Magazine article The Spectator

The Meaning of Michelle

Magazine article The Spectator

The Meaning of Michelle

Article excerpt

For all her star power on the international stage, it will be in her own backyard that Michelle Obama has the most effect, says Alexandra Starr

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 severalhour 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. …

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