Michelle Obama has been at pains to show that the praise she attracted during the G20 summit has not gone to her head. She stressed to American journalists that her kids were distinctly disinterested in her diplomatic triumph, instead regaling her with stories about their White House high jinks in her absence. This charming anecdote contained an unmistakable message: the self-proclaimed ‘mom-in-chief’ still had her feet on the ground, despite the Jackie Kennedy comparisons and the Queen’s admonishment to stay in touch.
Still, the praise must be a welcome change from the days when Mrs Obama was perceived as a political liability. In February 2008 she announced at a campaign event that her husband’s presidential bid had, for the first time in her adult lifetime, made her ‘really proud of my country’. This led many observers to peg her as an Angry Black Woman. She seemed poised to be America’s version of Cherie Blair, the wife who revealed who the husband really was. For all of Barack Obama or Tony Blair’s measured tones, the theory went, the fact that they shared a bed with women who seemed leftist, if not resentful, hinted at what they actually thought beneath their voter-friendly centrist veneer.
Take a closer look at Mrs Obama, however, and it becomes clear that she’s actually the very embodiment of American middle-class values. Raised by a father who never allowed being afflicted with multiple sclerosis to cost him a day on the job, she internalised a strong work ethic as a child. She extended her several-hour commute to school so as to increase her study time. When her then-boyfriend Barack Obama derided matrimony as a meaningless formality, she tartly informed him that without a ring, she wasn’t going to stick around. She cherishes the closeness that marked her childhood home, and has long aspired to recreate a similar world for her daughters. One reason she has taken to life in Washington, a senior adviser to the President said, is that the family can eat dinner together virtually every night, a tradition from Michelle’s childhood that she had not been able to replicate for her own children because of her husband’s political career.
The Obamas’ move to Washington could change not only their family life but also the ethos of their new hometown. Unlike other American cities with large African-American populations — Chicago or Atlanta, say — there is virtually no professional black community in DC. With her working-class background, Ivy League degrees and impressive professional career, Michelle Obama represents what a smart, disciplined black woman can accomplish in spite of the United States’ troubled racial legacy. And that arguably makes her talks in DC public schools extolling the power of hard work one of the most powerful initiatives we’ve seen from the new administration.
Washington wasn’t always devoid of a black middle class of the sort Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born into 45 years ago. In the 1950s and ’60s, there was a base of black Americans who ran small businesses and worked for the federal government. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968, however, riots broke out across the city. Nearly a dozen people were killed, several hundred small businesses literally went up in smoke, and insurance rates soared. Middle-class families — both black and white — fled for the safety of the suburbs. Those that stayed behind were trapped in crumbling tenements and some of the worst performing schools in the nation.
A succession of feckless and incompetent mayoral regimes made a bad situation worse. The drug scourge of the 1980s wasn’t just evident on street corners across Washington, but at the highest levels of municipal government: in 1990, Mayor Marion Barry was captured on videotape smoking crack cocaine (astonishingly, he won re-election four years later). As the metropolis teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in 1995, the federal government had to take over administration of the city’s finances.
The gentrification of the late 1990s led to the rebuilding of swathes of the city that had been reduced to rubble during the King riots, but many black Washingtonians can still be counted among the most marginalised members of American society. It is this group that Michelle Obama has trained her sights on. This spring, she lead a cohort of some of the most decorated and esteemed women in American life — including the first black female astronaut and the first four-star general — to meet with students at poor urban schools. The aim, Mrs Obama said, was to ‘make the kids understand where we stand is not an impossibility’. She subsequently invited some of the students to the White House, promising that the initiative was the beginning of a tradition she would extend throughout her husband’s presidency.
To be sure, her community forays are not the first time a First Lady has ventured into the local neighbourhood. Predecessors like Laura Bush also visited DC public schools to read books and shake hands with students. But there has never been a woman in the White House like Michelle Obama, and that’s what makes her strong presence in the community so potentially transformative: the students she encourages to dream big can see themselves in her. Mrs Obama may have been raised by dedicated parents — her dad never missed his son’s basketball games and her mom volunteered religiously in her children’s schools. But she still grew up in a one-bedroom home, and money was tight enough that the family cutlery never extended beyond four forks, four spoons and four knives. As Mrs Obama tells her young audiences, it was the values she absorbed during her childhood that catapulted her to where she is today. ‘There is no magic to getting here,’ Mrs Obama told students at Anacostia High School, located in one of the most destitute parts of the city. ‘I had someone around me who helped me understand hard work.’
There are few cities more polarised than Washington. It is dramatically divided between white and black, the haves and have-nots. ‘I want to see if we can bring those two Washingtons together,’ Mr Obama said in a television interview. This might be an impossible task. But if there is a couple who can build some kind of a bridge, it is the President and especially his wife. Her most important diplomatic initiative may not ultimately come when she charms audiences overseas, but rather when she reaches out to the neglected residents of her new hometown.
Alexandra Starr covered Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate race for Businessweek.