Michelle Obama was in a bind. A prospective employer wanted to interview her for an executive position, but she was home on maternity leave and still breast-feeding her newborn second daughter. "I didn't have a babysitter," Obama recalls now, with an unapologetic shrug. "So I went in there with the stroller and did the interview. And Sasha slept through it, thank goodness." Obama got the job, as a community affairs director at the University of Chicago Hospitals, where her boss, Susan Scher, calls her behavior at the interview quintessential Michelle: "It was, 'This is who I am, and this is my life.'"
What working mother couldn't identify with that babysitter dilemma? And how many of them would have the guts to show up for the interview with baby in tow? According to her admirers, such is the particular appeal of Obama, 43—equal parts Everywoman and Supermom—as she plunges into the campaign to help elect her husband the nation's first black President. A naturally private homebody and professional dynamo—"Politics is a waste of time," she once said—Obama is now cutting back on the $212,000-a-year job she landed with baby Sasha that day and taking her working-mom act on the road. Will her take-it-or-leave-it tone click with voters? "A strong woman will alienate some, energize others," says Democratic strategist Carter Eskew, who worked for Al Gore's campaign in 2000. "But it's a lot better than the alternative, which is to bottle yourself up."
Suspending her career was tough, say friends and family. "Michelle had worked so hard to get where she was. I kind of feel bad for her," says her mother, Marian Robinson, 69. But Obama doesn't do self-pity. During a campaign swing to New Hampshire June 2, Sasha, who just turned 6, decides to get her face painted like a panda while a press photographer waited to snap a family portrait. No problem; we've got baby wipes, says Obama. "She can be very authoritative," says one old friend, Marty Nesbitt, who recalls knowing just whom to call when he needed to goad his pack-rat wife to clean out their kitchen cabinets prior to remodeling. "Michelle was saying to my wife, 'You really like this? Throw it out!'"
Obama, a working-class Illinois native who describes herself as "pure Chicago," was equally decisive when her husband, then a state senator, decided to enter national politics in 1999. She didn't like it. The time Barack spent away from home, leaving her with a full-time job and two girls to raise, put strains on their relationship, says Barack, 45. "I don't think I changed her mind, but I do think she started recognizing that the message I was delivering could be valuable. I do like to think that part of what helped relieve some of the strain was me listening and Michelle knowing that I was hearing her and wasn't dismissing her legitimate gripes." Recalling that crisis today, Michelle says she asked herself, "How do I structure my world so that it works for me and I'm not trying to get him to be what I think he should be?"
Her answer: Change what you can change, and live with the rest. After hiring a full-time housekeeper to do "the things I don't fully enjoy, like cleaning, laundry and cooking," she found herself with time to ride bikes, read books and "lie on the couch and watch That's So Raven" with her girls. (She has also hired a trainer to keep her 5'11" frame lean and release stress with a four-times-weekly regimen of calisthenics, cardio and weights.) Looking back, she says, "it matters less to me that Barack's the one [helping with] babysitting and giving me the time for myself; it's that I'm getting time."
Growing up in a one-bedroom apartment on Chicago's tough South Side, Michelle Obama was always the sensible one, says her mother, who plans to retire from her job as a bank secretary in July to take care of Malia, 8, and Sasha (short for Natasha) while her daughter steps up her campaign schedule. (Obama's father, Fraser Robinson, a Chicago water department employee who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died in 1990.) "If she ever did do anything naughty, she was smart enough not to let me find out about it," Robinson says with a chuckle. Smart enough, too, to learn to read before kindergarten, skip second grade, earn a sociology degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard.
For all her apparent confidence, however, as one of fewer than 100 black freshmen at Princeton, Obama says she felt like an "other." In her senior thesis, she wrote about being "far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before" and worrying that her college experience would lead to her "assimilation into a white cultural and social structure." Flash-forward 21 years and, as she and her husband deliberated entering a history-making race for the White House, she worried that their skin color would make him a target of bigots. "Security was an issue," she says (and her husband is now the only presidential contender besides Hillary Clinton to be shadowed by the Secret Service).
Today, Obama says she no longer sees a dividing line between white and black. Issues like jobs, health care, education are "universal," she says. Still, she laments that too many white people still see African-Americans only as "athletes, musicians, movie stars"—or people in trouble. "We have so much more in common as people," she says. "It's just that we don't cross paths enough as communities."
The encounter that would change the course of her life happened in the summer of 1989, when the partners at the Chicago law firm where she worked asked her to mentor a summer associate named Barack Obama. The pair had their first kiss over a Baskin-Robbins chocolate cone and were married three years later. These days, romance is, well, limited. The occasional night out ends at 10 o'clock "'cause we're sleepy," says Obama. Asked what keeps her in love with her husband, who lives on the road these days, she replies, "Don't make me cry; I miss him!"
So do Malia and Sasha, although there are benefits to a girls-only household. Barack frowns on shopping and TV, while Michelle is more indulgent (although she did draw the line recently at a pair of $65 flip-flops that Malia fell for). They now have Web cams that let the girls see and talk to their father after he has settled into his hotel room for the night. Malia is old enough to pine sometimes for a regular life with her father at home. "One of the things that we have been able to preserve much longer than maybe people realize is just a sense of normalcy," says Barack Obama. "The further we're in this process, the more that is endangered." Win or lose, Malia and Sasha have been promised a dog when the campaign ends.
For now, Obama says she has decided the sacrifices are worth it. "Barack is special, and I'm willing to share him ... I'm willing to share the girls," she says. "If we can have better schools and health care and help moms who are struggling and get back on track internationally, then all this? Big deal. I can handle it."