Why Does Michelle Obama Drive People Crazy?

05/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To my knowledge, I have never met Michelle Obama. This is actually surprising. She was in my Princeton graduating class, but I was ensconced in the engineering quadrangle, and she was in another department. I might have introduced myself, but I suspect she was the sort of shiksa goddess I feared to approach. We overlapped at Harvard. I was--again--ensconced across the campus. Fifteen years later, we both did health work at the University of Chicago. I work with many people who know her personally and have worked with her closely. I arrived a year or so too late to rank in that number.

Maybe if I actually knew her, I would understand why this mild-mannered person drives otherwise-sane people crazy. Maureen Dowd and David Brooks famously obsessed in the back of a cab about Mrs. Obama's biceps--a conversation which Ms. Dowd deemed a worthy centerpiece of a published column. Mrs. Obama's European travels occasioned Branjelina-level commentary on her wardrobe. Conservative commentators are still stewing over some blunt comments she made during the campaign. Yesterday, a friend sent me David Samuels's recent column about her from New York magazine. The money quote reads:

There are clear limits to Michelle's ambition. She went to excellent schools, got decent grades, stayed away from too much intellectual heavy lifting, and held a series of practical, modestly salaried jobs while accommodating her husband's wilder dreams and raising two lovely daughters. In this, she is a more practical role model for young women than Hillary Clinton, blending her calculations about family and career with an expectation of normal personal happiness.

As Katha Pollitt observes, this is an odd description of a conspicuously driven and successful Harvard lawyer whose last position was a VP slot at one of America's leading academic medical centers. (Samuels elaborates--to my mind gets weirder--here.)

I'll bet 10,000 doctoral dissertations are being penned to explain how and why onlookers project so much onto the person of Michelle Obama. As with Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush before her, we prefer our first-ladies to be cardboard icons rather than as the actual human beings they are.

I will simply add two things to this flood of commentary and blather.

First, I spend much of my day traveling Chicago meeting people in public health work. Some are connected with President Obama. Many more are connected to Michelle, and report something substantive that she said or did pertinent to the work at hand. She was no lobbyist or figurehead. She had a real job. It was to navigate intricate logistical, financial, and political issues of linking a university medical center with local networks of collaborating providers. People around town seem to think that she did a good job. If Mr. Samuels does not regard this as "intellectual heavy lifting," he should come on over and try himself.

Second, she strikes me as a supercharged version of many successful women I know, who combine several personal and political qualities we don't expect to find in a single person. She is (a) a driven and privileged Ivy League professional, (b) drawn by personal experience and a larger history to be occasionally ambivalent in her expressions of American nationalism, (c) a committed mom who enjoys baking cookies for her kids, and (d) someone who enjoys the occasional workout and wearing nice clothes. This being Chicago, many of the women I'm thinking about are African-American. Yet successful Jewish women of my mom's generation shared many of these qualities, as their daughters often do today.

Michelle Obama goes on with life as if there are sometimes difficult tradeoffs but no inherent contradiction among these different identities and goals. This drives some people crazy. As my mother might say, they'd better get used to it.