DENVER – Coming off her Monday speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama didn’t pause to wait for the reviews, although she admitted the day after that she had heard about positive comments from friends. She stopped listening to reports — good and bad — sometime after the Iowa primary, she said, when so much of what she read about her husband’s chances proved wrong.
You get the feeling that this is a woman who doesn’t let much distract her. On Tuesday, in front of an audience of a few hundred, much smaller than that of the night before, Michelle Obama presided over an economic roundtable that featured four women governors and four women who faced hardships and persevered. Jill Biden, a Delaware teacher, also showed up, along with husband, Sen. Joe Biden. He was outnumbered and smiling.
The discussion was about what an Obama administration would do to help working women, many of whom struggle to stay afloat but don’t quality for financial assistance. In opening remarks she moved from jokes about her “sensible shoes” to policies that, she said, “would strengthen the middle class and create new economic opportunities for women and families.” Michelle Obama has been having meetings like this with small groups across the country.
On the subject of Obama’s speech Monday night, Biden said it could “change the perception of a nation not only about an individual but about a circumstance.” Obama herself wouldn’t go that far, saying only that she was glad that the “big milestone is done.” Afterward, she met with five women columnists from Ohio, Georgia, Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina — states that fit in the Democrats’ “battleground” and “hopeful” categories.
To the columnists, Obama said the story she told on Monday, of her working-class family’s ability to push the next generation forward, would be difficult to accomplish today. Americans — including some of her cousins and aunts — are “never going to be able to catch up,” she said.
Then she returned to the “personal moments” like the ones she shared on Monday night. “I love those stories,” she said, of dad-to-be Barack Obama, bringing his wife and newborn daughter into the home he had decorated with balloons and banners. The nervousness and anticipation, “the feeling that you “want things to go well for that little person,” is “so human, so real.”
And it’s so unlike what many Americans imagine as the life of a black family, unless the family is the fictional Cosbys. The morning of the speech, Michelle Obama watched a rerun of “Oprah,” one of those reunion shows that featured Cosby’s Huxtables. The now-adult children said how much they appreciated being a part of a family that made news by being so normal.
During the show’s run, it was criticized. They were fantasy, these two black professionals and their children who were like any family, only funnier. Americans, even those who made the show No.1, didn’t believe the Huxtables existed.
“Sometimes I do believe that people don’t believe I exist,” she said. “When was the last time you’ve seen someone like me speak at the Democratic National Convention?” She said she was not surprised, but “impatient” at having been pegged angry and unpatriotic. “Barack and I and anyone in politics” learn to be more patient. It’s a part of the process, “to put people in boxes.” We do it in our communities, she said, and in our families.
She resists those boxes, whether they pit working mother against stay-at-home moms or see Hawaii as something other than the place where she and her family spend Christmas with Barack Obama’s grandmother, in the same small home where she raised him.
Obama, who says her whole schedule is mapped around her daughters — homework and potlucks and PTA meetings — is aware that her life, the one she spoke about, has changed. She has to try to win a country over, one conversation at a time. She says she’s looking forward to it, believing she will get a fair shake.
“No one really cared about anything I said for 19 months,” she said, but “Barack Obama is about to become the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States…” It’s different now.
Notes: Michelle Obama said on Tuesday that the two Obama daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, didn’t know their father would be joining them by satellite from Kansas City. She only told them, “I’ve got a surprise for you.” She said Malia asked excitedly, “Is it the Jonas Brothers?” When dad appeared instead of the popular singing group, she wasn’t really disappointed, her mother said. Malia waved and blew kisses to the screen anyway.