CHICAGO — There is no confusing Michelle Obama for her husband on the campaign trail. • Asked at the Democratic debate in Los Angeles whether he would pick Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as a vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Barack Obama said she "would be on anybody's short list." • But when a television interviewer asked Michelle Obama whether she would support Clinton, if she won the nomination, Obama was less generous. • "I'd have to think about that," Obama said on Good Morning America. "I'd have to think about — policies, her approach, her tone." • Outspoken, strong-willed, funny, gutsy and sometimes sarcastic, Michelle Obama is playing a pivotal role in her husband's campaign as it builds on a series of successes and prepares for what could be decisive primary elections on Tuesday in Texas and Ohio. • Her personal style — forthright, comfortable in the trenches, and often more blunt than her husband — plays well with a broad swath of the electorate and has given the campaign a steelier edge while allowing the candidate to stay largely above it all. • "I am trying to be as authentically me as I can be,"
she said in an interview. "My statements are coming from my experiences and my observations and my frustrations."
Sometimes her words cause headaches for the campaign. At an appearance earlier this month in Wisconsin she said, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction."
Her husband's political opponents skewered her, saying she should always be proud of the country. Obama tried to recover by saying, "What I was clearly talking about was that I'm proud in how Americans are engaging in the political process."
Michelle Obama says she dislikes politics — she insists there will be no second run for the presidency if her husband falls short this time — but relishes a good fight, the competition of it all.
In the beginning, she had significant questions about an Obama candidacy. She pressed advisers for a blueprint of how the campaign would raise money and compete with Clinton and other candidates.
Now she is involved in most major facets of campaign strategy, always a fierce protector of her husband's image. Though the Obamas seldom travel together — fanning out much as the Clintons do — Michelle Obama is often in touch with key advisers and her message is shaped by the same strategists who advise her husband.
"The strategy is not to pigeonhole her to any one kind of audience," said Valerie Jarrett, a close family friend who is a senior adviser to the Obama campaign.
Tailoring her message
Growing up in Chicago, her brother, Craig Robinson, recalls, Michelle Obama did not like watching close basketball games, but would always watch blowouts to the end.
"She didn't like the stress of watching," said Robinson, the men's basketball coach at Brown University. Thinking about the campaign for a moment, he added: "It's much harder watching Barack in this race than watching my own team. It's much harder to watch someone you love go through a close game."
At almost 6 feet tall in heels, Michelle Obama, 44, cuts an athletic and authoritative figure in her tailored pantsuits and skirts. A Harvard-educated lawyer who had been earning $212,000 a year as a hospital executive before she took leave on Jan. 1, she delivers rousing 40-minute speeches — surveying topics as far-ranging as the specific failings of the federal No Child Left Behind education act and problems with the military strategy in Iraq — without the aid of even a note card.
A doting mother of two, Obama has kept crowds waiting with telephone calls to her "little people" — daughters Sasha, 6, and Malia, 9.
But Obama's confident, commanding presence has its drawbacks. At an address last month for an African-American awards gala in Atlanta, some in attendance were left feeling she had been condescending, preaching to a group of achievers about the need to achieve.
"Her speech was very long and inappropriate for that occasion," said Vivian Creighton Bishop, a public official in Columbus, Ga., who supports Clinton.
Obama has also had to learn to tamp down her sometimes biting humor because it too often leaves Barack Obama as the punch line. (It has been a long time since she has talked publicly about her husband of 15 years being smelly in the morning, as she told Glamour magazine, or forgetting to put away the butter.)
"What I've learned is that my humor doesn't translate to print all the time," she said. "But usually when I'm speaking to a group, people understand what I'm trying to say, they get the humor, they understand the sarcasm, they get the joke."
Her audiences do laugh. Talking about how long it took her and Obama, 46, to pay off their student loans (they did so only in the last couple of years), she told a church audience in Cheraw, S.C., "I'm still waiting for Barack's trust fund."
Michelle Obama's nickname inside the campaign is "the closer" because she is skilled at persuading undecided voters to sign pledge cards. But as a smooth orator, she is also known as a connector, volunteering her life lessons from working-class roots and discussing her confrontation with a culture of low expectations.
She has been transparent about more mundane things, too, like leaning on her mother for child care while she is on the road.
Obama does not have a nanny. "Thank God for Grandma!" she has said more than once on the campaign trail, adding that she "couldn't breathe" if she thought her girls, who attend private school in Chicago, were being neglected for the campaign.
"I spend more time worrying about how do I keep their lives on track in the midst of this?" she said in the interview. "Barack and I both do. How do we keep our traditions whole? Those are the day-to-day concerns."
Brought up to achieve
In a presidential campaign that has included discussions of race and gender, Michelle Obama has a singular vantage point at the intersection of the two. As the advantage in some states has seesawed between her husband, of Illinois, and Clinton, of New York, based in part on the votes of blacks and women, Obama typically makes a plea for unity, even when race- or gender-based appeals might be expedient and easy.
Interviews with people who know Obama say she chose, even as a young adult, to strive for the opportunities that were closed to previous generations.
Obama grew up knowing, for instance, that her maternal grandfather, a carpenter, was squeezed out of the best jobs in Chicago because as a black man he was not allowed to join a union. But she said she had also been taught not to see race as a barrier, to look at the world in terms of what is possible, not the other way around.
"My parents told us time and time again, 'Don't tell us what you can't do,' " she said. " 'And don't worry about what can go wrong.' "
Obama's father, Fraser Robinson, provided for the family of four on a city worker's salary. Her mother, Marian Robinson, now 70, stayed home and allowed their two children only one hour of television a night.
Obama and her brother were expected to fill their time with books, chess, sports — and, critically important they both said, dinnertime conversations with their parents.
At Harvard Law School, one professor recalled that Obama was not one to mince words.
"Michelle was a student in my legal profession class in which I ask students how they would react to difficult ethical and professional challenges," said the professor, David B. Wilkins. "Not surprisingly, many students shy away from putting themselves on the line in this way, preferring to hedge their bets or deploy technical arguments that seem to absolve them from the responsibilities of decisionmaking. Michelle had no need for such fig leaves. She always stated her position clearly and decisively."
Obama said her mother has been her No. 1 advocate and role model, even though their lives could not be more dissimilar.
"I remember Michelle telling me about a teacher complaining about her temper in elementary school," said Verna L. Williams, a law professor in Cincinnati who has been a friend of Obama since their days at Harvard. "She said her mom told the teacher: 'Yeah, she's got a temper. But we decided to keep her anyway!' "