On December 20, along the 2008 presidential campaign trail for her husband, US Senator Barack Obama, Michelle Obama met with a resounding standing ovation at the precise moment she stepped into the Cambridge Meeting Room of the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center in Iowa, crowded with roughly 125 people seated and several more standing. Following US Congressman David Loebsack and Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy1, the near-six-foot elegant beauty, clad in a trim black ensemble replete with knee-high patent-leather boots–living up to the reason why Vanity Fair put her on their International Best-Dressed List–took over the podium with smiles and grace. Known as an exceptional stump speaker, 43-year-old Obama started the third of four speeches scheduled for the foggy December Thursday with a few jokes–drawing laughter from an already warm audience, a healthy mix of men and women, of all ages. Her chief of staff, Melissa Winter, sat nearby.
Obama first addressed questions that she is often asked such as, ‘How do you sustain your energy throughout the campaign?’ She said that she does ‘day trips and overnights.’ She discussed how ‘it’s important for the girls [daughters Malia and Sasha] to be the center of their [parents’] universe amidst all this excitement.’ Her children, she said, are the reason she breathes. She asked, ‘What kind of country do we want to hand over to our children? Not just mine. Our children.’ She then stated, ‘Our country is not good enough for my girls or for any of our children.’
Children come into this world ‘free of bias’ and open to all possibilities but ‘we mess them up and place limitations on them.’ We raise them in a ‘country that is too guided by fear. Fear clouds our judgment as a nation–cutting us off from each other and the rest of the world.’ There are ‘food of fear’ and ‘food of doubt.’ And we’ve become ‘desensitized to needs of others.’
Rather than raise our children in a nation with dreams, where ‘every child truly has potential to be what they can be’ with ‘love and guidance,’ we instead are raising them in a nation where ‘things have gotten harder for regular folks.’ Obama added, ‘I still consider myself a regular person.’ She went on to say that ‘things have gotten harder’ since the days of the ‘single-salary family’ when her parents, Frasier and Marian Robinson, raised her and her older brother, Craig, on just her father’s blue-collar salary. They took ‘a few vacations; they had ‘a few dreams.’ Even though her father was struck with multiple sclerosis at the ‘prime of his life,’ he never complained or spoke about disappointments. The ‘beauty of her father’ was that ‘like most Americans–he didn’t want much.’ He was just glad to ‘be able to support his family.’
Obama emphasized, ‘Those decent blue-collar jobs are dwindling. Salaries are not keeping up with the cost of living. People can’t afford to live on one income. Single parents double and triple their [work] hours.’ And ‘yet this country talks about family values.’ Family values are ‘hard to do’ in the face of family worries over money, schools and education, kids ‘being tested to death’ and so ‘losing joy in learning.’ And ‘college has become unaffordable.’ The dreams of working in fields such as journalism, music, and art are dying ‘because the cost of a degree is more than you would ever earn in those jobs.’
Ironically, Obama and her husband–both with Ivy League degrees (and school loans paid off by his two penned bestsellers)–have often made alternative career choices that led her mother to state, ‘with every job you take, you earn less money’ to which Obama responded–so she told the amused audience, in a spirit of fun–‘Mom, we’re gonna save the world. Me and Barack. We’re going to do this.’ The audience laughed appreciatively. Obama said, soberly and fervently, ‘We are hamstringing the next generation.’ ‘Everyone knows someone who is in financial crisis.’
Obama again referred to her children. Her mother takes care of them while she and Barack campaign but her mother recently went out of town and ‘an uncle is taking care of them–this could get dicey.’ After more babysitting jokes, Obama emphasized, ‘Just a joke. Press. My jokes don’t translate on paper!’ Then, uniting her comment ‘we are hamstringing the next generation’ with her child reference, she said–using her metaphoric theme–‘Food for children–what plate are we preparing for our children?’ ‘It doesn’t look good. Not nutritious.’
According to Obama, our main course for our children is fear, laced with indifference for others. She stated that we have a war for which ‘we make no sacrifice.’ We haven’t been asked [by our government] to ‘darn a sock’ or help in any way. Obama emphasized, ‘We are one another’s brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Period.’ We are only as strong as the weakest of us.’ Yet, we have ‘holes in our souls.’ We have ‘deficits of empathy.’ We just ‘worry about our own.’
