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On Clybourn Avenue in Chicago, just north of downtown, there was a strange paradise, seemingly built for the working parent, seemingly built for me: a standard, supremely American, got-it-all strip mall. It had a BabyGap, a Best Buy, a Gymboree, and a CVS, plus a handful of other chains, small and large, meant to take care of any urgent consumer need, be it a toilet plunger, or a ripe avocado, or a child-sized bathing cap. There was also a nearby Container Store and a Chipotle, which made things even better. This was my place. I could park the car, whip through two or three stores as needed, pick up a burrito bowl, and be back at my desk inside sixty minutes. I excelled at the lunchtime blitz—the replacing of lost socks, the purchasing of gifts for whatever five-year-old was having a birthday party on Saturday, the stocking and restocking of juice boxes and single-serving applesauce cups.
Sasha and Malia were three and six years old now, feisty, smart, and growing fast. Their energy left me breathless. Which only added to the occasional allure of the shopping plaza. There were times when I’d sit in the parked car and eat my fast food alone with the car radio playing, overcome with relief, impressed with my efficiency. This was life with little kids. This was what sometimes passed for achievement. I had the applesauce. I was eating a meal. Everyone was still alive.
Look how I’m managing, I wanted to say in those moments, to my audience of no one. Does everyone see that I’m pulling this off?
This was me at the age of forty, a little bit June Cleaver, a little bit Mary Tyler Moore. On my better days, I gave myself credit for making it happen. The balance of my life was elegant only from a distance, and only if you squinted, but there was at least something there that resembled balance. The hospital job had turned out to be a good one, challenging and satisfying and in line with my beliefs. It astonished me, actually, to see how a big esteemed institution like a university medical center with ninety-five hundred employees traditionally operated, run primarily by academics who did medical research and wrote papers and who also, in general, seemed to find the neighborhood around them so scary that they wouldn’t even cross an off-campus street. For me, that fear was galvanizing. It got me out of bed in the morning.
I’d spent most of my life living alongside those barriers—noting the nervousness of white people in my neighborhood, registering all the subtle ways people with any sort of influence seemed to gravitate away from my home community and into clusters of affluence that seemed increasingly far removed. Here was an invitation to undo some of that, to knock down barriers where I could—mostly by encouraging people to get to know one another. I was well supported by my new boss, given the freedom to build my own program, creating a stronger relationship between the hospital and its neighboring community. I started with one person working for me but eventually led a team of twenty-two. I instituted programs to take hospital staff and trustees out into neighborhoods around the South Side, having them visit community centers and schools, signing them up to be tutors, mentors, and science-fair judges, getting them to try the local barbecue joints. We brought local kids in to job shadow hospital employees, set up a program to increase the number of neighborhood people volunteering in the hospital, and worked with a summer academic institute through the medical school, encouraging students in the community to consider medicine as a career. After realizing that the hospital system could be better about hiring minority- and women-owned businesses for its contracted work, I helped set up the Office of Business Diversity as well.
Finally, there was the issue of people desperately needing care. The South Side had just over a million residents and a dearth of medical providers, not to mention a population that was disproportionately affected by the kinds of chronic conditions that tend to afflict the poor—asthma, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease. With huge numbers of people uninsured and many others dependent on Medicaid, patients regularly jammed the university hospital’s emergency room, often seeking what amounted to routine nonemergency treatment or having gone so long without preventive care that they were now in dire need of help. The problem was glaring, expensive, inefficient, and stressful for everyone involved. ER visits did little to improve anyone’s long-term health, either. Trying to address this problem became an important focus for me. Among other things, we began hiring and training patient advocates—friendly, helpful local people, generally—who could sit with patients in the ER, helping them set up follow-up appointments at community health centers and educating them on where they could go to get decent and affordable regular care.
