Just Who Is Michelle Obama?

Michelle Obama

hide captionMichelle Obama watches her husband Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama during a rally on June 3, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Getty Images

The keynote address for the opening night of the Democratic National Convention will come from a woman who might become the country's next first lady, Michelle Obama.

The Chicago native is an attorney who left the legal field to work mostly in the public and non-profit sectors, but about a year ago Obama put her career on hold to take to the campaign trail, often standing in for her husband Sen. Barack Obama, who will soon grasp the Democratic presidential nomination.

Chicago businesswoman Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend of the Obamas and a senior advisor to the Illinois senator's presidential campaign, describes what few may know about Michelle Obama and why she's a leader in her own right.

Michelle Obama: The Exec, Mom And Campaigner

Michelle Obama reads to children at the ODU Child Study Center in Norfolk, Va. last week. i i

hide captionMichelle Obama reads to children at the Old Dominion University Child Study Center in Norfolk, Va. She was there last week for a roundtable discussion of the needs of military families.

Rob Ostermaier/The Daily Press/AP
Michelle Obama reads to children at the ODU Child Study Center in Norfolk, Va. last week.

Michelle Obama reads to children at the Old Dominion University Child Study Center in Norfolk, Va. She was there last week for a roundtable discussion of the needs of military families.

Rob Ostermaier/The Daily Press/AP

Read the companion profile on Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain.

For the past year, Michelle Obama has been on the campaign trail, often standing in for her husband, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama. In doing so, the potential first lady has put her own career on hold.

Trained as an attorney, Michelle Obama left the legal field early. She has spent most of her career in the public and nonprofit sectors. And like many working women, Obama says she has struggled to balance her professional and family life.

At a recent luncheon in Chicago, the applause swelled as Obama, taller than most in the room at 5-foot-11, strode to the podium.

"[I'm] always living with the guilt that if I'm spending too much time at work, then I'm not giving enough time to my girls," she said to the mostly female audience. "And then if I'm with my girls, then I'm not doing enough for work — or you name it. It's a guilt that we all live with in this room. Can I hear an amen?"

Her Early Career

Michelle Obama's maiden name is Robinson. After she earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School, Michelle took her first job at the Chicago office of Sidley Austin, where she was part of the firm's marketing and intellectual-property practice groups. Published reports say Michelle Robinson worked on teams representing AT&T and Union Carbide. She met Barack Obama while at the firm, mentored him, then left the job after three years.

In 1991, Michelle Robinson was hired as a mayoral assistant by Valerie Jarrett, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's chief of staff. Jarrett is now Michelle Obama's close friend and a senior adviser to the Obama campaign. Michelle Obama was not available for an interview, but NPR spoke with Jarrett.

"Usually, when issues get to the mayor's office, they have worked their way through the bureaucracy. And the problems are sufficiently complicated that it takes somebody with a very level head and an honest broker and a sense of right and wrong and reason to sort them through," Jarrett says. "So we were looking for a person who could help us do that, and Michelle was outstanding at that."

During her time at City Hall, Michelle Robinson became an assistant planning commissioner. That's also when she married Barack Obama.

His and her professional lives crossed again when Barack recommended Michelle to head up the new Chicago office of Public Allies, a leadership training group for young adults. He was a former board member.

Michelle Obama was a mentor to many of the young staff and created the organization's professional template, according to Public Allies' CEO Paul Schmitz.

"The mission of the organization was to identify and develop this next generation of nonprofit and community leaders. And Michelle interpreted that as trying to really find the people with the greatest passion for making a difference in their communities, regardless of their background — and helping turn that passion into a viable career path," Schmitz says. "And so that's a model that she really solidified for us that we've kept to this day — this belief that leadership has to come from all parts of the community."

Joining The University Of Chicago

After leaving Public Allies, Michelle Obama's next job was at the University of Chicago. First, she worked as the associate dean of student services. She left that position to work for the University of Chicago Hospitals.

The university's former CEO, Michael Riordan, who hired Michelle Obama, said her commitment to both family and work was front and center.

When she interviewed for the hospital job, Michelle brought her daughter Sasha, an infant at the time. Sasha slept while her mother got the details about the executive director of community affairs position.

In her hospital role, "What she helped us do was bring together sort of a strategy," Riordan says. Her approach, he adds, was to "have an asset-based view of the community. Go in. See what they're strong at and then build on from that.'"

Obama collaborated with churches and community groups. She recruited volunteers, increased staff diversity and worked with clinics and physicians to provide primary care to low-income patients who would otherwise use the emergency room.

Professional Life Under Scrutiny

After her husband won a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, Michelle Obama's professional life began to come under scrutiny. An online video said she received a pay increase of $195,000 just months after her husband was sworn in.

Obama was promoted to a vice president at the University of Chicago Hospitals; her salary nearly tripled, from $122,000 to $316,000 a year.

"A lot of people help mentor young people; a lot of people help teach," says former political consultant Joe Novak, who runs a Web site that criticizes the health care industry and another that is critical of the Obamas. "But when she got to the power of influence about being married to a U.S. senator, about being the wife of a rock star, what did she do to affect positive change? What she did is help a hospital, a not-for-profit hospital, carry out a strategy of maximizing profits."

Former hospital chief Riordan calls the criticism of Michelle Obama silly, and he says Barack Obama was not a factor in her promotion or her raise.

"If you want good people to solve difficult issues, I think the market sort of sets what's the price that we have to pay to attract and keep those people," Riordan says.

Last year, Michelle Obama resigned from the board of Tree House Foods, which sells products to Wal-Mart, citing increased demands on her time. The resignation came after her husband said he wouldn't shop at the store because its workers are not unionized.

A Work-And-Family Focus

Now on leave from her hospital job, Michelle Obama works voluntarily to help elect her husband president. She has not said what issues she would champion if they make it to the White House, but discussing work and family remains her agenda on the campaign trail.

"If there's one thing that I've seen out there, as I've traveled around the country over this last year, is that women need an advocate in the White House now more than ever before," she has said.

If her husband does not win his presidential bid, will Michelle Obama resume her career? Her good friend Valerie Jarrett says that's a hypothetical that's not being considered.

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