On a recent Wednesday, Michelle Obama looms over a crowd of about 200 in Pontiac, Michigan, a Detroit suburb after which the car was named. In her chic outfit—sleeveless navy dress, delicate gold jewelry, peep-toe patent-leather shoes—she verges on six feet, and her firm-hold Jackie O. coiffure adds a few inches to the top. The dress fits snugly, with a bit of blue-and-orange-beaded flair sewn near her chest bone, sparkling like a costume necklace from a flea market. These days, Michelle campaigns about twice a week—she’ll appear at one public event per city, then a fund-raiser, and hop back to Chicago to see her kids before they fall asleep. Fund-raisers are important, since her husband is not taking public financing for his campaign, but they are private events, which allows Michelle to engage in what appears to be a lot of campaign stops but only adds up to one or two solitary hours per week in front of cameras.
The exercise during these hours is to say nothing. In front of this crowd, Michelle has morphed into a repository of emotion, an Oprah-esque icon of inspirational womanhood who promises the same feel-good message with an even softer delivery. Her voice is pitched in the range of Tila Tequila. Her eyes are grottoes of compassion. The singular blemish on her otherwise gorgeous face—the eyebrows, in person, are not quite as angular as one expects—is her brow, which has worked into a groove too deep to be eliminated by a slick of foundation.
Michelle’s presence could not be more powerful, but she has done her best to obscure her boldness since mid-June, when the campaign began to roll out a new image for her with an appearance on The View. “All this talk about softening my image just really cracks me up,” she protests later, via e-mail. “I’m the same woman I’ve always been.” Early in the campaign, she came off as sassy and sarcastic, teasing Obama about his morning breath and forcing him to quit smoking before she gave him permission to run for president. She assessed our divided country candidly, calling it “downright mean” and full of people “guided by fear.” Now she has another purpose: to let people cry. A square blue box of tissues has been placed onstage, next to an unattractive plant.
“She’s going to be good,” says one woman, in the audience. “She’ll have us all crying!”
And cry they do, sharing their stories of health-care crises, job losses, subprime-mortgage nightmares, about daughters dumping their out-of-wedlock babies at their door and toddlers who are forced to split a hamburger because there’s no money for two. It’s group catharsis with Michelle as Mary in the Pietà, with the groove in her forehead becoming increasingly pronounced. The purgation goes on for an hour, with only the most minor of laugh lines: “I wasn’t stimulated by President Bush’s stimulation,” says one woman, from the balcony. “Will President Obama do something similar to a stimulus process?” Michelle laughs, then says, coyly, “Yes, Barack is talking about doing something for short-term stimulation.”
Things are starting, blessedly, to come to a conclusion when she finally lets the veil slip, revealing a bit of her old self. “I don’t want to sound like a broken record,” says Michelle, dodging a question about her husband’s policies to help small-business owners. “But I’ve decided to stay away from getting Barack’s policies wrong, because it’ll be on the front page.” She puts her hand on her hip. “Then he’ll be like, ‘You said what?’ ” She nearly snaps in the air. “ ‘Yeah,’ ” she says, puffing out her chest, “ ‘I said you were gonna do this and that!’ ”
A prospective First Lady carries a heavy symbolic burden, but the notions that have coalesced to tongue-tie Michelle Obama are particularly dense. She’s a type we’ve rarely seen in the public eye, a well-educated woman who is a dedicated mother, successful in her career, and happens to be black. This has created confusion for some people, who seem desperate to find a negative quality in her: She’s too big, too masculine, too much like a drag queen. While Obama may be able to play with urban tropes, like dusting off his jacket à la Jay-Z or speaking in a black patois when the time calls for it, Michelle has been increasingly forced to curtail her personality during the campaign, lest she attract rumors of uttering a verboten, anachronistic word like “whitey” or find herself labeled a “baby mama.” As much as any political campaign is an extended meditation on authenticity, the question of just how black the Obamas are has become particularly loaded. Michelle must project herself as black to one community, but she also must act white to another, whatever either adjective means nowadays.