My work was interesting and rewarding, but still I had to be careful not to let it consume me. I felt I owed that to my girls. Our decision to let Barack’s career proceed as it had—to give him the freedom to shape and pursue his dreams—led me to tamp down my own efforts at work. Almost deliberately, I’d numbed myself somewhat to my ambition, stepping back in moments when I’d normally step forward. I’m not sure anyone around me would have said I wasn’t doing enough, but I was always aware of everything I could have followed through on and didn’t. There were certain small-scale projects I chose not to take on. There were young employees whom I could have mentored better than I did. You hear all the time about the trade-offs of being a working mother. These were mine. If I’d once been someone who threw herself completely into every task, I was now more cautious, protective of my time, knowing I had to maintain enough energy for life at home.
My goals mostly involved maintaining normalcy and stability, but those would never be Barack’s. We’d grown better about recognizing this and letting it be. One yin, one yang. I craved routine and order, and he did not. He could live in the ocean; I needed the boat. When he was present at home, he was at least impressively present, playing on the floor with the girls, reading Harry Potter out loud with Malia at night, laughing at my jokes and hugging me, reminding us of his love and steadiness before vanishing again for another half a week or more. We made the most of the gaps in his schedule, having meals and seeing friends. He indulged me (sometimes) by watching Sex and the City. I indulged him (sometimes) by watching The Sopranos. I’d given myself over to the idea that being away was just part of his job. I didn’t like it, but for the most part I’d stopped fighting it. Barack could happily end a day in a faraway hotel with all sorts of political battles brewing and loose ends floating. I, meanwhile, lived for the shelter of home—for the sense of completeness I felt each night with Sasha and Malia tucked into their beds and the dishwasher humming in the kitchen.
I had no choice but to adjust to Barack’s absences anyway, because they weren’t slated to end. On top of his regular work, he was once again campaigning, this time for a seat in the U.S. Senate, ahead of the fall 2004 elections.
He’d been slowly growing restless in Springfield, frustrated by the meandering pace of state government, convinced he could accomplish more and better in Washington. Knowing that I had plenty of reasons to be against the idea of a Senate run, and knowing also that he had a counterargument to present, midway through 2002 we’d convened an informal meeting of maybe a dozen of our closest friends, held over brunch at Valerie Jarrett’s house, thinking we would kind of air the whole thing out and see what people thought.
Valerie lived in a high-rise not far from us in Hyde Park. Her condo was clean and modern, with white walls and white furniture and sprays of exquisite bright orchids adding color. At the time, she was the executive vice president at a real-estate firm and a trustee at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She’d supported my efforts at Public Allies when I was there and helped raise funds for Barack’s various campaigns, marshaling her wide network of connections to boost our every endeavor. Because of this, and because of her warm, wise demeanor, Valerie had come to occupy a curious position in our lives. Our friendship was equally personal and professional. And she was equally my friend and Barack’s, which in my experience is a rare thing inside a couple. I had my high-powered mom posse, and Barack spent what little leisure time he had playing basketball with a group of buddies. We had some great friends who were couples, their children friends with our children, families we liked to vacation with. But Valerie was something different, a big sister to each of us individually and someone who helped us stand back and take measure of our dilemmas when they arose. She saw us clearly, saw our goals clearly, and was protective of us both.
She’d also told me privately ahead of time that she wasn’t convinced Barack should run for the Senate, so I’d walked into brunch that morning figuring I had the argument sewn up.
But I’d been wrong.
This Senate race presented a unique opportunity, Barack explained that day. He felt he had a real shot. The incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald, was a conservative Republican in an increasingly Democratic state and was having trouble maintaining the support of his own party. It was likely that multiple candidates would run in the primary, which meant that Barack would only need to command a plurality of the vote to win the Democratic nomination. As for money, he assured me that he wouldn’t need to touch our personal finances. When I asked how we’d afford living expenses if we were going to have homes in both D.C. and Chicago, he’d said, “Well, I’ll write another book and it’ll be a big book, one that makes money.” This made me laugh. Barack was the only person I knew who had this kind of faith, thinking that a book could solve any problem. He was like the little boy from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” I teased, who trades his family’s livelihood for a handful of magic beans, believing with his whole heart that they will yield something, even if no one else does.
