robinson and his wife, Kelly, a tour that took them to the Truman Balcony, overlooking the South Lawn and the Washington Monument beyond.

“We took in the view and the history. My wife and I were just shaking our heads,” Robinson says. “When you grow up in a place that’s one-bedroom, one-bath, you’re not thinking at any point, ‘My sister’s going to live in the White House,’ or ‘My mother’s going to live in the White House.’ ”

Live there they do, completing an improbable journey that took Michelle Obama ’85, the daughter of a city utility worker, from a small walkup in South Shore on Chicago’s South Side to the heart of American political power. Already, she is defining a role that reflects her outgoing, embracing personality and her eclectic interests, from education and social justice to fashion, the arts, and food.

Not 10 days into Barack Obama’s presidency, she was speaking at the White House about equal pay for women. Soon after, she was addressing cheering workers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, urging them to find “a new level of passion and vigor.” A few days after that, she was telling teenagers at a Washington community health center that she and her husband “were kids like you who figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands.”  

In barely a year, as Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy shot from quixotic to triumphant, Michelle Obama, 45, advanced from sending handwritten notes of gratitude to supporters in Iowa to appearing on magazine covers all over the world. Fashion writers ask if she will single-handedly revive American design. Women professionals wonder if she will influence a national discussion about balancing work and family.   Scholars ponder how she will make the role of first lady her own.

From girlhood in Chicago to college at Princeton to professional life and presidential politics, one constant in the descriptions of Michelle Obama is her constancy. At a time when her roles and her responsibilities have expanded exponentially, her brother sees her as the same kid he grew up with. He feels confident that she can pull it off, even if the very fact of her new existence leaves him shaking his head.

“It felt like we were staying in someone else’s house,” he says of inauguration night at the White House, where he slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. “It didn’t feel like staying at my sister’s house ... Think about the different folks who have stayed overnight at the White House. It feels funny.”

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson grew up in a small apartment in South Shore, a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. “If you said it was 1,100 square feet,” her brother once commented, “I’d call you a liar.” Her father tended boilers for the city water department. Her mother stayed at home until Michelle was in high school. Michelle credits her parents’ steadfastness and strong example for keeping her grounded.

Fraser Robinson, as his children tell it, reported uncomplainingly to his blue-collar job despite a disheartening decline due to multiple sclerosis. Once a sportsman who boxed and swam, he depended in his final years on two canes to haul himself around. Yet his moral compass remained strong to the end. “I remember him saying you don’t want to do things because you’re worried about people thinking they’re right; you want to do the right things,” Craig Robinson said in a 2007 interview. “You grow up not worrying about what people think about you.”

Barack Obama has written that visiting the Robinsons was “like dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver.” As someone who felt he had “bloodlines scattered to the four winds” — he was born in Hawaii to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya — he found an anchor at the Robinsons’, where he said “there were uncles and aunts and cousins everywhere, stopping by to sit around the kitchen table and eat until they burst and tell wild stories and listen to Grandpa’s old jazz collection and laugh deep into the night.”

The children felt embraced.

“When you grow up as a black kid in a white world, so many times people are telling you — sometimes not maliciously, sometimes maliciously — you’re not good enough,” says Robinson, who last spring became Oregon State University’s head basketball coach. “To have a family, which we did, who constantly reminded you how smart you were, how good you were, how pleasant it was to be around you, how successful you could be, it’s hard to combat. Our parents gave us a little head start by making us feel confident.”

“It sounds so corny,” he adds, “but that’s how we grew up.”

Obama’s Princeton friends describe a woman who seemed impressively centered, even in her late teens. She graduated from a top Chicago public magnet school, and told audiences during the campaign that she was inspired to apply to Princeton because two years earlier, Craig had shown her it was possible. “Seeing him go was my first exposure to knowing that was something I could reach for. Nobody told me that I could go to Princeton,” Obama told a rapt audience at a Women for Obama rally at a Harlem community center in 2007. “I was No. 30 in a class of I-don’t-know-how-many people. We didn’t have resources ... didn’t have counselors who were pushing us to dream and to reach. And I saw my brother and I thought, well, shoot, I’m as smart as he is. If he can get in, I certainly can get in.”

She got in, arriving on campus in September 1981, barely a decade after women were first admitted, at a time when African-Americans represented just 8 percent of the class — 94 students out of 1,141. The lush setting, the gothic spires, and the undeniable prosperity, the conflicting senses of prejudice and possibility. It was a long way from South Shore.  

“I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really didn’t belong,” Obama wrote in her sociology thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” “Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”

Asked about her thesis more than two decades later, Obama said her experience would be recognizable to African-Americans in many settings. Working with her adviser, Walter Wallace, she spent her senior year exploring how black graduates coped and how Princeton influenced their choices. “One of the points I was making, which is a reality for black folks in majority-white environments, is [that] it is a very isolating experience — period,” Obama told PAW in 2007. “The question is, how do people deal with that isolation? Does it make you cling more to your own community or does it make you try to assimilate more?”

