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Michelle Obama's candor cuts 2 ways

Backers delighted, but her critics fume

Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / February 21, 2008

PROVIDENCE - In a gilded ballroom of the Biltmore hotel, Michelle Obama leaned on the podium over a microphone a bit too short for her, telling how voters this primary season have turned out in record numbers, often waiting in the frigid cold to vote, to support her husband's unlikely candidacy in states as divergent as Idaho and South Carolina.

"So let me tell you something - I am proud," she told the audience, which will vote in the Rhode Island primary on March 4. "I'm proud of this country, and I'm proud of the fact that people are ready to roll up their sleeves and do something phenomenal. . . .

"I know I wouldn't be here standing here - Barack and I, our stories wouldn't be possible - if it weren't for our fundamental belief and pride in this country and what it stands for."

Few in the room missed her point. Barack Obama's famously blunt-spoken wife was trying to explain what she meant the other day when she said that for the "first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." The comment provoked furious criticism among conservative radio hosts and bloggers, who deemed it flagrantly unpatriotic; lengthy clarifications from the Obama campaign; even a retort from Cindy McCain, the wife of the likely Republican nominee.

And in a race in which the Harvard-educated lawyer and mother of two has received mostly positive press as a charismatic figure on the campaign trail, the controversy also highlighted the flip side to her dynamic personality: Michelle Obama says what she thinks, sometimes without editing herself first.

It is a trait that her fans find admirable and refreshing and that they say helps ground her husband's high-flying rhetoric. But in a national campaign with an endless news cycle, it can also do serious damage, particularly, if Obama is the nominee, during a general election, when the conservative media will have a more powerful influence on her husband's fate.

"Did she not feel proud about the Berlin Wall coming down? Has she not felt proud about the way we came together after 9/11?" host Rush Limbaugh raged this week on his radio show. "This goes to the root, I think, of some of the things we discuss here frequently, and that is people taking this country for granted."

The controversy the flap caused worried Vicki Veh, one of the roughly 125 women in yesterday's audience. But she said that Obama's other traits - "her strength of character, her deep experience at overcoming adversity, her solid educational background, her professional experience, her experience as a mother, as a minority" - far outweigh her occasional slips.

"I mean," she said, "I want her as my first lady!"

Obama, a close adviser to her husband, has campaigned relentlessly on her own and by his side. Eloquent, funny, and sometimes caustic, she also speaks a bit more directly about the role of race in the campaign. Yesterday several African-American women in the audience said they understood what Obama meant about being proud of her country.

"As people of color, our experience is quite different than the majority, and we've always been treated as the stepchild of this nation," said Cheryl Burrell, program administrator for the Rhode Island Office of Human Resources, Outreach, and Diversity. "And until we become embraced - and I think that was really what she was speaking to - until we become embraced for who we are . . . we will continue to be left out of the mainstream and all the advantages that come with that."

On the stump yesterday, Obama sounded as if she might be speaking obliquely about race when she said that the bar was constantly being moved higher for her husband's campaign.

When he raised a lot of money, she said, fund-raising suddenly did not matter as much; organization did. Iowa was all-important, so they campaigned there relentlessly. "I know Iowa like I know my kitchen," she said, to laughter. But after he won that state, it was no longer as important as New Hampshire. South Carolina mattered until her husband won it by a landslide.

"But that didn't count because he was supposed to win South Carolina," she said.

Then she quickly moved to connect her husband's political experience to the wider plight of the middle class: "The irony of it is, that's what's been happening to Americans for a long time." Too many people, she said, are "chasing a moving bar" in a society where healthcare is unaffordable, good schools are not a priority, college entails getting into massive debt, and saving for retirement can be impossible, she said.

She seemed to be addressing one of the most important challenges now confronting her husband as he seeks to close in on the nomination - to connect with working-class voters who, until recently, have been more drawn to Hillary Clinton. She tried to connect to the audience by describing how her father raised his children on a working-class salary - a dream now out of reach for most families, who need two incomes to get by, she said - and how she and her husband paid off their educations only three years ago, thanks to her husband's two best-selling books. "It wasn't a fine financial plan; we were lucky," she said.

Overworked and fearful of the future, she said, many in the country have lost hope, and that, she said, is something her husband wants to change.

She said her husband would not only "be ready on day one" to be president, but would be able to win the election without deserting his convictions. For a moment, she seemed to be speaking as much about herself as about him.

"The American people can handle the truth," she said. "They just need to know what it looks like."

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