Michelle Obama was never much interested in calling attention to herself. As an undergrad at Princeton in the 1980s, she was interested in social change, but didn't run for student government. Instead, she spent her free time running a literacy program for kids from the local neighborhoods. At Harvard Law, she took part in demonstrations demanding more minority students and professors. Yet unlike another more prominent Harvard Law student who would later take up the cause, she was not one to hold forth with high-flown oratory about the need for diversity. "When [Barack Obama] spoke, people got quiet and listened," recalls Prof. Randall Kennedy. "Michelle had a more modest, quieter, lower profile." Barack won election as president of the Law Review. Michelle put her energy into a less glamorous pursuit: recruiting black undergrads to Harvard Law from other schools. For her, politics wasn't so much about being inspirational as it was being practical--about getting something specific done, says Charles Ogletree, one of her professors. "She was not trying to get ahead."
She no longer has the luxury of keeping a low profile. Now a very public figure, Michelle has accepted the role of aspiring First Lady and the sometimes uncomfortable scrutiny that comes with it. On the campaign trail, she is sometimes slated as the opening act, introducing Barack to the audience. Direct and plain-spoken, with an edgy sense of humor uncommon in a political spouse, she complements her husband's more grandiose style. She can be tough, and even a little steely, an attitude that stems, at least in part, from wanting to live up to the high expectations her father set for her. She wants to change the world, but she also wants to win this thing now that they're so deeply invested. If his loftiness can set him apart from the crowd, her bluntness draws them in. Standing up before large audiences wasn't easy at first. "I've never participated at this level in any of his campaigns," she told NEWSWEEK last week. "I have usually chosen to just appear when necessary."