Getting To Know Michelle Obama Dahleen Glanton, national correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, looks ahead to Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic convention on Monday evening. Glanton describes Obama's upbringing, her life outside of politics, and her experiences growing up as an African-American woman.
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Getting To Know Michelle Obama

Getting To Know Michelle Obama

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Dahleen Glanton, national correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, looks ahead to Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic convention on Monday evening. Glanton describes Obama's upbringing, her life outside of politics, and her experiences growing up as an African-American woman.


Tonight, Americans have a chance to hear from Michelle Obama when she speaks to the Democratic National Convention. While her husband has become a household name, Michelle Obama is still relatively unknown. She grew up on Chicago's Southside, attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, became a high-powered executive with the University of Chicago Hospitals and she's the mother of two daughters, Sasha and Malia. But who is she really? How did her life experiences shape who she is today? If you'd like to know more about the woman who may be the next first lady, our phone number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us email, or join the conversation on our blog at Our guest is Dahleen Glanton, a national correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. She's been assigned to cover Michelle Obama. She is at the Democratic convention in Denver. And nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. DAHLEEN GLANTON (Correspondent, Chicago Tribune): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And let me start by asking you, who is Michelle Obama?

Ms. GLANTON: Well, Michelle describes herself as first, a mother, a lawyer, and the wife of Barack Obama. So she sees herself as a typical working - hardworking mom, who takes care of her children and does what a lot of working women do.

CONAN: A typical working mom who went to Princeton and Harvard Law.

Ms. GLANTON: Absolutely. But she got her roots on Chicago's Southside in a family that was a working class family, that stressed education and hard work, and it paid off for her.

CONAN: You've lived in Chicago. Describe that neighborhood for us.

Ms. GLANTON: Well, Michelle grew up in a neighborhood called South Shore. It's not far from Lake Michigan, but it's a predominantly African-American neighborhood of people who basically have lived in Chicago for a long time. A lot of people, during the Great Migration, moved to that area of Chicago in the early years.

CONAN: The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South.

Ms. GLANTON: African-Americans, yes.

CONAN: In the Second World War.

Ms. GLANTON: Yes, from the South to Chicago.

CONAN: Yeah. And would you call it working class? Is it a very poor area of Chicago?

Ms. GLANTON: During the time Michelle was growing up, it was very much a working class community. Now, it's a mixture of various things. It's one of those neighborhoods that certainly does not have the glory that it used to, like many neighborhoods in urban areas. But it is still an area where most of the people still believe in the basic values of working hard and going to school and doing what you need to do.

CONAN: And how did she get out of that community? I mean, she is, as we mentioned - went to some very prestigious schools.

Ms. GLANTON: Well, her brother, first of all, went to Princeton and - her older brother - and certainly, he introduced her to that. Her parents were always very firm about going to college and doing the best that you can. She was a good student. She went to Whitney Young Magnet School on Chicago's Southside, which is a very prestigious school, a school where many students do well. So, it would not have been unusual for anybody to come out of Whitney Young and go to Princeton, because that happens.

CONAN: You mentioned her brother, who will be introducing her tonight at the Democratic Convention. Tell us a little bit about him.

Ms. GLANTON: Well, he basically grew up very close with Michelle. He is now the head basketball coach at the University of Oregon. They are still very close and probably one of her closest confidantes and closest friends, even today.

CONAN: Would she be surprised to hear herself described as a member of the elite?

Ms. GLANTON: She would because Michelle doesn't really see herself that way. She like - as I said before, she sees herself as really a typical working woman who's raising a family. Certainly, you know, people who went to Princeton are looked upon in a certain way. But for her it's just the continuation of her lifelong education. It was the next step for her, so basically her roots are what drives her now.

CONAN: Did she see herself as an outsider at Princeton and Harvard Law?

Ms. GLANTON: She talks often about how she had difficulty fitting in early on at Princeton. Being one of the few African-Americans there at the time, but that experience was not unlike any experience - many African-Americans feel whey they go to predominantly white schools. But she adjusted to that early on and did well, and went on, after that, to Harvard Law.

CONAN: We're talking with Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune about Michelle Obama, who will introduce herself to many Americans tonight when she speaks at the Democratic convention in Denver, the Democratic convention that will later this week nominate her president - her husband to be president of the United States. If you would like to join us, 800-989-8255, email is Let's begin with Jeffrey. Jeffrey calling us from New London in Connecticut.

