March 13th, 2008
03:08 PM ET

Michelle Obama: The Closer


Up close with Barack Obama's wife Michelle. They've been married for 15 years. But before they got serious, she put him to the test. Here's a preview from Randi Kaye.

She’s been dubbed “the closer”.  That’s because Michelle Obama has proven an effective fundraiser and campaigner in her husband’s presidential quest.  But that wasn’t always the case.

It took some promises and some bribes – a promise by him that he’d stop smoking, and a pledge to their two young girls that win or lose, they get a puppy out of the deal.

Now that she’s on board, she’s doing every thing in her power to win and as she puts it “keep it real”.  Some have suggested she may be keeping it a little too real.  Her candid comments about her husband’s dirty socks and body odor have gotten her in trouble, as well as this bombshell, “For the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country.”

Michelle’s older brother Craig Robinson (an accomplished guy in his own right – he’s head coach of the men’s basketball team at Brown), tells us with Michelle, what you see is what you get.  He also says she’s pretty thick-skinned, “When it’s on her she handles it just fine…When it comes to criticizing Barack or somebody else in the family, or someone she really cares about, she is the best person to have in your corner.” Her candor is certainly a change from previous first lady contenders, and while some pundits have bashed her for it, others have called it refreshing.  And voters are lapping it up, packing in by the hundreds to hear Michelle Obama speak.

For a reluctant campaigner, she’s putting up a fight now, which comes as no surprise to close friend Valerie Jarrett.  “If Michelle tells you she’s going to do something, not only is she going to do it, but she’s going to blow it out of the ballpark,” Jarrett told us.

That kind of determination seems to be a hallmark of Michelle’s life.  Michelle’s older brother Craig Robinson tells us his sister’s work ethic was ingrained from childhood.  Craig and Michelle were raised in a one bedroom, one bath apartment on the South side of Chicago.  Their father had multiple sclerosis and worked for the city.  “We watched a man who was disabled get up and go to work every day,” Craig told us, “and if my father was ever disappointed with us the whole house would be in tears.”  Their mother stayed home and looked after the kids.  Craig says despite a modest upbringing, it was a happy one, full of family dinners and drive-in-movies.  “We didn’t know how poor we were, so it was terrific,” 

Michelle’s brother also told us that in high school his sister had good grades, played the piano and wrote short stories.  She was also class treasurer but despite her tall, athletic frame, she didn’t play sports.  Craig says people would tell her she should try out, which was the best way to ensure his strong-willed sister didn’t do something.  

Craig made it to Princeton on a basketball scholarship – a few years later Michelle followed him there.  As Craig tells is she figured, “if Craig can get in…I certainly can.  So she applied, and got in.”  At Princeton, Michelle majored in Sociology and minored in African-American studies.  Her thesis – under lock and key until recently – was titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.”  In it, her struggle with her identity and ambition is apparent.  She wrote, “My experiences…have made me far more aware of my blackness than ever before....I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus.”

Michelle would go on to Harvard Law School, and after graduating took a job at a Chicago law firm.  That’s where she met Barack Obama.  He was a summer associate, she was his mentor.  Barack finally persuaded Michelle to go out with him (Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” was their first date).  Michelle’s brother told us that she was notoriously fickle with men – never keeping them around for very long, and that the family had bets on how long the new guy would last.

As it turns out Michelle was interested enough in the “new guy” to enlist her brother’s help.  She had a “gauntlet” to run through as her brother puts it.  What was the big test?  Watch the piece tonight to find out the rest of the story.

– Catherine Mitchell, 360° Producer

Program note: Watch Randi Kaye’s report on Michelle Obama
on tonight’s 360° at 10p ET

Filed under: Barack Obama • Michelle Obama
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. julie

    Wow- Im impressed with Mrs. Obama. I can't wait to have them in the Whitehouse! Dignified...both of them!