On all other fronts, Barack’s logic was dismayingly solid. I watched Valerie’s face as he spoke, realizing that he was quickly racking up points with her, that he had an answer for every “but what about?” question we could throw his way. I knew he was making sense, even as I fought off the urge to tally up all the additional hours he’d spend away from us now, not to mention the specter of a move to D.C. Though we’d argued over the drain of his political career on our family for years now, I did love and trust Barack. He was already a man with two families, his attention divided between me and the girls and his 200,000 or so South Side constituents. Would sharing him with the state of Illinois really be all that different? I couldn’t know one way or another, but I also couldn’t bring myself to stand in the way of his aspiration, that thing always tugging at him to try for more.
And so that day, we’d made a deal. Valerie agreed to be the finance chair for Barack’s Senate campaign. A number of our friends agreed to donate time and money to the effort. I signed off on all of it, with one important caveat, repeated out loud so that everyone could hear it: If he lost, he’d move on from politics altogether and find a different sort of job. If it didn’t work out on Election Day, this would be the end.
Really and for real, this would be the end.
What came next for Barack, though, was a series of lucky twists. First, Peter Fitzgerald decided not to run for reelection, clearing the field for challengers and relative newcomers like my husband. Then, somewhat oddly, both the Democratic front-runner in the primary and the ensuing Republican nominee became embroiled in scandals involving their ex-wives. With just a few months remaining before the election, Barack didn’t even have a Republican opponent.
To be sure, he’d been running an excellent campaign, having learned plenty from his failed congressional run. He’d beaten out seven primary opponents and earned more than half the vote to win the nomination. Traveling the state and interacting with potential constituents, he was the same man I knew at home—funny and charming, smart and prepared. His overly verbose answers to questions at town-hall forums and campaign debates seemed only to drive home the point that he belonged on the Senate floor. But still, effort notwithstanding, Barack’s path to the Senate seemed paved in four-leaf clover.
All this, too, was before John Kerry invited him to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention being held in Boston. Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts, was locked in a back-and-forth fight for the presidency with George W. Bush.
My husband was, in all of this, a complete nobody—a humble state legislator who’d never stood before a crowd like the one of fifteen thousand or more that would be gathered in Boston. He’d never used a teleprompter, never been live on prime-time television. He was a newcomer, a black man in what was historically a white man’s business, surfacing from obscurity with a weird name and odd backstory, hoping to strike a chord with the common Democrat. As the network pundits would later acknowledge, choosing Barack Obama to speak to an audience of millions had been a mighty gamble.
And yet, in his curious and roundabout way, he seemed destined for exactly this moment. I knew because I’d seen up close how his mind churned nonstop. Over years, I’d watched him inhale books, newspapers, and ideas, sparking to life anytime he spoke with someone who offered a shard of new experience or knowledge. He’d stowed every piece of it. What he was building, I see now, was a vision—and not a small one, either. It was the very thing I’d had to create room for in our shared life, to coexist with, even if reluctantly. It aggravated me sometimes no end, but it was also what I could never disavow in Barack. He’d been working at this thing, quietly and meticulously, as long as I’d known him. And now maybe the size of the audience would finally match the scope of what he believed to be possible. He’d been ready for that call. All he had to do was speak.
“Must’ve been a good speech” became my refrain afterward. It was a joke between me and Barack, one I repeated often and with irony following that night—July 27, 2004.
I’d left the girls at home with my mother and flown to be with him in Boston for the speech, standing in the wings at the convention center as Barack stepped into the hot glare of the stage lights and into view of all those millions of people. He was a little nervous and so was I, though we were both determined not to show it. This was how Barack operated anyway. The more pressure he was under, the calmer he seemed to get. He’d written his remarks over the course of a couple of weeks, working on them in between Illinois senate votes. He memorized his words and rehearsed them carefully, to the point where he wouldn’t actually need the teleprompter unless his nerves got triggered and his mind went blank. But that wasn’t at all what happened. Barack looked out at the audience and into the TV cameras, and as if kick-starting some internal engine, he just smiled and began to roll.