This concern for the crumbling state of our country–the plate of harmful food that we are preparing for our children’s future–is at the heart of why Obama is campaigning for her husband. As a wife, she tells him ‘to get out of politics.’ But she believes that she’s married to the man the country has been looking for–‘ready and willing to push us to a different place.’ ‘Taking care of our own isn’t enough.’ ‘I married Barack because of his values. I wanted to connect with somebody I could raise a family with and trust.’
Obama talked about Barack’s childhood. She said, ‘Barack saw global poverty up front and personal. Imagine a president who comes to the Oval Office with this kind of sensibility.’ Obama stated that honesty and truth are important. ‘Your words are your bond. You do what you say. And do it to the best of your ability. Imagine a president of the United States who brings this kind of [integrity] to the Oval Office.’ Obama described her husband’s years of work with people on the ground in Chicago–in South Side church basements and in workers’ picket lines. She said that ‘Barack is a constitutional law scholar’ and added, ‘Imagine a president who understands and respects our Constitution.’ Addressing the recurring questions ‘is Barack tough enough–can he stand up to the Republicans,’ Obama referred to Illinois politics as ‘the toughest and meanest.’ Addressing the chronic criticism ‘Barack doesn’t have enough experience,’ she said he ‘built his solid presidential campaign in less than a year. Who doesn’t have experience? I don’t know who they’re talking about.’
Obama further stated that Barack ‘is a community builder.’ He is for health care reform and preventative medicine. He is for restoring the environment. He has the ability to ‘unite people [who disagree] around a common set of interests.’ In fact, according to Congressman Loebsack, if Barack Obama is elected president, this acknowledged ability to unite is expected to ‘bridge’ this country’s ‘partisan divide.’
According to Obama, her husband has retained his integrity throughout his political career. In 2002, when President George Bush was popular and had the backing of the country for the Iraq war, Obama quoted the then state senator Barack Obama as having said, ‘No. This war will cost us millions of dollars and thousands of lives.’ Obama went on to say that ‘Barack Obama is one of the smartest people you will ever come across in your lifetime.’ He has ‘no ego, he’s a listener, he’s smart.’ But ‘are we ready for him?’ ‘Are we ready for a change?’ Obama essentially said that electing Barack Obama as our 44th US President would prove we are.
Referring to her husband’s grassroots work, Obama stated, ‘Change happens from the bottom up. We have to change. We have to be a better nation.’ She highlighted Iowa’s caucus2 scheduled for January 3 and urged, ‘Dream about the possibility for this country when Barack Obama stands with hand on Bible to take oath of office.’ Referring to her legacy metaphor, she said, ‘Give children [nutritious] food. The world is watching. Join us.’ Upon her close, the graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School received yet another resounding standing ovation.
Oft likened to Jackie Kennedy, Obama was further described by campaign worker Marsha Bell3 as ‘an approachable Jackie Kennedy.’ This was evident as audience members approached Obama. She was gracious and friendly. She signed autographs, she listened to people’s concerns, and she responded with sincerity. It appears that Michelle Obama lives up to the reason why Essence magazine (May 2006) listed her among ’25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women.’ If her husband becomes President Obama, she will undoubtedly make an extraordinary First Lady.
1 Mayor Ed Malloy, in office for six years thus far, ‘wrote to all [presidential] candidates and asked them to come to our community.’ Barack Obama was the first one to take him up on the invite. On the evening of July 3, 2007, he came to Fairfield’s town square and spoke, to over 1,000 people. [Jefferson County seat, Fairfield, had a population of 9509 at the 2000 census.]
2 First in the Nation Iowa Caucuses–Statewide–January 3, 2008 @ 6:30PM; Contact: Iowa Democratic Party, 515-244-7292; To find your caucus location, visit www.iowafirstcaucus.org
Graham Wilson is the field organizer for Senator Obama in Jefferson County, Iowa.
3 Marsha Bell also commented, ‘Appreciation is structured throughout the entire campaign–mutual appreciation of passionate people working together.’ According to Bell, Barack Obama said that ‘we’ll respect and appreciate everyone who comes our way.’