Michelle Obama Checks in from the Campaign Trail

Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama talks about balancing family life with a rigorous campaign regimen, and what a win in South Carolina would mean for her husband's campaign.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, The Barbershop guys are in the house. We'll hear what they have to say about the Clinton-Obama smackdown.

But first, we have more from the campaign trail. As we have said, the Republicans in South Carolina voted for their presidential nominee last week. The Democrats vote tomorrow. And the voters in the Palmetto State are experiencing a barrage of attention unlike pretty much any they've had before. We don't know if the state's voters are enjoying that, but having just returned from South Carolina ourselves, we do have the sense that the voters are enjoying the exposure to the candidates as well as their spouses who have been as visible as they have ever been on a campaign trail this year.

And one of the most visible is Michelle Obama, wife of Illinois Senator Barack Obama. We caught up with her yesterday on her campaign bus in South Carolina, and I took the opportunity to acknowledge her birthday, which was last week.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Oh, yeah, that seems like it was ages ago. Yes, I had a birthday. And I was in Georgetown with my family.

MARTIN: Was there any time for you to reflect on how much your life has changed in the last year?

Ms. OBAMA: Yeah. You know, I haven't had that much time to reflect. You know, but it has changed significantly. You know, it was a year ago that Barack announced, that we stood on the steps of the state capitol in Illinois and walked out there with our family and Barack said he was running for president. And it's been a whirlwind ride ever since, but we've really been trying to keep our lives on track, particularly for our daughters, making sure that, you know, their lives stay as normal as possible for as long as possible. And I'd like to think we've been fairly successful at that.

MARTIN: Conventional wisdom is that campaigns like this, especially these big national campaigns, are harder on the spouse than they are on the candidates. Do you think that's true?

Ms. OBAMA: You know, I think it depends on the perspective. I mean, for me, before I agreed that this would be a good idea, I kind of walked down every positive and negative outcome of this race and kind of prepared myself mentally for this, as well as really thinking through how are we going to make this balance work for our family.

So for me, it is - there haven't been many surprises in terms of what I had imagined. But I know that Barack - I think who has - hasn't had a - has had a total of maybe two weeks off in the last two years, is definitely more tired and worn out than I would imagine.

MARTIN: Well, it has to be tough on everybody not being able to be together because the girls are so young. I just was wondering how do you explain to them why this is worth it?

Ms. OBAMA: You know, our nine-year-old understands it. Our six-year-old doesn't really care to understand it. So, you know, with kids, you kind of take them where they are. Our older daughter is following - we talk to her every night, I talked to her last night. And she said, how are things going in South Carolina, because she knows it's coming up. And, you know, her view is that she hopes that daddy wins because she thinks he's going to be a terrific president and will help a lot of people. But she's also ambivalent as well. She knows that if he wins, that will mean a change in her life. And I know that there's a bit of anxiety around that for her, but it comes in a way that any nine-year-old would see it. Will she have to move? Does she have to change schools? Will she make new friends if she has to move? I mean, it becomes really practical in every day for kids, and we, you know, talk about those issues and talk about the changes that could occur. But we also talk about the benefits.

MARTIN: And the six-year-old just wants to see mom and dad.

Ms. OBAMA: You know, and they do see us. I mean, you know, I don't - you know, I'm on a long stint this time because we're coming on South Carolina. But I usually do day trips. So I leave in the morning and I'm home at night. And as far as dad's concerned, you know, he's been in politics ever since they were born. But he's been terrific. We've sort of, you know, managed - because he doesn't miss parent-teacher conferences. He took the kids trick-or-treating. He came home for two hours to get the Christmas tree. So those are - you know, what Barack does is to make sure that he keeps the rituals that he has with them the same.

What you find as a parent - and this is true for any parent - our juggling just - it happens to be more public, that in the end you have to prioritize your life around your children so that they know that they continue to be the most important people in the world to you even if you are possibly going to be the next president of the United States.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Mrs. Michelle Obama. She's the wife of Senator Barack Obama, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

What do you think you've learned about yourselves on this journey?

Ms. OBAMA: You know, I, you know, I think I've learned that I am very passionate about the direction of this country. You know, I find myself just getting lost in people's lives. And as I travel, just - you know, amazed at the degree to which people are still struggling out here on a day-to-day basis, at least, as I say, regular folks. Their lives haven't gotten much better over the course of my lifetime.

