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It was just four years ago that magazines began to feature Michelle Obama on their covers, from graceful portraits and fashionable clothes, to a controversial cartoon of Mrs. Obama wearing fatigues, toting a gun and giving her husband a fist bump. To many at the time, Michelle Obama was an enigma.
BLOCK: Today, she is world famous. And like every first lady, she's found her own place in the White House. For our series Parallel Lives, we've been comparing Mitt Romney and President Obama. And this week, we focus on their wives. On Monday, we heard about Ann Romney.
And today, NPR's Cheryl Corley profiles the first lady.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: This week, First Lady Michelle Obama was doing something she loves to do, talking about nutrition with kids. She hosted the first state dinner for kids, welcoming 54 eight-to-12-year-olds and their parents to the White House.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Is this not cool?
CORLEY: This is just so very cool.
CORLEY: Mrs. Obama stood before a colorful backdrop set up for the event in the East Room of the White House, portraits of George and Martha Washington on either side. Dressed in a blue and green satin print dress, a simple strand of pearls around her neck, the first lady spread her famously toned arms wide before joining in the applause and congratulating the tiny chefs, winners of a healthy lunchtime contest.
OBAMA: You came up with dishes that were packed with nutritious, delicious ingredients. Dishes that are good for you, but more importantly, they taste good, too. See? It can happen.
CORLEY: And while the kids started eating their Yummy Cabbage Sloppy Joes and their Quinoa Black Bean Corn Salad, the first lady introduced a surprise guest.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It looks spectacular.
OBAMA: Hello, everybody.
CORLEY: President Obama said he heard there was a state dinner going on.
OBAMA: And usually, I get invited to the state dinners.
OBAMA: So this time, I just had to crash.
CORLEY: The president praised his wife's Let's Move healthy eating and anti-obesity campaign, the children's recipes, and then he worked the room, going to each table and shaking the small hands of the junior chefs.
Mrs. Obama often says that she and her husband, whom she actually met when she mentored him at a law firm, are partners and best friends who accessorize each other in many ways. Before he left the room, a quick hug and a kiss between them.
The Obamas' affection for each other is even more visible in a White House video, as they sit close and describe their first date.
OBAMA: We didn't have dinner - no, we actually had lunch.
OBAMA: Oh, we had lunch at the art institute. That's right.
OBAMA: ...at the art institute. There was a little courtyard with a little fountain.
OBAMA: Yeah, it was nice.
OBAMA: Yeah, it was very nice.
CORLEY: Barack Obama wrote several years ago that he trusted his wife completely. He talked about that again recently during an interview on CBS TV.
OBAMA: I am happily surprised at how I think this experience has strengthened rather than diminished our marriage. I rely on her even more now than I did back then.
CORLEY: Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian for the National First Ladies' Library, says Michelle Obama, like many first ladies, helped ground her husband. In her case, making her Hawaiian-born husband feel welcome in her hometown of Chicago.
CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY: It was really Michelle Obama's family and friends and neighbors and really a network, a support network that helped root and plant Barack Obama and begin his political career.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)
CORLEY: So we are on the president's block now.
JACKY GRIMSHAW: The president and first lady's block. Welcome to 50th and Greenwood.
CORLEY: Jacky Grimshaw, a Chicago public policy expert, used to live next door to the Obamas on a quiet, tree-lined street of mansions. Grimshaw and other board members hired Michelle Obama as the first executive director of Public Allies, a leadership training group for young adults. Grimshaw says she was friendly, accessible, smart and not much older than the people she was training.
GRIMSHAW: Because these were young people, you know, oftentimes their first experience in the work world, they needed mentoring. They needed hand-holding, they needed advisor, et cetera. And Michelle played all of that role, including super mom.
CORLEY: That's the same role the first lady brings on the road with her these days, like earlier this spring when she talked about her own life during a speech at the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago. The facility, which helps young people graduate from high school and go on to college, is located not far from where a young Michelle Obama lived.
OBAMA: I grew up just like you, same background. My family didn't have a lot of money growing up. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to got to college. And most of the folks in my neighborhood didn't get a chance to go either.
CORLEY: The first lady said hard work and focus allowed her to graduate from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She became an accomplished attorney and put her career as a hospital executive on hold for the 2008 campaign. At that time, her husband's opponents often called her angry.
She made a mistake of saying that she felt proud of the country for the first time in her life because she felt hope was finally making a comeback.
Stephanie Cutter, a former chief of staff to the first lady, was brought on board to help quell that controversy. And Cutter, now deputy director of the Obama campaign, says many people can relate to the first lady because her life story is a familiar one for many Americans.
STEPHANIE CUTTER: You know, her parents worked hard to ensure that her and her brother got opportunities that they didn't have. That her father struggled with an illness but got up and went to work every day.
CORLEY: She's also known for her devotion to the Obamas' two daughters. And as first lady, she has traveled the country on behalf of the USA, appearing at the Olympics and visiting and helping military service members and their families - one of her primary initiatives.
She's also been a guest on "The Tonight Show," and shows like "The View," where she's been able to show off her sense of humor.
Most important for the White House, though, is that the first lady is a potent campaign spokesperson.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ladies and gentlemen...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...please welcome the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
CORLEY: In June, the first lady spoke during a boisterous rally at Arapaho High School in Colorado.
OBAMA: This feels like four more years.
CORLEY: Confident and standing tall, she's 5'11, Mrs. Obama presses her husband's causes and accomplishments.
OBAMA: For the past 27 straight months, we have actually been gaining private sector jobs.
CORLEY: Mrs. Obama rarely makes mention of her status in American history as the first African-American to become first lady. But during an address at a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME Church, the first lady spoke about the gains of black Americans.
OBAMA: But today, while there are no more Whites Only signs keeping us out, no one barring our children from the schoolhouse door, we know our journey is far from finished.
CORLEY: That theme of unfinished business is one the first lady also makes on the campaign trail, as she works to help her husband gain four more years in the White House.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, the White House.
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