Election 2008


Over the next two days, we're going to report on the professional lives of the two women who could become first lady. Today, Michelle Obama.

For the past year, she's put her career on hold to stump for her husband. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on that career and how it shaped her.

CHERYL CORLEY: Michelle Obama is an attorney, but she left the legal field early. She's worked mostly in the public and nonprofit sectors. At a recent luncheon in Chicago, the applause swelled as Obama - taller than most in the room, at 5'11" - strode to the podium to tell the mostly female audience that she, just like many of them, has struggled to balance her professional and family life.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: 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. 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?

CORLEY: Her maiden name is Michelle Robinson. After attending Princeton and Harvard Law School, her first job was at the Chicago office of Sidley Austin, where she was part of the firm's marketing and intellectual property practice group. She would meet her future husband at the firm, mentor him, and then leave the job after three years.

Michelle Obama was not available for an interview. Valerie Jarrett, her close friend and a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, was a mayor's deputy chief of staff in 1991 when she first met Michelle Robinson and hired her as an assistant to the mayor.

Ms. VALERIE JARRETT (Obama Adviser): 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. So we were looking for people who could help us do that, and Michelle was outstanding at that.

CORLEY: During her time at City Hall, Michelle Robinson became an assistant planning commissioner. She also married Barack Obama. Their professional lives crossed again when he recommended his wife at the new Chicago office of Public Allies, a leadership training group for young adults. He was a former board member.

Now-CEO Paul Schmitz says Michelle Obama was a mentor to many of the young staff and created the organization's professional template.

Mr. PAUL SCHMITZ (CEO, Public Allies): You know, 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 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 a community.

CORLEY: When Michelle Obama left Public Allies, her next job was at the University of Chicago, first working directly for the school as the associate dean of student services. But she left that position, shifting over to the University of Chicago Hospitals.

I'm standing now in the emergency room. The hospital's former CEO, Michael Riordan, hired her.

Mr. MICHAEL RIORDAN (Former CEO, University of Chicago Hospital): Her name popped out very early.

CORLEY: And her commitment to family and work, says Riordan, was front and center during the interview becauseā€¦

Mr. RIORDAN: She brought her daughter Sasha with her.

CORLEY: Sasha, the youngest of Obama's two daughters, was an infant and slept through the interview, while her mother got the details about the hospital's executive director of community affairs position.

Mr. RIORDAN: What she helped us do was bring together sort of a strategy. Her approach from a community affairs, as she talked to us, from a leadership standpoint was: Look at the asset, have an asset-based view of the community; go in, see what they're strong at, and then build on from that.

CORLEY: Michelle Obama collaborated with churches, 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.

As her husband won a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, her professional life began to come under scrutiny. Here's one example of what's playing on the Internet.

(Soundbite of Internet ad)

Unidentified Man: Within months after her husband was sworn in as U.S. senator, Michelle Obama received a pay increase of $195,000.

CORLEY: Obama was promoted to a vice president of the UFC Hospitals and her salary nearly tripled, from $122,000 a year to $316,000. Last year, she resigned from the board of TreeHouse Foods, which sells products to Wal-Mart, citing increased demands on her time. The resignation also came after her husband said he wouldn't shop at the store because its workers are not unionized.

Former political consultant Joe Novak runs two Web sites: one, a blog that scrutinizes the nonprofit health-care industry, and another that is critical of the Obamas. He says Michelle Obama has gotten a pass.

Mr. JOE NOVAK (Former Political Consultant): A lot of people help mentor young people. A lot of people help teach. 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 effect positive change? What she did is help a hospital, a not-for-profit hospital carry out a strategy of maximizing profits.

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

Mr. RIORDAN: 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. So that's - that's where we were.

CORLEY: Now on leave from that hospital job, Michelle Obama works voluntarily to 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.

Ms. OBAMA: Because 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 then ever before. More than ever before.

CORLEY: And if her husband does not win his presidential bid, will Michelle Obama resume her career? Good friend Valerie Jarrett says that's a hypothetical that's not being considered. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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