    March 13, 2008 at 11:08 pm |
  2. Kris

    I saw Michelle on CSPAN before I actually listened to Sen. Obama. She spoke at an Iowa event and then worked the room giving picture opportunities to many. What struck me about her was that she didn"t just pose for the pictures, she spoke directly with each person and, for that moment, that person had her undivided attention. I was impressed with her apparent sincerity and decided to take a look at Barack Obama more seriously. I'm so glad I did. Acworth, GA

    March 13, 2008 at 10:31 pm |
  3. Olga in Chicago

    Hmmmm, seems like a good idea if Michelle Obama is going to be on 360 tonight to ask:
    why would she state that Hillary cannot take care of her own house, therefore she cannot take care of the country?
    She should pray this does not happen to her.
    As a Woman, I'm shocked she would throw that in Hillary's face. Seems like she's backstabbing all women. We should unite, not bring each other down.
    How can anyone sympathize with Michelle's views.
    Now her brother has the AUDACITY to bring it up as well.
    Michelle is NOT PATRIOTIC. She is not a suitable First Lady!!!

    March 13, 2008 at 9:11 pm |
  4. Olga in Chicago

    As much as CNN tried to cram Obama down our throats, I just want to GAG! GET REAL CNN!!!
    Give me some real news, some real reporting. I'm so sick of this! is CNN all hat and no cattle????
    I used to rely on CNN for all my news, now I know better. CNN is the most biased. Everyday they pick topics AGAINST HILLARY OR MCCAIN. I see through all this. You cannot cram Obama down MY throat!

    March 13, 2008 at 9:07 pm |
  5. Edna Brill

    I think Michelle Obama is a great lady. I'm a white women over the age of 65 and I live in Alabama. There are alot of women my age around here that feel the same way. YOU GO GIRL !

    March 13, 2008 at 8:28 pm |
  6. crissy

    I don't know much about her and what I do know I think she should be ashamed of,she is just now glad to be an American!!Says enough to me.She and her muslim hubby black,white oreo what ever he claims he is, not a christian,the orginisation they belong to they make me sick.I've been a proud American all my life.I've heard him refer to the black voters,but if a white person says that there racist.I am not and would not allow my children to be around racist,now he wants to use the BLACK thing and call someone else names if they do.Sickining to me.

    March 13, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
  7. C. Sharp

    . . .Michelle Obama will make a wonderful first lady.

    March 13, 2008 at 7:44 pm |
  8. Agatha Kerry

    I guess it's true you cannot touch the "black person" in the room

    because when Hillary Clinton came to the White House as a strong partner,

    the news media crucified her for not staying home and baking cookies.

    Once Michelle uses her heavy hand, if her husband is in the White House,

    She will be in for a big shock.

    Running for President and being President is night and day. One minute he is her husband, the next minute he is President of the country and she will have a back seat, just like Hillary Clinton was forced to take...

    that's WHY WE NEED A WOMAN AS PRESIDENT FOR CHANGE, so she can take action and not be blamed for her husbands conduct.

    March 13, 2008 at 6:05 pm |
  9. Jennifer - ATL

    Michelle Obama is just as arrogant, ambitious, divisive and racist as her husband!

    Americans can kid themselves for a long as they wish, just as they did when voting in Dubya, but the truth will set you free!

    Plain, simple and factual....

    March 13, 2008 at 6:05 pm |
  10. Democrat

    Every time I see her the words ring in my ears, "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country" Those are words that will follow her to the end, and should. Along with her college thesis, her attitude toward this country and her squelching and yelling on the stump, I think she would be an embarassment as a First Lady. I also would like to know why no shouts of sexism from the media about her brothers comments concerning Hillary. Report it , be fair. Every since Obama cried to the media about being taken out of Golden Boy statis, you have played up to him again.

    March 13, 2008 at 6:04 pm |
  11. Sonya of Lawrenceville Ga.

    I'm sure Michelle can handle the tough questions. She appears to be very bright with a very high energy level. Michelle would be a breath of fresh air as a firstlady.

    I look forward to the day it is real!~

    March 13, 2008 at 6:02 pm |
  12. Sam, Houston, TX

    Great! What this country does NOT need is another, "tactless," non-subtle "large and in charge" African American LOUDMOUTH woman in the White House of all places!! Good grief: do you HAVE TO YELL just to speak to another person?!? What the hell does "keep it real" actually mean?!? Please define. We are talking the White House folks; and, being "cool" and "real" are NOT appropriate, get it?!? Duhh!! The last thing we need is more of the rest of the world LAUGHING AT US!! And Michelle, bless her heart, does not know how to control her mouth and the things that blurt out of it. She would/will cause untold embarrassment as First Lady. NO-BAMA 08!