Sociology professor emeritus Marvin Bressler supervised Obama’s junior independent work and was close to Michelle and her brother. He describes her as disciplined and thoughtful, with an “impish sense of humor” and a sense of irony suited to the times. Knowing her then and seeing her now, he says he is “just awed by the distance she has traveled.”

Michelle’s challenges at Princeton, Bressler believes, were harder than those faced by her brother, who gained recognition as a two-time Ivy League basketball player of the year. “There existed in universities at that time,” Bressler says, “various competing strains of what an ideal minority should be. She had to make up her mind, in some sense, to what extent she regarded herself as black, as a woman, [or] simply as a person.”

“As students of color, we kind of went through a gauntlet,” says Hilary Beard ’84, a Philadelphia writer and Princeton friend of Obama’s. “I grew up around a lot of white people. What was new to me was to be around white people who had had so little exposure to people of color. I was suddenly confronted with negative assumptions about me and people who looked like me that I had never encountered before. It was shocking.”

Ken Bruce ’83 says Obama’s observation about being seen as black first and a student second was “about right.” In class, he remembers being a rare black engineer. On party nights, he remembers being on Prospect Avenue, where white students “would say things. They would shout things. They wouldn’t give you space on the sidewalk. It was almost like they felt a sense of ownership and they felt we were supplementary guests.”

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

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.”

Before the January 2008 Iowa caucus, hardly anyone thought Barack Obama would make it to the White House, certainly not on his first run as the self-described skinny black kid with the funny name. In 2007, when Hillary Clinton looked like a lock and even true believers were feeling glum, chief strategist David Axelrod called Michelle “a great touchstone of this campaign. In the purest way, she’s the keeper of the flame of what this is all about.”

When Michelle Obama started talking about her husband and what they believe about the United States, she showed so much heart that someone could be forgiven for wondering whether she was about to turn herself inside out. As the campaign ground on, it became clear that “this running for president thing,” as she called it, had become as much her quest as her husband’s.

She once said that her role was “to introduce the Obamas the people, not the Obamas the résumés.” She set out to praise her candidate husband, and to sell him to often skeptical audiences. Her evolving stump speech, delivered without notes, sometimes sounded dark notes about life in America, especially among the working class. She said life was often unfair, even as she called on people to believe again.

“The bar is set, and folks work to reach a bar. And then they reach it and they think they’re there, only to find that the bar has moved,” Obama told an audience in a Galveston, Texas, theater in February 2008. “We’re seeing it happening to regular folks all over this country. We’re living in a time where people are finding that the bar is just shifting and moving on them, and that they can’t get ahead.”

Obama, who often spoke of the need to help “the least of these,” a reference to the Gospel of Matthew, infused her comments with a dose of social justice and a call to action. “Barack says our challenge is that we are suffering from a deficit of empathy, that deep down we are one another’s brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We’ve lost the understanding that we in this nation have to have a mutual obligation to one another,” Obama went on. “We’ve been told, ‘Just take care of your own and if you’re OK, then don’t worry about anybody else.’ ”

Republican critics demonized her, accusing her of harboring a radical, even racist agenda. But Obama remained steady throughout. For good measure, her strategists worked in the final months of the campaign to soften her image. She talked less about Princeton and Harvard and more about how she tried to keep her daughters grounded amid the ever-more-intense glare. She met with working women and military families. She dropped the line about the bar that kept shifting and moving.

“He’s a fighter for regular folks, and that’s our background,” Obama told a delirious crowd in Akron less than two weeks before Election Day. “He doesn’t get it in some theoretical, disconnected, philosophical way. He gets it because he’s lived it. You see, there’s something that happens to folks when they grow up regular.”

Obama might as well have been talking about herself. During the campaign, she became a certifiable star. Her Chicago friend Yvonne Davila — they are so close, and their children were so often at one another’s homes, that they describe each other as “co-parents” — recalls trying to have a quiet sandwich with Obama at a neighborhood place. They were interrupted constantly by well-wishers who simply wanted to touch Obama. Davila calls it “simply surreal.”

Now that she is in the White House, Obama intends to use her influential perch to send some of the same messages that have defined her life for 20 years. She has said she wants the White House to feel open, to be filled with people and art and music. She has told friends that she intends to become involved in the Washington that lies beyond the federal city and the tourist town, perhaps in the District’s struggling schools.

For her first official remarks as first lady, Obama chose Jan. 29, the day President Obama signed into law a measure that makes it easier for women to win equal pay in the workplace. She introduced Lilly Ledbetter, the Goodyear Tire worker who long had fought discrimination, by saying Ledbetter “knew unfairness when she saw it, and was willing to do something about it because it was the right thing to do, plain and simple.”

Rider University Professor Myra Gutin, who studies first ladies, says she didn’t expect Obama to be out and about so quickly. “I never expected she was going to stay home, but she really did seem to be charting a course that was steering away from public policy,” Gutin says. “It’s still early. She has the intellectual smarts and the political experience to do some special things, but time will tell.”

Anyone who has listened to Obama through the years already can hear anew the themes that have defined so many of the big decisions in her life since Princeton. The sight of her on national television, making the White House her home and her pulpit, still leaves friends shaking their heads, but they see the same person they always have known.



Peter Slevin ’78 is ’s Chicago bureau chief.