Michelle Obama: First Lady of the United States

Updated on November 28, 2017
2013 Official Portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama.
2013 Official Portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama.

Early Life

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in a modest family from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Fraser Robinson III, was a city water plant employee but was also active on the local political scene as a precinct captain for the Democrats. Her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, started to work after Michelle entered high school. Both of Michelle’s parents are descendants of African Americans from the American South, with a history going back way before the Civil War. Some of her paternal ancestors were slaves on plantations in South Carolina, while some of her maternal ancestors worked on farms in Georgia. According to DNA evidence, all four of Michelle’s grandparents had a multiracial heritage. The family also has distant Irish and other European roots.

The Robinson family lived in a small rented apartment in Chicago’s South Shore area. The father worked, while the mother stayed at home to take care of the two children. They had a peaceful and conventional life, where frequent visits from the extended family were common, and the main leisure activities were reading or playing games. Michelle attended the elementary school down the street and played the piano. On Sundays, the family attended services at a nearby United Methodist Church. The only thing that clouded their domestic happiness was the illness of the father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis.

Due to the severe health condition of her father, Michelle was very determined from a young age to be a good student and not cause any struggles to her family. After being in a gifted class in elementary school, she was accepted to Whitney Young Magnet High School, a very selective school. Even though she had to commute three hours daily, Michelle had an outstanding academic track, taking advanced placement classes. She was elected student council treasurer and was also a member of the National Honor Society. She went to high school with Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughter, Santita Jackson, and built a relationship with Jackson’s civil rights group, Rainbow Push. She graduated from high school in 1981.

Video Biography of Michelle Obama

Education and Career

Since in 1981 her older brother was already a student at Princeton University, Michelle decided to apply to the same university. Although she went to Princeton at 17, she got actively involved in student activities, mostly with the Third World Center, a support organization which developed academic and cultural programs for minority students. Michelle later recalled that while in college, she became more aware of her ethnicity due to various incidents where she felt discriminated for her race and also for her gender. Robinson chose to major in sociology with African American studies as a minor. She graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985. Her thesis focused on Princeton-educated African Americans, analyzing how their relation to their racial identity changed over the course of their studies at the Ivy League university.

Michelle Robinson continued her studies at Harvard Law School and in 1988, she earned a Juris Doctor degree. At Harvard, she got involved in political and social issues. She was a fervent participant in demonstrations that advocated the hiring of professors from minority groups. She also worked for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where her main responsibility was to provide assistance to low-income people.

After graduating from law school, Robinson became an associate at the law firm Sidley & Austin, working at their Chicago office. There, she covered mostly marketing and intellectual property cases. In 1991, she took a public sector position in the Chicago city government as an Assistant to the Mayor and Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Development. Two years later, she was elected Executive Director of the Chicago office of Public Allies. The non-profit organization was developing guidance programs to attract young people who wanted to work on social issues either in government agencies or non-profit organizations. Michelle spent four years in the organization and managed to set incredible fundraising records that weren’t surpassed for more than a decade after.

In 1996, Michelle switched positions by accepting a job as Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago. Her main accomplishment was expanding the University’s Community Service Center, where she could tackle important social and educational issues. In 2002, she changed positions again, starting to work for the University of Chicago Hospitals. At first, she was Executive Director for Community Affairs. In 2005, she became Vice President for Community and External Affairs.

Michelle Obama is the third First Lady with a postgraduate degree. Only Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush match her education.

Personal life

Michelle Robinson met her future husband Barack Obama while working at the Sidley & Austin LLP law firm in Chicago. He was a summer associate and she was assigned to mentor him. At the beginning, they met mostly in formal settings, such as community organization meetings. Although Michelle was reluctant to engage in a serious relationship due to her desire to focus on her career, she changed her mind after meeting Obama. While they were opposites in terms of personality, they admitted to have found in each other a perfect complement. Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama married in October 1992. They have two daughters, Malia Ann, born in 1998, and Natasha “Sasha”, born in 2001.

