Michelle Obama: the person and the persona

By Jesse Washington

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Aug. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this June 5, 2012, file photo, first lady Michelle Obama points out a fig tree as she talks about the White House Kitchen Garden during an interview with The Associated Press, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press

She is 5-foot-11 and world famous. Sometimes she inspires awe in her admirers. She has been accused of being the angry type. So when Michelle Obama meets people, she likes to bring things down to earth with a hug.

Erin Thesing got one, before the young schoolteacher introduced Mrs. Obama to a crowd of a thousand people at a recent campaign rally in Philadelphia. As the first lady approached, Thesing extended her hand in greeting.

"She brings me in for the hug, and says, 'It is so nice to see you, Erin.' She knew my name," Thesing remembers, her face bright with the memory.

It happens over and over, wherever Michelle Obama goes — the human connections made by a charismatic public person, and the careful construction of a very public figure.

How much of this is real, and how much is the kind of strategy that's behind every first lady's image? Can it be both? Is it even possible, in this Internet age, to know where the persona ends and the person begins?

Mrs. Obama's representatives declined to make her available for an interview. And why would they? Her image is already set. This 48-year-old woman has already shared everything about herself that she wants us to know:

She had a working-class, two-parent childhood on the South Side of Chicago, then attended Princeton and Harvard Law. Next came marriage and two daughters with an ambitious man named Barack Obama. She held a series of corporate, government and nonprofit jobs in her hometown.

As the president's wife, Mrs. Obama has rebounded from 2008 campaign accusations that she carries racial grudges to define herself as "mom in chief." She's an advocate for healthy living and military families; a workout enthusiast with arms so taut they inspired their own Twitter feed.

Despite aspersions against the strength of her patriotism and parodies of her as a food-policing busybody, Mrs. Obama's Gallup favorability ratings have averaged a sound 66 percent as first lady. Laura Bush averaged 73 percent; Hillary Rodham Clinton 56.

This popularity is tended as carefully as Mrs. Obama's White House vegetable garden. The tools are her social causes, and the force of her own personality.

Perhaps that personality — the real Michelle Obama — can be glimpsed through the eyes of people on the receiving end of those hugs.

In Thesing's case, she and the first lady chatted for five minutes about things like Thesing's students at a predominantly black charter school, Beyonce's "Let's Move!" remix and the Obama family dog. Thesing had been impressed by many famous political figures on the campaign trail in her native New Hampshire, but Mrs. Obama inspired stronger feelings.

"Somehow she has this ability within 30 seconds to make you feel you can open up to her," Thesing says. "To make this instant connection."

Before the campaign rally, Thesing had fully absorbed the first lady's image. She viewed her as a role model: an assertive woman who successfully juggles her career, family and community service, who works out daily, has a great wardrobe and can relate to anyone.

Now that she has met her, Thesing is convinced that the image is real.

She was a hugger long before she was a public figure, say people who have known Mrs. Obama for years, and yearned to make a difference long before she became first lady.

In 1991, when Michelle Robinson was about 27 years old, she worked in a prominent Chicago corporate law firm, doing intellectual property work for entertainment companies. One supervisor, a partner named Quincy White, recalls that the young lawyer wasn't satisfied with the nature of her work: "I couldn't give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world," White says in the biography "Michelle," by Liza Mundy.

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