JEFFREY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JEFFREY: My question is - about three months ago Mrs. Obama kind of committed a little foot in mouth disease with her comment that it was her first time that she was proud to be an American. And my question is, what about her youth and her upbringing, are the roots of that comment? What was it that she found so displeasing about America that it took her, you know, 40 something years to get to that point where she was proud to be an American?

CONAN: First time in her adult life that she was proud to be an American referring to her president's - through her husband's presidential campaign. Dahleen Glanton?

Ms. GLANTON: Well, Michelle has said repeatedly that that comment was misinterpreted. It's not very difficult for many African-Americans to understand what she was talking about. Because simply growing up in neighborhoods where you've never seen an African-American get this far in many aspects of life, in particular to be nominated for president, is something that you grow up thinking might never happen. You hear all the time that it could happen. That's what the civil rights movement was all about. But even for those people who were a part of the civil rights movement they're still surprised, they're still in awe, still in a little bit of shock that it happened because nobody really believed that America was quite ready to make this happen.

CONAN: A lot of people expressed incredulity that somebody of her age was not proud of her county when the Berlin Wall came down, when the United States - which the United States, they did so much to do and liberated all of those people in Central and Eastern Europe would have been under a Communist heel for decades. Things like that, did she learn from this experience, do you think? That, that when she says something today she's not just saying it to a small group of people.

Ms. GLANTON: Absolutely. She has learned a lot and become must more savvy with her presentation as this campaigned has gone on. It's been a learning experience for her. During, you know, her husband's candidacy - when he was running for the State Senate and for the U.S. Senate - it wasn't this kind of spotlight on her. So, it's - it was so difficult at first but she seems to have weathered it a lot better now.

CONANA: Hmm. Do you think it's equivalent to, I think it was Hillary Clinton 16-years ago I guess saying, well, gee, she wasn't one those women who stayed home and baked cookies.

Ms. GLANTON: We'll absolutely. The only difference in that was that Hillary Clinton at that time had been wife of a governor for a long time. So, certainly, being in a national spotlight is a lot different than being in the state spotlight. But I think for any potential first lady, it's a difficult at process and it's something that you just have to get used to and learn how to say the right thing at the right time.

CONAN: Jeffrey? I think Jeffrey has left us. But anyway, thanks very much for the phone call. And before the emails continue, we misspoke, her brother coaches at Oregon State University in Corvallis not the University of Oregon. So, we correct ourselves. Thank you very much for that. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Bobby. Bobby with us from Jacksonville in Florida.

BOBBY (Caller): Yes I am independent and as of (unintelligible) we're leaning towards voting for John McCain. But I like Michelle Obama. I think she's charismatic. I like to hear her speak, I hadn't planned on watching the Democratic National Convention but I'm going to watch it tonight since I heard she's going to be the keynote speaker. And as far as the Un-American comment, it makes me angry that people are not (unintelligible) saying she wasn't proud to be an American at some point in time. You know, I don't think that's such a bad thing because as a gay man sometimes I'm not proud to be an American. And I don't think that makes you a bad person. And I just think she's refreshingly honest, and I really, really like her. She really fascinates me.

CONAN: Bobby, thanks very much for the call. Drive carefully, please.

BOBBY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Dahleen Glanton, what kind of speaker is she? Are we going to watch her tonight?

Ms. GLANTON: She's an excellent speaker. I was there this morning when she was rehearsing. She wasn't actually talking but she was getting a feel for the place and seemed very comfortable on the stage. One of the things though that she has to be aware of, there's a lot of pressure tonight. She has to make a case to the American people, that not only will her husband make it to president but that she will make a great first lady. That's very difficult for her to do because there has been a lot of negative publicity, there are a lot of people she still has to win over. There are a lot of people who don't know who she is. So this is her opportunity to introduce herself to America.

CONAN: We're talking with Dahleen Glanton, national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who's been assigned to cover Michelle Obama, who speaks tonight to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. If you'd like to join our conversation, 800-989-8255, email us at This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go to Mark. Mark with us from Moline in Illinois.

MARK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MARK: My question was actually - I read a great article in the Chicago Tribune this weekend about her work on the south side of Chicago in her hospital, and how she referred many poor patients out to other smaller clinics. And it sounded like a tremendous job she did. Do you think she's going to have much influence on Barack's policies when - if he takes office?