But also, what I've learned is that, you know, people are ready for something different, and that there are more people who share the same wants and hopes and dreams for this country, it's just that we haven't had the kind of leadership that we need, who are going to point to our - the issues that bring us together rather than the things that drive us apart. And I think people are hungry for that.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of things that are driving people apart, the campaign seems to have taken on kind of a different tone over the last couple of weeks. Especially this week after the debate, Monday night, where there were a lot of - it was a lot of conversation about the tone that Senator Barack - Senator Obama and Senator Clinton took with each other. I just wonder, what was that like for you.

Ms. OBAMA: You know, first of all, I don't watch the debates because, you know, I need to sort of stay above the fray, so I hear about these things second- and third-hand. You know, I have been proud of the race Barack is running. He's done his very best to stay above the fray, and to keep things focused on the issues. But I think what people understand is that you can't just sort of open yourself up to attacks and having other people define you.

You know, at some point along the way, you have to make sure that people are clear about who you are and the positions that you've taken because, you know, politics is as much about trying to blur the lines between candidates as it is getting to the issues.

MARTIN: So you don't read the papers, you don't read the coverage about all the back-and-forth?

Ms. OBAMA: I take it in bits and pieces, because, you know, there are - you know, what I found is that there are two races that are running a presidential race. There's the race in the press, which has felt so very different from what I see on the ground. I mean, let me tell you. If I were just looking at the papers and not spending so much time in Iowa, I would have never predicted the outcome in Iowa, because for whatever reason, the pundits, the folks out there who weren't in the state have no idea, you know, how people were being drawn to Barack as they got to know him.

MARTIN: What about New Hampshire?

Ms. OBAMA: New Hampshire is the same thing. I mean, Barack went into that state with 22 points behind in the polls a couple of weeks before any vote was cast. You know, we've spent this whole year, hearing that Barack was not going to win at all, that another candidate was inevitable. But that had nothing to do with what we were seeing on the ground. You know, what we are finding is that people want to talk about the issues. They want to feel like they can trust the leadership who's going to be in the Oval Office.

Folks are ready for change and they're ready for a different tone to politics. And the more that they hear Barack and see him up close. When they get an opportunity to hear from him about who he is rather than having him defined by his opponents, that they are drawn to his campaign.

MARTIN: Speaking of the polls, Ebony magazine - Ebony and Jet magazines have a new poll out this week. It shows that potential voters in South Carolina -shows that Senator Obama has a strong lead in South Carolina, a particularly strong lead among African-American voters, 30 points, actually. But black women, who make up the bulk of the black vote in South Carolina support Obama more than two-to-one over Clinton. But among single black mothers, the gap is a lot narrower, with Obama getting the top rating with 35 percent of the respondents to Clinton's 32 percent. I just wondered, as an African-American woman yourself, do you have any idea why that might be so?

Ms. OBAMA: You know, I think it has a lot to do with what I said earlier in terms of how folks are struggling. If you're a single parent mother and you're African-American, you don't have time to watch debates, you don't have time to pay attention to what's going on out here, you know, you are isolated in your own struggle. And, therefore, when you don't have information, a lot of times people would go with what they think that they know. They go with what's comfortable.

When people understand who the candidates are, and they spend time talking to them and listening them - to them; when they meet Barack and they look him in the eye and they hear his voice and they understand his vision. And then they meet me and they hear us, they know that there is something different going on.

When people don't have the time to do it, most Americans fall into that category. They don't even have the information, so they go with what they know. So the challenge in this race is to make sure that people are paying attention. That's going to be true for America regardless who's in office.

Unfortunately, democracy is an active, engaged process. And for a long, long time, we've got - we've had people who haven't had the time, they've been cynical, they've been fearful, they have not engaged in the process and this time, we're seeing something different. In Iowa, we saw a record numbers of people going out to caucus. In New Hampshire, it was the same thing. In Nevada, the same thing, and we hope to see that again in South Carolina. And as people get to know the voters and they know Barack, they like what they see.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for spending the time. I just want to ask one final question which is do you have any prediction about where you will spend your birthday next year?

Ms. OBAMA: Oh, you know, I hope I am sunning some place warm, maybe, you know, somewhere where I can get a massage, you know, with a little less stress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Shall we write somebody a little note and suggest that for you?

Ms. OBAMA: Why don't - why don't we have the viewers every time they see Barack? They make sure that they just mention spa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay, spa vacation.

Ms. OBAMA: Just whisper that in his ear, a subliminal message: spa.

MARTIN: I'm not sure the Secret Service will let us get close enough to whisper that in his ear, but I'm sure that a couple of…

Ms. OBAMA: Well then, yell it out.

MARTIN: …timely e-mails.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us.

Ms. OBAMA: Okay. Thanks so much.

MARTIN: Michelle Obama joining us from her campaign bus in South Carolina.

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