Michelle Obama Comes Into Her Own

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) — Back in 2008 the media didn't know how to feel about the then-candidate's wife, Michelle Obama. She was portrayed simultaneously as too militant, too angry, too unpatriotic, too deprecating of her husband or too hard. Just too much.


Which is why, according to media reports at the time, she first laid the groundwork as a "down-to-earth mom," prepping the country for her most recognizable coinage, the term "mom-in-chief" in a US Weekly cover story. Also part of Obama's rebranding was a gig co-hosting The View in June 2008, a pivotal moment in a campaign focused on "softening" the future first lady. She opened that TV appearance by fist-bumping all the women at the table including Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the show's resident Republican.

Later, when discussing how the media had misjudged her as angry and militant, Obama got serious: "People aren't used to strong women; we don't know how to talk about them."

Oh, my, how times have changed. Now the popular line about one of the most well-liked first ladies to occupy the White House is that she's all about passion, according to Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. In his column, he mentions how the Charlotte Observer called Obama's speech "impassioned." Meanwhile, the New York Daily News wrote that "the first lady seized the primetime moment, sounding confident, heartfelt and politically wholesome as she delivered an impassioned defense of her spouse." Even all the way across the pond, "passion" was the word of the day, with the UK Guardian writing that "Michelle Obama's passionate speech urges voters to renew their vows."

What happened to her being "unpatriotic"? Have the first lady's former detractors been permanently silenced by her near pitch-perfect performance on Tuesday?

Even New York Times writer Jodi Kantor, whose biography of the first family, titled The Obamas, drew criticism from Mrs. Obama, conceded that Obama's opening address marked a "new point in her remarkable transformation from a Chicago hospital executive who openly called politics a waste of time to a hugely popular first lady and polished political communicator considered essential to her husband's re-election efforts."

Soon after Kantor's book was published in January 2012, Obama told Oprah Winfrey's bestie, Gayle King, in a CBS This Morning interview that she was tired of being pigeonholed. "I guess it's more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and a strong woman — you know," explained Obama, who at the time had admittedly not read The Obamas. "But that's been an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced [his candidacy in 2008]: that I'm some angry black woman."


Fellow journalists immediately came to Kantor's defense, calling the book's portrayal of Michelle Obama well-reported, nuanced and largely positive. But after nearly four years of shielding herself against personal attacks and character assassinations, can you really blame the first lady for being over it all? With the long history of black women's portrayal in the media as "just too much" shadowing Obama's every move, it's no wonder the first lady became weary of the critical words being written about her. And after Tuesday's speech, those depictions might finally be a thing of the past.

CNN pundits wondered if the first lady's speech would change history. "If Barack Obama is re-elected on Nov. 6, he will owe more to his first lady than any president ever to win a second term," wrote Gordon Stewart, a former deputy chief speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter. In a heartfelt op-ed, author and political analyst Sophia Nelson asserted that Michelle's appearance on Tuesday "redefined black women."


Nelson wrote: "She effortlessly destroyed harsh stereotypes about who black women are, and made us something we rarely ever get to be in public: feminine, soft, vulnerable, loving, warm, proud, compassionate, smart, affirmed, dynamic, bold, reflective, humble and fun all at once."

President Obama began his own speech Thursday night by first acknowledging what a boon his wife Michelle has been not only to his life but really all of our lives: "A few nights ago everyone was reminded just what a lucky man I am," he said.


Choosing the word "reminded" as opposed to "witnessed" was strategic. In the president's eyes, and those of most people who've been paying attention to her evolution, Michelle Obama didn't just pop up on convention night 2012 like her husband did eight years before. She has always been that woman — "passionate," patriotic and persistent  — over whom the country currently can't stop fawning. People are only now catching up.

So when the first lady said of her husband, "Being the president doesn't change who you are – no, it reveals who you are," she could have just as easily been talking about herself.


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.