He spoke for seventeen minutes that night, explaining who he was and where he came from—his grandfather a GI who’d joined Patton’s Army, his grandmother who’d worked on an assembly line during the war, his father who’d grown up herding goats in Kenya, his parents’ improbable love, their faith in what a good education could do for a son who wasn’t born rich or well connected. Earnestly and expertly, he cast himself not as an outsider but rather as a literal embodiment of the American story. He reminded the audience that a country couldn’t be carved up simply into red and blue, that we were united by a common humanity, compelled to care for the whole of society. He called for hope over cynicism. He spoke with hope, projected hope, almost sang with it, really.
It was seventeen minutes of Barack’s deft and easy way with words, seventeen minutes of his deep, dazzling optimism on display. By the time he finished, with a last plug for John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, the crowd was on its feet and roaring, the applause booming in the rafters. I walked out onto the stage, stepping into the blinding lights wearing high heels and a white suit, to give Barack a congratulatory hug before turning to wave with him at the whipped-up audience.
The energy was electric, the sound absolutely deafening. That Barack was a good person with a big mind and serious faith in democracy was no longer any sort of secret. I was proud of what he’d done, though it didn’t surprise me. This was the guy I’d married. I’d known his capabilities all along. Looking back, I think it was then that I quietly began to let go of the idea that there was any reversing his course, that he’d ever belong solely to me and the girls. I could hear it almost in the pulse of the applause. More of this, more of this, more of this.
The media response to Barack’s speech was hyperbolic. “I’ve just seen the first black president,” Chris Matthews declared to his fellow commentators on NBC. A front-page headline in the Chicago Tribune the next day read simply, “The Phenom.” Barack’s cell phone began to ring nonstop. Cable pundits were dubbing him a “rock star” and an “overnight success,” as if he hadn’t spent years working up to that moment onstage, as if the speech had created him instead of the other way around. Still, the speech was the beginning of something new, not just for him, but for us, our whole family. We were swept into another level of exposure and into the swift current of other people’s expectations.
It was surreal, the whole thing. All I could do, really, was joke about it.
“Must’ve been a good speech,” I’d say with a shrug as people began stopping Barack on the street to ask for his autograph or to tell him they’d loved what he’d said. “Must’ve been a good speech,” I said when we walked out of a restaurant in Chicago to find that a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk to wait for him. I said the same thing when journalists started asking for Barack’s thoughts on important national issues, when big-time political strategists started to hover around him, and when nine years after publication the formerly obscure Dreams from My Father got a paperback reissue and landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
“Must’ve been a good speech,” I said when a beaming, bustling Oprah Winfrey showed up at our house to spend a day interviewing us for her magazine.
What was happening to us? I almost couldn’t track it. In November, Barack was elected to the U.S. Senate, winning 70 percent of the vote statewide, the largest margin in Illinois history and the biggest landslide of any Senate race in the country that year. He’d won significant majorities among blacks, whites, and Latinos; men and women; rich and poor; urban, suburban, and rural. At one point, we went to Arizona for a quick getaway, and he was mobbed by well-wishers there. This for me felt like a true and odd measure of his fame: Even white people were recognizing him now.
I took what was left of my normalcy and wrapped myself in it. When we were at home, everything was the same. When we were with our friends and family, everything was the same. With our kids, it was always the same. But outside, things were different. Barack was flying back and forth to D.C. all the time now. He had a Senate office and an apartment in a shabby building on Capitol Hill, a little one-bedroom that was already cluttered with books and papers, his Hole away from home. Anytime the girls and I came to visit, we didn’t even pretend to want to stay there, booking a hotel room for the four of us instead.
I stuck to my routine in Chicago. Gym, work, home, repeat. Dishes in the dishwasher. Swim lessons, soccer, ballet. I kept pace as I always had. Barack had a life in Washington now, operating with some of the gravitas that came with being a senator, but I was still me, living my same normal life. I was sitting one day in my parked car at the shopping plaza on Clybourn Avenue, having some Chipotle and a little me-time after a dash through BabyGap, when my secretary at work called on my cell phone to ask if she could patch through a call. It was from a woman in D.C.—someone I’d never met, the wife of a fellow senator—who’d tried a few times already to reach me.
