2012 ELECTION

First Lady Michelle Obama profile

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(AP) - She is 5-foot-11 and world famous. Sometimes she inspires awe in her admirers. She has been accused of being the angry type.

So when Michelle Obama meets people, she likes to bring things down to earth with a hug.

Erin Thesing got one, before the young schoolteacher introduced Mrs. Obama to a crowd of a thousand people at a recent campaign rally in Philadelphia.

As the first lady approached, Thesing extended her hand in greeting.

"She brings me in for the hug, and says, 'It is so nice to see you, Erin.' She knew my name," Thesing remembers, her face bright with the memory.

It happens over and over, wherever Michelle Obama goes - the human connections made by a charismatic public person, and the careful construction of a very public figure.

How much of this is real, and how much is the kind of strategy that's behind every first lady's image? Can it be both? Is it even possible, in this Internet age, to know where the persona ends and the person begins?

Mrs. Obama's representatives declined to make her available for an interview. And why would they? Her image is already set.

This 48-year-old woman has already shared everything about herself that she wants us to know: She had a working-class, two-parent childhood on the South Side of Chicago, then attended Princeton and Harvard Law.

Next came marriage and two daughters with an ambitious man named Barack Obama.

She held a series of corporate, government and nonprofit jobs in her hometown.

As the president's wife, Mrs. Obama has rebounded from 2008 campaign accusations that she carries racial grudges to define herself as "mom in chief."

She's an advocate for healthy living and military families; a workout enthusiast with arms so taut they inspired their own Twitter feed.

Despite aspersions against the strength of her patriotism and parodies of her as a food-policing busybody, Mrs. Obama's Gallup favorability ratings have averaged a sound 66 percent as first lady. Laura Bush averaged 73 percent; Hillary Rodham Clinton 56.

This popularity is tended as carefully as Mrs. Obama's White House vegetable garden. The tools are her social causes, and the force of her own personality.

Perhaps that personality - the real Michelle Obama - can be glimpsed through the eyes of people on the receiving end of those hugs.

In Thesing's case, she and the first lady chatted for five minutes about things like Thesing's students at a predominantly black charter school, Beyonce's "Let's Move!" remix and the Obama family dog.

Thesing had been impressed by many famous political figures on the campaign trail in her native New Hampshire, but Mrs. Obama inspired stronger feelings.

"Somehow she has this ability within 30 seconds to make you feel you can open up to her," Thesing says. "To make this instant connection."

Before the campaign rally, Thesing had fully absorbed the first lady's image. She viewed her as a role model: an assertive woman who successfully juggles her career, family and community service, who works out daily, has a great wardrobe and can relate to anyone.

Now that she has met her, Thesing is convinced that the image is real.

Yearning to make a difference

She was a hugger long before she was a public figure, say people who have known Mrs. Obama for years, and yearned to make a difference long before she became first lady. In 1991, when Michelle Robinson was about 27 years old, she worked in a prominent Chicago corporate law firm, doing intellectual property work for entertainment companies.

One supervisor, a partner named Quincy White, recalls that the young lawyer wasn't satisfied with the nature of her work: "I couldn't give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world," White says in the biography "Michelle," by Liza Mundy.

So she wrote a letter to Valerie Jarrett, a deputy chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who would soon become a mentor and close friend to Michelle and her fiance, Barack.

She took a job as an assistant to the mayor, with a lower salary than at her law firm.

Soon she became an economic development coordinator, responsible for working with businesses to foster growth and jobs.

After two years with the city, she left to be director of the Chicago branch of Public Allies, a nonprofit that trains young people for leadership in public service.

In 1996, she became an associate dean at the University of Chicago, directing efforts to engage students in local community service.

Her first daughter, Malia, was born in 1998; Sasha arrived in 2001. A year later, with Barack in the Illinois Legislature, she moved to the University of Chicago Hospitals as executive director of community affairs.

After her husband was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, she was promoted to university vice president. She took leave from that job to help his presidential campaign. Finally, as first lady, she was in a position to actually fulfill her ambition to "change the world." 

Let's Move

Her first initiative was "Let's Move!" The objective: solve childhood obesity within a generation. People who have worked with her describe a meticulous planner, a goal-setter who translates big-picture strategy into actions that affect real people, a woman who is comfortable being in charge.

"Let's Move!" is now a sprawling effort that includes corporations, teachers, government, