Miller Center

Michelle Obama - First Lady

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When Michelle Obama became First Lady of the United States in 2009, she had traveled a long way from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. Still she pledged to remain grounded and focused on her children and their well-being. She also expressed interest in focusing attention on women's efforts to balance work and family. First Lady Obama commented that "My first priority will always be to make sure that our girls are healthy and grounded. Then I want to help other families get the support they need, not just to survive, but to thrive." Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, to Marian and Fraser Robinson in the South Side of Chicago where she and her older brother Craig grew up in a one-bedroom apartment. Craig and Michelle shared a "bedroom," which was the living room split down the center. The family was a close-knit one that stressed the importance of honesty, hard work, and education. Fraser worked as a city pump operator as well as a Democratic precinct captain. Although he suffered from multiple sclerosis, he rarely missed a day of work and taught Michelle and Craig to value achievement as a result of hard work. Marian was a stay-at-home mother until Michelle went to high school to maintain a steady household which included teaching both children to read by the age of four. Michelle excelled in school, skipping second grade and entering a gifted program in sixth grade. She moved on to Chicago's first magnet school for gifted children called the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, graduating as salutatorian in 1981. Although originally discouraged from applying, she then followed Craig to Princeton University. There she focused her studies on Sociology and African American Studies and graduated cum laude in 1985. Michelle faced further discouragement when she applied to Harvard Law School, but once again she excelled in her studies and graduated in 1988. After graduating from Harvard, Michelle returned to Chicago and joined the law firm Sidley and Austin. While working there in the summer of 1989, she was assigned to be the adviser to Barack Obama, a new summer intern. Originally Michelle said no when Barack asked her on a date, but finally she gave in; he proposed two years later. They were married on October 3, 1992, and had two daughters, Malia (1998) and Natasha, known as Sasha (2001). In 1992, shortly after her father's death, Michelle decided that corporate law was not her ideal lifelong occupation. She decided to move into public service, and she started as an assistant to Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. She then became the assistant commissioner of planning and development for the city of Chicago. In 1993, Michelle began working as the executive director for the non-profit, Public Allies. This AmeriCorps program, initiated during the administration of President Bill Clinton, helped young adults develop the skills and training needed for careers in public service. Michelle joined the University of Chicago in 1996 as the associate dean of student services where she developed the school's first community service program. She became the executive director of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals in 2002. Her role as executive director ended in 2005 when she became vice president of community relations and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. When Barack Obama announced his decision to run for president in 2007, Michelle decided to cut back her work hours to balance her husband's campaign with their family life. Although she campaigned for her husband, traveling across the country giving speeches to thousands of Americans, she limited her time away from home to two days a week. Her mother helped with childcare while the Obamas were campaigning. Once Barack Obama won the election, the family began to prepare for the move to the White House. Both the Obamas talked about the trade-offs of being in the public eye while still trying to maintain some privacy. They emphasized the need to keep life consistent and steady for their daughters. Malia and Sasha attend Sidwell Friends School, a private Quaker day school, where Sasha is a second-grader at the school's Bethesda, Maryland, elementary school campus, and Malia is a fifth-grader at its middle school campus in Washington, D.C. Michelle's mother moved to the White House with the Obamas to help ease the transition. As Michelle Obama began her first year as the nation's First Lady, she was already the subject of much speculation. The Obamas received more than the usual amount of attention because of being the first African American family to live in the White House. The press covered the choice of a family dog, and contests were held to choose the First Lady's Inaugural gown. As the Obama family embarked on their new life in Washington, D.C., First Lady Michelle Obama seemed likely to focus on her daughters while also turning her attention to issues about which she cared passionately.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Michael Nelson

Professor Nelson is the Fulmer Professor Political Science at Rhodes College, a senior fellow of the Miller Center, and the senior contributing editor and book editor of the Cook Political Report. He is the author of multiple books on American politics and government, including:

Resilient America: Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government (University Press of Kansas), which won the American Political Science Association’s Richard E. Neustadt Award for Best Book on the Presidency published in 2014

How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation (LSU Press), which won the Southern Political Science Association’s V.O. Key Award for Outstanding Book on Southern Politics published in 2006