Profile: Michelle Obama, America's First Mom

Posted at 11/05/08 2:04 PM

WASHINGTON - Michelle Obama has said it herself: nowhere but in America would her story be possible.

Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson on January 17, 1964, she grew up in a working class Chicago neighborhood as the United States embarked on some of the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement.

She rose from a humble upbringing to go to two of the most prestigious US universities, Princeton as an undergraduate and then Harvard Law School.

She worked in corporate law, as director of a community non-profit in some of Chicago's less monied neighborhoods, and at the University of Chicago and its medical center.

And Tuesday she became the ultimate symbol of the American dream, destined to be the inaugural black first lady after voters elected her husband, Senator Barack Obama, president of the United States.

From the start of the longest presidential election campaign in US history, Michelle Obama regularly appeared on the campaign trail, impressing crowds with her eloquence and her down-to-earth nature.

And her mission was not just to urge voters to elect her husband, but also to introduce herself and her family to the nation.

"It's a privilege to be able to travel around the country and go into people's living rooms and their kitchens. You're reminded of how decent folks are," she recently told a television interviewer.

In past months though she has honed her oratory and toned down some of her gestures after being targeted early on in the campaign by critics.

An affectionate tap of clenched fists with her husband was dubbed "a terrorist fist jab" earlier this year, and she was called her "unpatriotic" for an unguarded comment in which she said the public support for her husband made her proud of her country "for the first time in my adult lifetime."

"That's not her at all. Her whole mission is to be inclusive and to give everyone the tools to be able to contribute to society," said Jose Rico, a Mexican-American who worked under Michelle Obama for three years in the early 1990s at Chicago non-profit, Public Allies, where she was director.

"She was instrumental in showing me that the American dream was attainable," said Rico who came to the United States undocumented with his parents when he was 10.

"She was the first person I met who came from a similar, working-class background to mine, who was able to make it both in academic life and professional life and who said you can get the skill-set and learn as much as you can, and still give back to your community," said Rico, who now runs a high school in Chicago, which he helped to found.

Obama said during the campaign that she had stopped watching television, stopped reading opinion polls, and "developed a thick skin" to cope with the accusations and criticism that are levelled at her.

"She's also had fewer public appearances than other potential first ladies because she has two small kids and has to balance her parental responsibilities with the hopes of getting her husband elected president of the United States," said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of political communication at American University in Washington.

Indeed, Obama has insisted throughout the long campaign that her primary role is as mom-in-chief to daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, seven.

"My girls are the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed," she told a rally in Ohio last month, when she filled in for her husband as he visited his terminally ill grandmother in Hawaii.

Family issues are central when she is on the campaign trail. She spends "most of my time introducing people to the husband that I know," speaks of her daughters and recalls her father, who died in 1990 after years battling multiple sclerosis.

She also lends an ear to ordinary American families, worried about the stumbling economy.

"When you're trying to balance it all -- kids, you don't have access to quality childcare, the cheque you've brought home all year doesn't buy what it used to buy -- folks are really nervous about what's going on," she told Tonight Show host Jay Leno.

"She won't be a wilting flower" when she becomes first lady, said Steinhorn, but he and Rico agreed she would take care to balance her public image with her private life.

"She's going to make sure her two kids are well adjusted," said Rico, recalling how Obama went to bat for him when he became a father.

"I think she's going to be, first and foremost, the First Mom," he said.