The Obama family lived on Chicago’s South Side for many years, despite having the possibility to move to Washington, D.C after Barack Obama’s election to the U.S. Senate. According to Barack Obama’s second book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, his marriage to Michelle has gone through a series of ebbs and flows, especially because of the struggle to balance a happy and healthy family life with a demanding political career and public life. Despite the numerous obligations of their careers and the challenges of family life, Barack and Michelle always reserved time for their relationship. The solution to keeping their relationship strong was to continue to set dates, even if they had to work around a busy schedule.

Malia Ann and Natasha attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a private institution. During the family’s relocation to the White House, Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, moved with them to assist with childcare.

Official portrait by Pete Souza of the Obama family in the Oval Office, December 11, 2011.
Official portrait by Pete Souza of the Obama family in the Oval Office, December 11, 2011.

Political involvement

Although she always supported the political ambitions of her husband, Michelle Obama admitted that she never looked forward to their lives becoming public since she considered herself a very private person. Since the early days of Barack Obama’s political career, Michelle campaigned in his behalf by fundraising or meeting voters. However, according to her own declarations, she did not necessarily find pleasure in the activities associated with the campaigns.

When Obama announced his goal of running for the presidency, Michelle had some reservations about the idea of embarking on such a difficult journey, especially because she feared that their stressful lives could have negative effects on their daughters. The couple negotiated a peculiar agreement and Michelle declared herself ready to offer Obama her unconditional support only if he would quit smoking.

Starting with the primary campaign, Michelle Obama had to change her position at University of Chicago Hospitals to part-time. Besides taking care of their daughters, she also had to work for her husband’s campaign.

In 2007, soon after Barack Obama declared his candidacy for the White House, Michelle reduced her professional responsibilities to a minimum. During the campaign, the main role she took was to discuss social implications of race and education based on her personal experience of motherhood. However, her contribution was limited in the beginning and she traveled rarely for political meetings. As the campaign unraveled, her participation increased. She was present at thirty-three events in the span of eight days. She made appearances with celebrities who were supporters of Obama, such as Oprah Winfrey. Most of the time, Michelle preferred to prepare her own speeches and didn’t read from her notes while speaking. The feedback received for her appearances suggested that Michelle Obama was not appreciated for her sarcasm and confrontational speeches. A conservative publication, The National Review, dubbed her “Mrs. Grievance” and described her as bitter and anti-American. To soften her image, she stopped appearing on news programs to trigger debates and decided instead to engage more with the audience. She began giving interviews on shows and publications where she could have a more personal approach. Her change became transparent at all levels, from speech to fashion style. She gave up designer pieces and adopted an informal, casual style. After her speech on the first night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama’s favorability among Americans reached impressive heights and she received many positive reviews.

Around the 2014 midterm elections, Michelle’s popularity surpassed her husband’s. She received strong support in campaigning and the Democrats agreed that she was very popular. However, she made infrequent appearances because she did not enjoy being away from her children. She was also upset that Democrats in the Senate did not support effectively her previous initiatives to end childhood obesity. She raised her profile again during the campaign, touring heavily in the last days.

During the second presidential campaign, Michelle became politically active again. Many regarded her as the most popular member of the Obama administration. Her poll number never dropped below 60% while at the White House and her positive image was important in determining her active role during the re-election campaign. While her husband was seen as a polarizing figure, Michelle’s positive assessment offered a counterbalance. Her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention brought her a favorable rating of 61%. According to analysts, her tactic was mostly to humanize her husband by sharing relating stories about him, and the strategy proved to work out successfully.

First Lady of the United States

During her early months at the White House, Michelle Obama spent her time engaging with disadvantaged groups. She also visited the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Education to show her support for legislative changes.

Some of her initiatives as First Lady focused on bringing attention to the need for national service, arts and arts education programs, and support for struggling military families. She was very moved by the stories of the military families and connected with many to provide assistance and support. She also assumed the role of adviser for working women who wanted to learn how to balance family life and career.

