On the stage the night he conceded the New Hampshire primary, Barack Obama looked exhausted. Closing his eyes for a moment, he leaned back on his wife, Michelle, who encircled his waist with one arm, giving him a squeeze, while pumping her other fist in the air, as if in victory. If anything, Michelle looked, in the words of her husband's campaign slogan, "fired up" and "ready to go".
Obama leans on his wife in many ways for support, for advice, for grounding and increasingly for her fighting words. In an increasingly nasty race that seems to pit the Illinois Senator against not just a former First Lady but her ex-President husband as well, Obama needs Michelle more than ever. This week, for the first time since Barack Obama launched his campaign 11 months ago, Michelle Obama has left the couple's two young girls at home with her mother and hit the campaign trail full-time. While she's no Bill Clinton, Obama does have sharp elbows. One of her more pointed remarks is about how "things have gotten continually worse over my lifetime," implying the Clinton era did little to help "regular folks" like her and her family. And in a forcefully worded fund-raising letter sent out Thursday, she says, "What we didn't expect, at least not from our fellow Democrats, are the win-at-all-costs tactics we've seen recently. We didn't expect misleading accusations that willfully distort Barack's record... We've seen disingenuous attacks and smear tactics turn people off from the political process for too long, and enough is enough."
But more importantly, as she tours South Carolina, speaking on behalf of her husband, she has become the real-life example of Obama's soaring rhetoric. "I was raised in a working class family on the South Side of Chicago, that's how I identify myself, a working class girl," Michelle told a group of students at the University of South Carolina Wednesday. "My mother came home and took care of us through high school, my father was a city shift worker who took care of us all his life. The only amazing thing about my life is that a man like my father could raise a family of four on a single city worker's salary."
Obama's conventional background contrasts with her husband's childhood, growing up between Hawaii and Indonesia, to which few of his supporters can relate. Where Barack Obama's speeches are all about soaring rhetoric, with very few mentions of his personal upbringing, his wife focuses on her childhood, telling her story from the ground up. "You think of my parents who didn't go to college, who sent not one but two of us to Princeton, my brother and I," she told the 200 or so students that came to hear her speak. "And the one thing that is clear to me as I've traveled the country is the story of my father is the story of America, I don't care what color what folks are, I don't care if they grew up on a farm or in the inner city."
Not surprisingly, Michelle Obama resonates especially with black women, many of whom are torn between voting for the first woman President or the first black President. While Obama tries not to focus on race or the historic nature of his candidacy, his wife has no such qualms. In front of black audiences, like one at Benedict College in Columbia, she takes on a much more strident tone. There on Sunday she marveled at how a "little black girl from the south side of Chicago" could be "the next First Lady," she told the audience to a standing ovation one of four she received during her that speech.
"We are confronted with the doubters. People who tells us what we can't do. You're not ready. You're not good enough. You're not smart enough. You're too tall," she said as the audience chuckled (Michelle is 5'11"), mindful of the increasingly heated rhetoric flying between the Clinton and Obama campaigns. Growing serious, she continued: "Each and every one of you here has heard and felt those ceilings, somebody pushing you down, defining your limitations, who are you? You know damn well what you are capable of doing... This election is just as much about that as it is about change because the truth is there are millions of shining little lights just like me all over this country. Kids living in the shadows, being told by their own communities what they can and cannot do. This is an opportunity for all of us to send a different message to all those shining lights."
Her policy-lite message often helps women a demographic Obama has lost in the last two primary contests feel better about voting for her husband over New York Senator Hillary Clinton. "She was really a real person, I was inspired, just in awe," Haley Dreis, 18, a freshman at the University of South Carolina, said after seeing Michelle speak. Dreis had been split between Clinton and Obama but was leaning Obama after seeing Michelle. And while Obama's rallies tend to get the crowd chanting and energized, Michelle Obama's are much more poignant, sometimes bringing attendees to tears. At that same speech Amindi Imoh, 18, found himself welling up when she talked about the sacrifices her parents had made. His own parents immigrated from Nigeria in 1981 and, Imoh, said, "It was like she was telling our story."
Michelle doesn't credit Obama with lifting her up. She is clear she did it on her own, but stresses that he is what the country needs to get back to a time when people like her had the opportunity to rise a time, she said, that has not existed since her childhood. "You know every time somebody told me, 'No, you can't do that,' I pushed past the their doubts and I took my seat at the table," she told the group of students at Bennett.
From her shy, awkward first months in a role that she talks frankly about not wanting, Michelle Obama is finding her voice. And her husband will need it. If he was exhausted in New Hampshire, they have 22 states coming up on February 5th that could well determine the nominee.