Michelle Obama Sees Election as Test for America The wife of Barack Obama is one of the high-profile spouses who is already stumping across the country. Michelle Obama explains her initial reluctance — and why critics who say her husband isn't experienced enough to be president are wrong.
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Michelle Obama Sees Election as Test for America

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Michelle Obama Sees Election as Test for America

Michelle Obama Sees Election as Test for America

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

With the presidential race building early momentum and with campaign stretched thin by an early primary schedule, this is the year for candidates' spouses to take on star billing. Across the country, potential first ladies - and in one case a potential first husband - are trying to woo key voting groups.

We caught up with Michelle Obama on a recent swing through South Carolina.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA (Lawyer, Barack Obama's wife): Let me say hi to this young man. Hey, sir.

SHAQUILLE(ph): Shaquille.

Ms. OBAMA: Nice to meet you, Shaquille. It's a pleasure.

SHAQUILLE: I'm moving in a little while.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. That's a little pleasure.

NORRIS: Obama was in Greenville, visiting the Phillis Wheatley Community Center, a haven for children from the nearby housing projects.

Unidentified Girl#1: How old is your husband?

Ms. OBAMA: That's a good point. I am 43. He'll be 46 in August.

Unidentified Boy#1: You're 43, he's 46.

Ms. OBAMA: I'm 43. Yup. Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Boy#1: He's three years older.

Unidentified Woman#2: Excuse me.

Ms. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: Obama comes from a blue-collar family on Chicago's south side, where she learned how to be book strong and street smart.

She graduated from Princeton, and like her husband, received a law degree from Harvard. The two met at a Chicago law firm.

She's now a high-powered hospital executive. However, she recently downshifted her work to balance the demands of raising two young daughters with growing campaign duties.

Here at the center, she has a natural connection with the kids.

Ms. OBAMA: So, tell me something about yourselves. What do you all want to be when you grow up? What do you want do? What are you thinking about?

Unidentified Girl#2: I want to be an artist.

Unidentified Girl#3: I want to be a model.

Unidentified Girl#4: I want to be dentist.

NORRIS: The girls latch on to her, but even they are not an easy sell.

Ms. OBAMA: Are you all following the presidential election?

Unidentified Group: Yes.

Unidentified Boy#2: I'm voting for Obama.

Unidentified Girl#5: I think it's nice to have a girl - to Hillary Clinton.

Unidentified Girl#6: It's kind of a head bumping between those two.

NORRIS: Not so long ago, Michelle Obama wasn't so sure about entering this head bumper of a race. When we sat down to talk in South Carolina, I asked why she was skittish about her husband's candidacy.

Ms. OBAMA: What I say is that I've never been reluctant about the possibilities that he brings. I, like most people, have been very cynical and reluctant about politics.

You know, politics is a nasty business. And you don't hold out hope that fairness will win, that truth and justice carries the day. You think that it's a business.

And there was that part of me that said, do we want to put ourselves out for a system that we're not - or a system that I am not sure about?

NORRIS: Some of the spouses were not reluctant. They were enthusiastic, quite ambitious from the get-go. Why should voters support team Obama if part of that team was initially reluctant?

Ms. OBAMA: Because I think it's realistic. I think that there's something grounding about Barack, about us.

You know, what Barack and I talked about when we decided to do this was that we were going to do this authentically and that this was as much a test for us about the country in the process as it was the other way around.

I mean, I am curious to find out that if you offer somebody up that is real and true, will people grasp that? I want to believe that they will, because that's what they've got in front of them.

NORRIS: Is there an issue that you're eager to embrace as first lady, an issue that you think, if only I had a platform, I could make a difference?

Ms. OBAMA: What I talk about a lot is work-family balance. I know, just even in my life, managing all of this - career, family, children, wife, all of that, and I have resources.

But what about the vast majority of women who were the lifeblood of our society - nurses, school teachers, bus drivers, single-parent mothers - who don't have that structure? My view is how were they managing? And there is a way that we can invest differently in this country to bring more support and attention to the issues that are basically strangling the family unit.

NORRIS: Invest differently, what you're talking about?

Ms. OBAMA: Instead of putting millions into a war, we could be providing universal health care. Instead of putting millions into a war, we could be expanding education and increasing the quality of education for all children. Instead of putting money into a war, we could be providing better quality childcare. I mean, there are so many basic issues that sustain families that have gone untouched for 10 years or more in some cases.

NORRIS: You've been asked many times about your husband's experience or his lack of experience, or whether he has the requisite experience to run this country. And you seem to say that experience is overrated, that's it's not important that he hasn't had direct foreign policy experience, that he hasn't actually run a government, say, as the governor.

Is it fair to say that experience is overrated when you're talking about running a country when there are so many thorny problems - we're at war on two fronts? It would seem that experience would be quite important?

Ms. OBAMA: Well, I've never said that experience isn't important. I've said that we've, sort of, defined experience very narrowly. Barack is highly experienced. He spent years on the south side of Chicago working with single parent mothers and grandparents raising grandchildren. He's a civil rights attorney, constitutional law scholar, probably knows the Constitution better than this administration, has been in the U.S. Senate. So, you know, this is probably the only country on Earth that would look at somebody like Barack Obama and his more than 25 years of public service and say that he's not experienced. That's the irony of it. That's the game of politics.

NORRIS: How will his experience as a black man in America color his administration?

Ms. OBAMA: You know, that's a good question. I think that his leadership is going to be informed by his experiences.

And the bottom line is that Barack is a black man who's lived in the world, he's walked the streets, he's felt the discrimination that many people of color have felt, he's lived in the inner city, and that's going to impact his perspective on the world.

What he said time and time again is that this country is suffering from an empathy deficit. And if you don't have it in you to be able to walk in another person's shoes, it's going to be difficult for us to move through these problems, that what we need as a country is to start caring for one another in a very deep and fundamental way. That's the kind of leadership we need in this next four years.

NORRIS: If you had to settle on just one word to describe Michelle Obama, bold would be a good choice. In this crowd at the Bethlehem Life Center in Simpsonville, she is hard to miss. She is tall - very tall, and outspoken - a woman who likes to tell it like it is, even if it means taking a poke at her husband.

Ms. OBAMA: My day looks like this: I get up at four, get the kids up. Barack, by the way, was asleep.

NORRIS: That, by the way, was one of the few times Michelle Obama mentioned her husband. Her road show today does not include a direct sales pitch for the senator. Instead, she talks about her life before an audience of about 300 women.

Ms. OBAMA: If a toilet overflows, we're the ones frantically rescheduling the 9:00 a.m. meetings so that we can meet the plumber. And we have the added social pressure of being attractive, charming, and delightful mates, well-groomed, in good spirits, ready to be supportive of our significant others. I know I can get an amen on that. I'm tired just thinking about it.

NORRIS: In the audience Ludy Calahoon(ph) and Frances Gray(ph) were impressed, but they say it's still early.

Ms. LUDY CALAHOON: The cards are still on the table. I don't want to commit and say, it's a done deal because we don't know what's going to happen yet.

Ms. FRANCES GRAY: And I think blacks in South Carolina know they carry quite a bit of weight right now, and therefore they want to go with waiting a while, see how the cards fall and go with a winner.

NORRIS: In coming months, we'll be checking in with other campaign spouses. For all of them, including Michelle Obama, success will require drawing, not just amens, but actual votes.

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