Daring to Touch the Third Rail

With a who's who of the nation's African American power brokers looking on, Michelle Obama took the stage at the Atlanta Civic Center last week and explained why an Obama White House would best address their issues. "I know that the life I'm living is still out of the reach of too many women. Too many little black girls. I don't have to tell you this. We know the disparities that exist across this country, in our schools, in our hospitals, at our jobs and on our streets." Her husband, the candidate, couldn't be here at tonight's Trumpet Awards, honoring the accomplishments of black Americans; he was campaigning in Nevada. But in a speech sprinkled with references to Martin Luther King Jr., she told the audience that "if my husband were here, he'd tell you that inequality isn't a burden we have to accept, but a challenge to overcome." She got a standing ovation.

They call her "The Closer." As the race for the Democratic nomination turns to South Carolina and other Southern states, Campaign Obama is counting on Michelle to help close the deal with African-American voters. Obama has avoided being pigeonholed as the "black candidate" and has mostly steered clear of talking about race on the campaign trail (at least until his recent fracas with Hillary Clinton over whether she besmirched King's legacy by noting President Lyndon Johnson's role in the Civil Rights Act). But Michelle hasn't backed away from discussing her experiences of race and prejudice. At a November speech in Orangeburg, S.C., she drew a direct line between African-American women like Soujourner Truth and Rosa Parks and her husband's campaign. "These were all women who knew what it meant to overcome," she said. "These were all women who cast aside the voices of doubt and fear that said, 'Wait,' 'You can't do that,' 'It's not your turn,' 'The timing isn't right,' 'The country isn't ready'." That frankness is playing well with black voters in South Carolina, where her husband currently leads Clinton in the polls by nearly 10 percent.

"When I speak with certain groups, I like to incorporate my own experiences, and they are African-American in many instances. So it's not planned, it just is," she tells NEWSWEEK. Her performance is also tailored to her audience. "She's deft enough that if she's in a room full of women, she speaks more in a feminine voice. And if she's in a room full of seniors in Iowa, she speaks differently, talking about how important her mom is in her life," says one Obama campaign adviser, who requested not to be identified discussing campaign strategy.

But it's also true that Michelle Obama—raised on the gritty South Side of Chicago by working-class parents—has more in common with most African-Americans than does her husband, who had a Kenyan father and a white mother, and was raised in Indonesia and Hawaii. Michelle's background gives her a "what you see is what you get" openness that allows her to tackle topics like race and gender, says Valerie Jarrett, who became Michelle's close friend when she started working for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in 1991. Intelligent and athletic, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson rose out of the inner city to attend Princeton University and Harvard Law School, then returned to Chicago to work at a law firm, where she wound up supervising an intern named Barack Obama. Because of her strong personality and her height (she's 5 feet 11), "a lot of guys didn't have the nerve to come up against that. But Barack did and she appreciated that," says friend Patrick Riley. In 1992 she became Mrs. Obama.

As the wife of the first African-American to stand a good chance of becoming president, Michelle Obama is understandably nervous about her husband's safety—especially since last May, when the campaign began receiving threatening letters and he was assigned Secret Service agents. She says she gets lots of questions from African-Americans—especially older ones who remember the assassinations of King and Malcolm X—concerned about the safety of her husband, herself and their two girls, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6. "I tell people something bad could happen, and I think about that. How could you not?" she tells NEWSWEEK. "But something great could happen as well."

In her frank way, Michelle, 44, has openly discussed the tolls of the campaign on her family—prompting a blast earlier this month from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote that the Obamas "radiate a sense that they are owed … for offering themselves up to save and uplift the nation, even though it disrupted their comfortable lives." (Michelle says any suggestion of entitlement is "ridiculous.") She has also taken flack for talking publicly about her husband's little flaws, like leaving his dirty socks around the bedroom and not washing the dishes. "Barack is only human, and by mentioning some of his shortcomings I was hoping to make clear that he can make changes in this country, but it has to be with the help of everyone," she says. "The more we put people on those types of pedestals, the more we welcome disappointment."

Many voters question whether Barack Obama is ready to be put on that pedestal—and not just because of his dirty socks. "I don't see how Senator Obama has been up there [in Washington] long enough, as far as the array of contacts and experience he would need to be president," says David Mack, a representative in the South Carolina State Legislature who is a Clinton supporter. As an African-American, Mack acknowledges that "there's an element of racial pride associated with what he's doing." And as a result, "a lot of blacks are still torn. That's why there's still such a large block of undecided black voters."

Wooing those undecideds is a significant part of Michelle's job, especially in South Carolina, where some 10 percent of voters have told pollsters they haven't yet picked a candidate. "She has family there and roots there," says the Obama campaign aide. She plays well to Southern women, as the campaign discovered last May when she spoke at a Women's Day luncheon at Brookland Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C. "It became very clear to me then that women felt a connection to Michelle down there," the aide says. Evelyn Green, 53, of Norcross, Ga., who is African-American and will vote for Obama on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, says, "I see Michelle and I think Barack has to be president, because I want her and those two girls in the White House." To that point, the candidate's wife says, "The most important message we can send out is to show that we are a solid family with love and respect for one another. So many times you don't see that in the African-American community." By talking openly about such issues, Michelle Obama may well help that solid family move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.