BBC Home > BBC News > Americas

Profile: Michelle Obama

25 November 09 12:10 GMT

Style icon, mom-in-chief and campaigner, Michelle Obama has emerged as a strong political presence in her own right since becoming the first African-American US first lady.

Whether she is placing her arm affectionately around the Queen at a Buckingham Palace reception, or planting vegetables in the White House garden, the Ivy League-educated lawyer has been a magnet for media coverage; not all of it admiring.

Since her husband, Barack Obama, entered the White House in January 2009, she has carved out a role for herself as a supporter of working parents, military families and school nutrition, among other issues, not to mention as the president's political surrogate.

But as the first lady has repeatedly said, her most important role is as mother to daughters Malia and Sasha.

Mrs Obama manages to achieve her own work-life balance with the help of her widowed mother, Marian Robinson, a retired bank secretary, who moved into the White House with the family.

As one of most photographed women in the world, early comparisons were drawn between Mrs Obama and President John F Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline Kennedy.

Toned arms

She was hailed as the first lady "the world's been waiting for" when she appeared on the March 2009 cover of Vogue magazine.

Acres of newsprint have been devoted to the former hospital executive's choice of outfits, in particular her penchant for wearing sleeveless dresses, which show off her toned arms.

While regularly seen in designer clothes, Mrs Obama also favours high-street off-the-rack labels, like J-Crew.

She has proved equally at ease whether cracking jokes on chat show host Jay Leno's sofa, as gracious hostess to world leaders at White House receptions, or while mingling with their wives during high-profile summits overseas.

But it is her humble origins in a one-bedroom flat in Chicago that many voters also admire.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, as she then was, grew up in the Illinois city's working class and historically black south side, and often credits her parents for imbuing her with a strong work ethic.

Reluctant journey

It is said her father, Fraser, never missed a day's work at Chicago's water plant, despite having multiple sclerosis, while her mother stayed at home to look after Michelle and her elder brother, Craig.

Mrs Obama studied law at Princeton and Harvard, before joining a Chicago law firm where she met Barack Obama.

The future president wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope that he had a hard time winning her over.

"Eventually I wore her down," he said. The couple were married in 1992.

In 1996, Mrs Obama left corporate law for community service jobs, later becoming an administrator of the University of Chicago hospitals.

The Obamas' journey to the White House was one that Michelle embarked upon reluctantly at first, acknowledging that she had not wanted her husband to enter politics.

Her remark during the 2008 election campaign that Mr Obama's candidacy had made her proud of her country "for the first time" triggered a cataract of criticism: she was portrayed as an angry, embittered African-American woman.

Slave ancestry

But to her supporters, she was feisty, funny and articulate - while for her husband, she is his "rock".

Since coming to the White House, Mrs Obama has not publicly shared her views on racial issues.

An October 2009 study of her family roots revealed she was the great-great-great granddaughter of a South Carolina slave, who became pregnant by a white man.

Perceived to be a more outspoken supporter of the president's policies than her predecessor as first lady, Laura Bush, was of her husband during his tenure in the White House, Mrs Obama has urged Democrats to rally around the president's efforts to reform health care.

Her efforts to influence the debate have not harmed her ratings - she was the most popular incoming first lady since 1980, and her favourability has remained more buoyant than Mr Obama's.

Related BBC sites