“Sure, put her through,” I said.
And on came the voice of this senator’s wife, pleasant and warm. “Well, hello!” she said. “I’m so glad to finally talk to you!”
I told her that I was excited to talk to her, too.
“I’m just calling to welcome you,” she said, “and to let you know that we’d like to invite you to join something very special.”
She’d called to ask me to be in some sort of private organization, a club that, from what I gathered, was made up primarily of the wives of important people in Washington. They got together regularly for luncheons and to discuss issues of the day. “It’s a nice way to meet people, and I know that’s not always easy when you’re new to town,” she said.
In my whole life, I’d never been asked to join a club. I’d watched friends in high school go off on ski trips with their Jack and Jill groups. At Princeton, I’d waited up sometimes for Suzanne to come home, buzzed and tittering, from her eating-club parties. Half the lawyers at Sidley, it seemed, belonged to country clubs. I’d visited plenty of those clubs over time, raising money for Public Allies, raising money for Barack’s campaigns. You learned early on that clubs, in general, were saturated with money. Belonging signified more than just belonging.
It was a kind offer she was making, coming from a genuine place, and yet I was all too happy to turn it down.
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s so nice of you to think of me. But actually, we’ve made the decision I won’t be moving to Washington.” I let her know that we had two little girls in school in Chicago and that I was pretty attached to my job. I explained that Barack was settling into life in D.C., commuting home when he could. I didn’t mention that we were so committed to Chicago that we were looking to buy a new house, thanks to the royalty money that was starting to come in from the renewed sales of his book and the fact that he now had a generous offer on a second book—the surprise harvest of Barack’s magic beans.
The senator’s wife paused, letting a delicate beat pass. When she spoke again, her voice was gentle. “That can be very hard on a marriage, you know,” she said. “Families fall apart.”
I felt her judgment then. She herself had been in Washington for many years. The implication was she’d seen things go poorly when a spouse stayed back. The implication was that I was making a dangerous choice, that there was only one correct way to be a senator’s wife and I was choosing wrong.
I thanked her again, hung up, and sighed. None of this had been my choice in the first place. None of this was my choice at all. I was now, like her, the wife of a U.S. senator—Mrs. Obama, she’d called me throughout the conversation—but that didn’t mean I had to drop everything to support him. Truly, I didn’t want to drop a thing.
I knew there were other senators with spouses who chose to live in their hometowns rather than in D.C. I knew that the Senate, with fourteen of its one hundred members being female, was not quite as antiquated as it had once been. But still, I found it presumptuous that another woman would tell me I was wrong to want to keep my kids in school and remain in my job. A few weeks after the election, I’d gone with Barack to Washington for a daylong orientation offered to newly elected senators and their spouses. There’d been only a few of us attending that year, and after a quick introduction the politicians went one way, while spouses were ushered into another room. I’d come with questions, knowing that politicians and their families were expected to adhere to strict federal ethics policies dictating everything from whom they could receive gifts from to how they paid for travel to and from Washington. I thought maybe we’d discuss how to navigate social situations with lobbyists or the legalities of raising money for a future campaign.
What we got, however, was an elaborate disquisition on the history and architecture of the Capitol and a look at the official china patterns produced for the Senate, followed by a polite and chitchatty lunch. The whole thing had gone on for hours. It would have been funny, maybe, if I hadn’t taken a day off from work and left our kids with my mother in order to be there. If I was going to be a political spouse, I wanted to treat it seriously. I didn’t care about the politics per se, but I also didn’t want to screw anything up.
The truth was that Washington confused me, with its decorous traditions and sober self-regard, its whiteness and maleness, its ladies having lunch off to one side. At the heart of my confusion was a kind of fear, because as much as I hadn’t chosen to be involved, I was getting sucked in. I’d been Mrs. Obama for the last twelve years, but it was starting to mean something different. At least in some spheres, I was now Mrs. Obama in a way that could feel diminishing, a missus defined by her mister. I was the wife of Barack Obama, the political rock star, the only black person in the Senate—the man who’d spoken of hope and tolerance so poignantly and forcefully that he now had a hornet buzz of expectation following him.