Ms. GLANTON: I think she will. I - Barack listens to her very closely. She certainly listens to him. There are certain things that she's passionate about, that's one of them. Another thing she's passionate about is helping military families. So, those are some things that will be high on her agenda, and I'm sure she'll make those known to her husband if he becomes president.

CONAN: Again, people are going to draw that analogy to Hillary Clinton at the beginning of the Clinton presidency. He put her in charge of the health care task force. Would she take a direct policy role like that, do you think?

Ms. GLANTON: There has been no indication that she would even be interested in doing something like that. With two young girls, that's her primary focus right now and her priority. So, it would be a bit surprising if she takes on a role like that.

CONAN: Thank you, Mark.

MARK: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We've read also that she was not in favor initially of her husband's decision to run for the presidency.

Ms. GLANTON: She wasn't. But she's completely changed on that now. Understanding that one of the things she'd been quoted as saying is that, she realized that this was not just about them. She, again, was more concerned about the time that she and her husband would be away from the children. That was the major issue for her. But she seems to have come to terms with that now and has been on the campaign trail when she needs to be and according to her aids, she will be doing much more of that leading up to November.

CONAN: She has also been quoted once as saying that the country would only get one chance to elect Barack Obama and got some criticism for that.

Ms. GLANTON: Yes, and my understanding is that she has tried to clarify that as well. She said some things that were pretty controversial because she is very outspoken. And one of her challenges has been in this campaign to figure out how to balance that, not to make her not so much the person she is, which is a very candid person. But to also understand that sometimes what she said, is very misunderstood.

CONAN: That comment, the first time in my adult life, I'm really proud of my country. Do you think she's going to address that directly in her speech tonight?

Ms. GLANTON: I really don't think so although I have not talked to her campaign directly about that. Her speech tonight is really going to focus on her family life. And it's really going to focus on how she met her husband, the things they have in common and basically laying out the case as to why he should be the next president. It's going to be a very personal presentation tonight. Their goal is that when you finish hearing her, when she's done tonight that you'll know exactly who Michelle Obama is and who her husband is through her relationship with him.

CONAN: Let's talk with John. John with us from Salt Lake City in Utah.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Long-time listener. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Thank you.

JOHN: I was just curious. I mean, I know there's a precedent that's been set for the first ladies, you know, having their own policies, thousand points of light. I mean, going back, all the way to Eleanor Roosevelt, but I'm just curious why it really matters who Michelle would be addressing the Democratic National Convention when she's not the politician we're voting for?

Ms. GLANTON: Well, it's very interesting because I quoted in my story this morning a professor who has done a bit of research on the importance of first ladies, and they found that voters do care that the potential first lady has an impact on how people feel about a candidate. Now, because the interesting thing is if Barack Obama is elected, Michelle Obama will play a prominent role as a representative of this country, so people need to feel like they know who she is, what she's going to bring to the table and what influence she might have on anything that he decides to do. So, the campaign felt that it was important enough to have her on the first night to kind of set the stage for what the rest of the week will bring.

JOHN: OK. OK. Thank you very much for your answer.

CONAN: And John, thanks very much for the call. And just one quick question about - do you know what she says to her daughters who are still very young about how life is changing for them and how it might change even vastly more should her husband win election?

Ms. GLANTON: Well, my understanding is that they have talked about this somewhat, and the girls have become - it's just amazing how comfortable they have become with all of this. On the stage this morning, they actually stopped and paused and smiled at the cameras a bit while their mother was busy trying to get settled in for tonight's speech. They understand - they're young still, but the oldest one at least, understands that this is an important event. I don't know that they understand every detail of what this means if they do make it to the White House. But certainly, they do understand that what their father is doing is very important and they play a role in this.

CONAN: Dahleen Glanton, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. GLANTON: Thank you.

CONAN: Dahleen Glanton, national correspondent with the Chicago Tribune based in Atlanta, covering Michelle Obama. Joined us from NPR studios at the Democratic National Convention. You can hear an interview with Michelle Obama herself later today on All Things Considered and of course, hear her speak later tonight at the Democratic Convention in Denver. Tomorrow the War of Wheels. Lynn Neary will be here. This is NPR News.

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Michelle Obama: The Exec, Mom And Campaigner

Michelle Obama: The Exec, Mom And Campaigner

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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 hide caption

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Rob Ostermaier/The Daily Press/AP

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.