Michelle Obama: Candor, Controversy on the Stump As the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Michelle Obama can be found on the campaign trail nearly four days a week. She is known as a down-to-earth speaker who is not afraid to break the political mold. But her plain speaking has also created controversy.
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Michelle Obama: Candor, Controversy on the Stump

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Michelle Obama: Candor, Controversy on the Stump

Michelle Obama: Candor, Controversy on the Stump

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Hillary Clinton's husband is not the only spouse to make news in the presidential campaign. Michelle Obama uses charm and wit and sometimes creates controversy as she tells voters about the Barack Obama she knows. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports from one of the next states to vote.

INA JAFFE: In the middle of a workday afternoon, hundreds of people lined up to see Michelle Obama at Chapel Hill Junior High School in Indianapolis.

Unidentified Man: T-shirts, brown, black(ph).

JAFFE: The T-shirts and buttons were flying off the tables outside. With the Indiana primary coming up on May 6th, the stakes and the energy were high. Kim Mills drove in from Kokomo, dressed in a T-shirt she had made up special.

Ms. KIM MILLS: The caption is women for Obama, because, of course, I'm a woman and I'm for Obama. And it has Barack in a suit, and then I'm next to him. It looks like we're chummy.

JAFFE: In a totally respectable way, of course. Mills was part of a mixed-race crowd that was somewhat more black than white, more female than male. People left work to come here because they support - make that adore - Barack Obama. They're pretty crazy about Michelle, too. Kim Mills summed up the feeling this way.

Ms. MILLS: She's real.

JAFFE: Real maybe, but hardly average. Michelle Obama's nearly six feet tall, a Harvard-educated lawyer like her husband, and she can deliver a 40-minute speech without notes. She routinely brought the crowd to its feet, especially when she mentioned her husband.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA (Wife of Senator Barack Obama): And I know that the only person in this race who has a chance of creating a different vision for this nation and how we work together, the only person in this race who can do that is my husband, Barack Obama.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: Michelle Obama's been delivering pretty much the same speech for a year, according to the campaign, but she throws in a twist here and there, depending on what's been going on.

This week, she defended her husband and herself from the flack that came their way after Barack Obama said that the economic frustrations of small-town Americans have left them bitter, and that they cling to guns and religion.

Mrs. OBAMA: And there's been a whole lot of talk about elitism. So one of my jobs is to help you understand who we are and how we look at the world because let me tell you, the lens through which I view the world is from my upbringing, which is on the south side of Chicago. I am a product of a working-class community.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: A lot of candidates send their spouses out on the road to campaign for them. When Bill Clinton speaks for wife Hillary, the former president goes into wonkish detail on her policy proposals. Not Michelle Obama. Instead, she uses details from her life story and her husband's to demonstrate the need for the policies he proposes, like help for students struggling with the high cost of college.

Mrs. OBAMA: And Barack and I know this all too well with our elite selves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: Because they each borrowed money to pay for two degrees from Ivy League schools. And so…

Mrs. OBAMA: We are just a few years outside of paying down our student-loan debt.

JAFFE: Thank goodness for those two best-selling books he wrote. The speech offers a lot of these little behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Obama family, like when Michelle Obama explains that she's only away from her two young daughters one night a week, and only because she can rely on her 70-year-old mother to care for them.

Mrs. OBAMA: And look here. There is nothing like grandma. There's nothing like having a grandparent at home giving a little extra chocolate, letting them jump on the couch.

JAFFE: But some of Michelle Obama's early efforts to humanize her family image fell flat. She was criticized for describing her husband as, quote, "Snorey and stinky in the morning." One pundit called that emasculating.

In February, Michelle Obama stirred up a bigger controversy when she said this…

Mrs. OBAMA: For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.

JAFFE: She said she was referring to her pride in the grass-roots support for her husband's campaign. But critics pounced, and Cindy McCain, wife of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, commented that she has always been proud of her country.

After Michelle Obama's third speech of the day in the central Indiana town of Anderson, Michael Atkins(ph) said he understands the controversy. He's got a friend who thinks she sounds angry, though he sees it differently.

Mr. MICHAEL ATKINS: She's stoked up from the challenge ahead, and I think she's very dedicated. I don't think it's as much in anger as it is a real hope.

JAFFE: Or as Degrese Walker(ph) in Indianapolis put it, Michelle Obama needs to be outspoken.

Ms. DEGRESE WALKER: You have to be. In this day and age, we've got crazy stuff going on. So…

JAFFE: Anyway, said Walker, Michelle Obama is no more outspoken than former First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Indianapolis.

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