My husband was a senator, but somehow people seemed to want to vault right over that. Instead, everyone was keen to know whether he would make a run for president in 2008. There was no shaking the question. Every reporter asked it. Nearly every person who approached him on the street asked it. My colleagues at the hospital would stand in my doorway and casually drop the question, probing for some bit of early news. Even Malia, who was six and a half on the day she put on a pink velvet dress and stood next to Barack as he was sworn in to the Senate by Dick Cheney, wanted to know. Unlike many of the others, though, our first grader was wise enough to sense how premature it all seemed.
“Daddy, are you gonna try to be president?” she’d asked. “Don’t you think maybe you should be vice president or something first?”
I was with Malia on this matter. As a lifelong pragmatist, I would always counsel a slow approach, the methodical checking of boxes. I was a natural-born fan of the long and judicious wait. In this regard, I felt better anytime I heard Barack pushing back at his inquisitors with an aw-shucks kind of modesty, batting away questions about the presidency, saying that the only thing he was planning was to put his head down and work hard in the Senate. He often reminded people that he was just a low-ranking member of the minority party, a backbench player if there ever was one. And, he would sometimes add, he had two kids he needed to raise.
But the drum was already beating. It was hard to make it stop. Barack was writing what would become The Audacity of Hope—thinking through his beliefs and his vision for the country, threshing them into words on his legal pads late at night. He really was content, he told me, to stay where he was, building his influence over time, awaiting his turn to speak inside the deliberative cacophony of the Senate, but then a storm arrived.
Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast of the United States late in August 2005, overwhelming the levees in New Orleans, swamping low-lying regions, stranding people—black people, mostly—on the rooftops of their destroyed homes. The aftermath was horrific, with media reports showing hospitals without backup power, distraught families herded into the Superdome, emergency workers hamstrung by a lack of supplies. In the end, some eighteen hundred people died, and more than half a million others were displaced, a tragedy exacerbated by the ineptitude of the federal government’s response. It was a wrenching exposure of our country’s structural divides, most especially the intense, lopsided vulnerability of African Americans and poor people of all races when things got rough.
Where was hope now?
I watched the Katrina coverage with a knot in my stomach, knowing that if a disaster hit Chicago, many of my aunts and uncles, cousins and neighbors, would have suffered a similar fate. Barack’s reaction was no less emotional. A week after the hurricane, he flew to Houston to join former president George H. W. Bush, along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who was then a colleague of his in the Senate, spending time with the tens of thousands of New Orleans evacuees who’d sought shelter in the Astrodome there. The experience kindled something in him, that nagging sense he wasn’t yet doing enough.
This was the thought I returned to a year or so later, when the drumbeat truly got loud, when the pressure on both of us felt immense. We went about our regular business, but the question of whether Barack would run for president unsettled the air around us. Could he? Will he? Should he? In the summer of 2006, poll respondents filling out open-ended questionnaires were naming him as a presidential possibility, though Hillary Clinton was decidedly the number one pick. By fall, though, Barack’s stock had begun to rise in part thanks to the publication of The Audacity of Hope and a slew of media opportunities afforded by the book tour. His poll numbers were suddenly even with or ahead of those of Al Gore and John Kerry, the Democrats’ previous two nominees—evidence of his potential. I was aware that he’d been having private conversations with friends, advisers, and prospective donors, signaling to everyone that he was mulling over the idea. But there was one conversation he avoided having, and that was with me.
He knew, of course, how I felt. We’d discussed it obliquely, around the edges of other topics. We’d lived with other people’s expectations so long that they were almost embedded in every conversation we had. Barack’s potential sat with our family at the dinner table. Barack’s potential rode along to school with the girls and to work with me. It was there even when we didn’t want it to be there, adding a strange energy to everything. From my point of view, my husband was doing plenty already. If he was going to even think about running for president, I hoped he’d take the prudent path, preparing slowly, biding his time in the Senate, and waiting until the girls were older—until 2016, maybe.