    March 13, 2008 at 6:00 pm |
  13. Michelle is Refreshing

    I would like to know what "many" racist remarks Michelle Obama has made because I have not heard of any? If you are in any way referring to her thesis paper, I honestly think it is quite accurate. She was just stating the feelings of millions of Black college students then and now. Regardless if it is Princeton or Oklahoma State University, Blacks on a predominately White campus (in just in America in general) face many issues that everyday White Americans do not face. I wouldn't expect typical Americans to understand that. Stating the obvious is not playing the race card either.

    March 13, 2008 at 5:53 pm |
  14. Goodheart

    Anderson, notice ever since her comment (even taken out of context) about not being proud of America, she's kind of been hidden in the background. I think in a general election she would take a lot of heat from McCain's camp as patriotic as we know they are. After all, McCain was a Vietnam war hero. Contrast that with Michelle Obama's comments as well as the paper she wrote in college about the difficulty black women have integrating into white society, and she may not be quite the asset she appears to be.

    March 13, 2008 at 5:31 pm |
  15. Annette Butler

    I am very inspired by Michelle Obama. She is very successful in her own right and I believe she understands the problems we as women are facing in our families and our careers.

    I wonder if she is dissappointed by the negative tactics being used during the campaign. I, myself, am disappointed that most of the negativity is coming from the Democratic party.

    I am looking forward to her interview tonight

    March 13, 2008 at 5:26 pm |
  16. LL Barra/ Woodstock,NY

    I, for one, find her to be a little out of touch with the average female....I read in an article written after her speech to a group of average Americans and was somehat chagrined by how out of touch with her audience she was.

    While most American families are worrying about paying their bills she compalined about how hard it was for her and Barack to be paying back school loans whilei n their 40's...and went on to say that it was lucky for them that Barack wrote two books. Now she can give her girls piano lessons. This is so out of touch it is laughable.

    That takes a special kind of moxie. When Teresa Kerry opened her mouth she was all ove rthe news. Michelle gets carte blanche treatment. Even saying in an interview with the New Yorker ....jokingly...she wants to rip Bill Clinton's eyes out. Gets ignored.

    I find the treatment of both her and Barack a little frightening...It is like the Emperor's New Clothes...no one wants to touch this.

    I hope this makes this as I see my freedom of expression is not in sync with whomever monitors this.

    Where are we headed ...

    March 13, 2008 at 5:21 pm |
  17. Jen

    i adore this woman. i am so grateful to you guys for putting a spotlight on her. it is obvious that michelle is a strong cornerstone for her family, and i for one find her candor not only refreshing, but exciting. can't wait to see and hear more tonight.

    March 13, 2008 at 4:38 pm |
  18. Illinois

    I'm glad that she feels she can "keep it real" for the voters in terms of Barack's little pecadilos, however, I don't see her talking much about her own racist comments that the media allows her to get away with or the fact that their church is racist against whites or her thesis that provides an inside view of her own racist thinking or.....

    There are many examples of Michelle's racist views as well as her strong accomplishments but if the media is so interested in slamming the Clinton campaign for what they perceive as racist comments, why in the hell does Michelle Obama get a pass on her racism?? Is it because she's black and, for some reason, we are not allowed to question a black person's racist thinking?? That the white population somehow "owe" it to black people to allow them to be racist?

    I loved having these types of discussions in college....with both black and white students....and it was very enlightening to be able to actually talk about the racism issue with black people who were neither defensive or antagonistic toward white people for what was done to their ancestors (though they were very clear that they were angry about it and had a right to be....and of course they had every right to be) nor were they prone to seeing racism when it didn't exist. The white students were somewhat stupid, and also at times downright ignorant in their beliefs about blacks, but once we were able to talk about our belief systems and where they came from it was amazing how things changed for the better. The class itself created a lot of heated debates with each other, but we also learned a great deal and everyone looked forward to going to class....at 8am no less. I will never forget that college professor, who insisted that there was nothing wrong with talking about tough issues in the presence of those who have conflicting ideas and learning about each other so that illogical negative beliefs no longer carried any weight.