At the beginning of 2010, Obama launched her first initiative, entitled “Let’s Move!” which was meant to promote healthy eating habits and reverse the trend of childhood obesity. Michelle expressed her desire to make the program her legacy for the future and she created a national plan to trigger positive changes. She published American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America in 2012, where she covers her own experiments for a healthy lifestyle to encourage Americans to give up their bad eating habits. Her initiative met mocking and criticism from other politicians, but was well received by the American public and brought significant results.

According to administration officials, Michelle Obama consistently advocated for same-sex marriage. She and Barack Obama publicly affirmed their support for same-sex marriage in 2012, and even though Michelle never addressed the issue in public before that, she became a vocal supporter of LGBT rights.

As First Lady, Michelle Obama traveled often for official visits and events. However, her first solo visit happened in April 2010, when she went to Mexico to speak with students. Her second official trip was to Africa in June 2011. She toured South Africa and Botswana, in an attempt to advance the foreign policy of the United States. In March 2014, Michelle Obama traveled for the first time with her daughters and mother. They went to China, where they were introduced to Peng Liyuan, the wife of the Chinese President.

During her time at the White House, Michelle traveled extensively to meet world leaders, but also to speak with students and young people from all over the world. In 2015, she made an official visit to the Middle East, where she spoke about her initiative for international education for women and discussed with female students.

As her husband gained status on the political scene, Michelle Obama became known as one of the most inspiring women on the planet. She is considered by many an icon of class, confidence, elegance, and eloquence. Public support grew exponentially while she was at the White House, especially after she made many surprising appearances, such as announcing the winner of an Oscar at the 2013 Academy Awards. She is the first person in almost half a century to appear on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

Michelle Obama endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign and she spoke critically about Republican nominee Donald Trump. Although there are many speculations about whether Michelle Obama would run for the presidency herself, she claimed repeatedly that she has no desire to become president. “Let me tell you that these are three things for certain in life,” President Obama told a town hall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in January 2016. “Death. Taxes. And Michelle is not running for president.”

First Lady Michelle Obama claps during the entertainment portion of the State Dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, held in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House, November 24, 2009.
First Lady Michelle Obama claps during the entertainment portion of the State Dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, held in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House, November 24, 2009.

References:

A First Lady of a different kind. CNN. May 23, 2008. Accessed November 21, 2017.

Michelle Obama Supports Marriage Equality So That 'Everyone Is Equal Under The Law'. Washington Wire. June 1, 2012. Accessed November 19, 2017.

Michelle Obama Shows Her Warmer Side on 'The View'. The New York Times. June 19, 2008. Accessed November 20, 2017.

Michelle Obama settling in as a role model. The Washington Times. Accessed November 20, 2017.

The woman behind Obama. Chicago Sun-Times. January 20, 2007. Accessed November 20, 2017.

Black, Allida and Richard N. Smith. The First Ladies of the United States of America. White House Historical Association; 13th Special edition. 2013.

Newton-Small, Jay. “The Power of Michelle.” Time Special Edition Barack Obama Eight Years. 2016. Pp. 68-71.

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    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 10 days ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, please, continue the thorough and informative articles. I'll keep reading, Doug. Thank you.

    • Sharlee01 profile image

      Sharon Stajda 2 weeks ago from Shelby Township Michigan

      She certainly was a very good first lady, and a well accomplished woman. I enjoyed the read.

    • dougwest1 profile image
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      Doug West 2 weeks ago from Raymore, MO

      Sharon, Tim:

      Thanks for your comments. I didn't really know much about her until I wrote the article (other than sound bits on the news). She was a good First Lady for the country and has an interesting story.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 2 weeks ago from U.S.A.

      Excellent. You always treat people with care and respect in your articles. Thank you for giving us a better view of such a fascinating individual. I enjoyed every word in this piece.

    • Sharlee01 profile image

      Sharon Stajda 2 weeks ago from Shelby Township Michigan

      Enjoyed this hubpage. Nicely written.

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