Since I’d known him, it seemed to me that Barack had always had his eyes on some far-off horizon, on his notion of the world as it should be. Just for once, I wanted him to be content with life as it was. I didn’t understand how he could look at Sasha and Malia, now five and eight, with their pigtailed hair and giggly exuberance, and feel any other way. It hurt me sometimes to think that he did.
We were riding a seesaw, the two of us, the mister on one side and the missus on the other. We lived in a nice house now, a Georgian brick home on a quiet street in the Kenwood neighborhood, with a wide porch and tall trees in the yard—exactly the kind of place Craig and I used to gape at during Sunday drives in my dad’s Buick. I thought often of my father and all he’d invested in us. I wished desperately for him to be alive, to see how things were playing out. Craig was profoundly happy now, having finally made a swerve, leaving his career in investment banking and pivoting back to his first love—basketball. After a few years as an assistant at Northwestern, he was now head coach at Brown University in Rhode Island, and he was getting married again, to Kelly McCrum, a beautiful, down-to-earth college dean of admissions from the East Coast. His two children had grown tall and confident, vibrant advertisements for what the next generation could do.
I was a senator’s wife, but beyond that, and more important, I had a career that mattered to me. Back in the spring, I’d been promoted to become a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center. I’d spent the past couple of years leading the development of a program called the South Side Healthcare Collaborative, which had already connected more than fifteen hundred patients who’d turned up in our Emergency Department with care providers they could see regularly, regardless of whether they could pay or not. My work felt personal. I saw black folks streaming into the ER with issues that had long been neglected—diabetic patients whose circulation issues had gone untended and who now needed a leg amputated, for example—and couldn’t help but think of every medical appointment my own father had failed to make for himself, every symptom of his MS he’d downplayed in order not to make a fuss, or cost anyone money, or generate paperwork, or to spare himself the feeling of being belittled by a wealthy white doctor.
I liked my job, and while it wasn’t perfect, I also liked my life. With Sasha about to move into elementary school, I felt as though I was at the start of a new phase, on the brink of being able to fire up my ambition again and consider a new set of goals. What would a presidential campaign do? It would hijack all that. I knew enough to understand this ahead of time. Barack and I had been through five campaigns in eleven years already, and each one had forced me to fight a bit harder to hang on to my own priorities. Each one had put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage. A presidential run, I feared, would really bang us up. Barack would be gone far more than he was while serving in Springfield or Washington—not for half weeks, but full weeks; not for four- to eight-week stretches with recesses in between, but for months at a time. What would that do to our family? What would the publicity do to our girls?
I did what I could to ignore the whirlwind around Barack, even if it showed no sign of dying down. Cable news pundits were debating his prospects. David Brooks, the conservative columnist at the New York Times, published a surprising sort of just-do-it plea titled “Run, Barack, Run.” He was recognized nearly everywhere he went now, but I still had the blessing of invisibility. Standing in line at a convenience store one day in October, I spotted the cover of Time magazine and had to turn my head away: It was an extreme close-up of my husband’s face, next to the headline “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.” What I hoped was that at some point Barack himself would put an end to the speculation, declaring himself out of contention and directing the media gaze elsewhere. But he didn’t do this. He wouldn’t do this. He wanted to run. He wanted it and I didn’t.
Anytime a reporter asked whether he’d join the race for president, Barack would demur, saying simply, “I’m still thinking about it. It’s a family decision.” Which was code for “Only if Michelle says I can.”
On nights when Barack was in Washington, I lay alone in bed, feeling as if it were me against the world. I wanted Barack for our family. Everyone else seemed to want him for our country. He had his council of advisers—David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, the two campaign strategists who’d been critical in getting him elected to the Senate; David Plouffe, another consultant from Axelrod’s firm; his chief of staff, Pete Rouse; and Valerie—all of whom were cautiously supportive. But they’d also made clear that there was no half doing a presidential campaign.Barack and I both would need to be fully on board. The demands on him would be unimaginable. Without missing a beat in his Senate duties, he’d have to build and maintain a coast-to-coast campaign operation, develop a policy platform, and also raise an astonishing amount of money. My job would be not just to give tacit support to the campaign but to participate in it. I’d be expected to make myself and our children available for viewing, to smile approvingly and shake a lot of hands. Everything would be about him now, I realized, in support of this larger cause.