    So I guess this is why I keep challenging the race issue that we're facing right now because racism does take place on both sides....black and white....but there is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing it out into the open. That isn't being racist; it's opening the door to communication. If this is supposed to be a country where we are truly free, then what do we have to lose by shedding light on a relevant and certainly pertinent issue? What I have learned so often, unfortunately, is that those who frequently are the loudest critics about racism are usually the ones who are the most racist.

    I'm all for having a first lady in the White House who is willing to "keep it real", but we also need to keep it real in the election process. It is totally unfair to slam one campaign for making racist remarks, whether true or not, but not challenging the other person who is expressing racist opinions, whether true or not,.......because doing so only promotes further racism. It appears that the media wants to continue to perpetuate the racial divide that is occurring. For some reason they love this stuff. While it does make for good discussion on the news, the way they are handling it is creating nothing but chaos.

    March 13, 2008 at 4:31 pm |
  19. Felicia

    We need to deal with the issues that affect us everyday like jobs, healthcare, and how credit scores are coming in to play to obtain jobs, car insurance, etc. Obama has the right to go to whatever church he want and take whatever that is said as a gain of salt. None of these candidates have experience because they have not been president before. So if you believe in your candidate vote for him or her. If not keep it moving.

    March 13, 2008 at 4:31 pm |
  20. Susan

    Michelle seems to have come from a very supportive family that valued hard work and education.

    It is refreshing to see a woman on the stump for her husband take such a no nonsense approach to the limelight that she is in. She is a wonderful role model for the young woman in this country.

    I am looking forward to her profile.


    March 13, 2008 at 4:29 pm |
  21. Hamilton

    Why is Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, allowed to get away with the SEXIST comment he made about Hillary Clinton:

    "And the whole crying now before every primary? You’ve got to be kidding me. If I was a woman, I’d be embarrassed for her”

    March 13, 2008 at 4:28 pm |
  22. Irish Kate

    Political wives who speak their minds are usually characterized in a most unflattering way. They may start out being refreshing, but they rarely end up that way.

    March 13, 2008 at 4:23 pm |
  23. Davis

    Michelle Obama keeps it real....Like her, for the first time I felt proud to be an American as well. That was until...the Clinton campaign, in their zeal to win at any cost, unleashed Ferraro to appeal to the hate and racism that still lingers in the hearts of some white Americans. Americans that had finally made me proud, proud enough that I could sincerely and with hope, tell my son that the color of his skin didn’t matter any more, that white America would see him as an equal and that he would no longer feel like someone on the fringe of our society looking in.

    Obama does not have to win for me to feel like a winner. The fact that all Americans, irrespective of ethnic background, are able to see him as a beacon of hope and change and cast their vote to make him President of this great nation is winning for me. Such a shame that we had to revert to more of the same.

    Thank you Hillary Clinton. I hope it's worth it. For me, the woman I want to see in the Whitehouse is Michelle Obama!

    March 13, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  24. Gretchen

    Joseph, I would like to add that Bill Clinton has been an outstanding role model for young men in this country in standing behind his wife's goals and trying to help her win.

    March 13, 2008 at 4:10 pm |
  25. Mischelle from Illinois

    I wonder what Michelle Obama has to say about what is happening TODAY in the African-American communities – the fliers on cars that "tell black voters not to turn their backs on their brothers and to defeat the oppressive whites", or about what her and her husbands church has been up to lately – the incendiary anti-white remarks that are coming from with in her own communities? Or, what she thinks about the IRS investigating her church for illegal political fundraising activities ? OR, what she thinks about the strong arm tactics used upon the Congressional Black Caucus and African-American Super delegates?
    These are the questions I would like to see CNN get the answers to!

    March 13, 2008 at 3:42 pm |
  26. Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA

    Personally, I find it refreshing that Michelle Obama is outspoken in her own right. She supports her husbands goals, but she's not intimidated into being a quiet bystander as so many political wives are. She makes a great role model for young women in this country.

    March 13, 2008 at 3:40 pm |
  27. Cindy

    Michelle seems like a really nice person. She came from a humble beginning and made something of herself. And she still has morals and values to boot. That says alot about her to me.

    It's a shame that people have to criticize and bash the wives of McCain and Obama. They aren't the ones running for office. They are just trying to do what they can to help their man win.

    I'm looking forward to this piece tonight.

    Cynthia, Covington, Ga.

    March 13, 2008 at 3:25 pm |