Even Craig, who’d so avidly protected me since the day I was born, had gotten swept up in the excitement of a potential run. He called me one evening explicitly to make a plug. “Listen, Miche,” he said, speaking as he often did, in basketball terms. “I know you’re worried about this, but if Barack’s got a shot, he’s got to take it. You can see that, right?”
It was on me. It was all on me. Was I afraid or just tired?
For better or worse, I’d fallen in love with a man with a vision who was optimistic without being naive, undaunted by conflict, and intrigued by how complicated the world was. He was strangely unintimidated by how much work there was to be done. He was dreading the thought of leaving me and the girls for long stretches, he said, but he also kept reminding me of how secure our love was. “We can handle this, right?” he said, holding my hand one night as we sat in his upstairs study and finally began to really talk about it. “We’re strong and we’re smart, and so are our kids. We’ll be just fine. We can afford this.” What he meant was yes, a campaign would be costly. There were things we’d give up—time, togetherness, our privacy. It was too early to predict exactly how much would be required, but surely it would be a lot. For me, it was like spending money without knowing your bank balance. How much resilience did we have? What was our limit? What would be left in the end? The uncertainty alone felt like a threat, a thing that could drown us. I’d been raised, after all, in a family that believed in forethought—that ran fire drills at home and showed up early to everything. Growing up in a working-class community and with a disabled parent, I’d learned that planning and vigilance mattered a lot. It could mean the difference between stability and poverty. The margins always felt narrow. One missed paycheck could leave you without electricity; one missed homework assignment could put you behind and possibly out of college.
Having lost a fifth-grade classmate to a house fire, having watched Suzanne die before she’d had a chance to really be an adult, I’d learned that the world could be brutal and random, that hard work didn’t always assure positive outcomes. My sense of this would only grow in the future, but even now, sitting in our quiet brick home on our quiet street, I couldn’t help but want to protect what we had—to look after our girls and forget the rest, at least until they’d grown up a bit more.
And yet there was a flip side to this, and Barack and I both knew it well. We’d watched the devastation of Katrina from our privileged remove. We’d seen parents hoisting their babies above floodwaters and African American families trying to hold themselves together in the dehumanizing depravity that existed in the Superdome. My various jobs—from city hall to Public Allies to the university—had helped me see how hard it could be for some people to secure things like basic health care and housing. I’d seen the flimsy line that separated getting by and going under. Barack, for his part, had spent plenty of time listening to laid-off factory workers, young military veterans trying to manage lifelong disabilities, mothers fed up with sending their kids to poorly functioning schools. We understood, in other words, how ridiculously fortunate we were, and we both felt an obligation not to be complacent.
Knowing that I really had no choice but to consider it, I finally opened the door and allowed the possibility of this thing inside. Barack and I talked the idea through, not once, but many times, right up to and through our Christmas trip to visit Toot in Hawaii. Some of our conversations were angry and tearful, some of them earnest and positive. It was the extension of a dialogue we’d been having over seventeen years already. Who were we? What mattered to us? What could we do?
In the end, it boiled down to this: I said yes because I believed that Barack could be a great president. He was self-assured in ways that few people are. He had the intellect and discipline to do the job, the temperament to endure everything that would make it hard, and the rare degree of empathy that would keep him tuned carefully to the country’s needs. He was also surrounded by good, smart people who were ready to help. Who was I to stop him? How could I put my own needs, and even those of our girls, in front of the possibility that Barack could be the kind of president who helped make life better for millions of people?
I said yes because I loved him and had faith in what he could do.
I said yes, though I was at the same time harboring a painful thought, one I wasn’t ready to share: I supported him in campaigning, but I also felt certain he wouldn’t make it all the way. He spoke so often and so passionately of healing our country’s divisions, appealing to a set of higher ideals he believed were innate in most people. But I’d seen enough of the divisions to temper my own hopes. Barack was a black man in America, after all. I didn’t really think he could win.
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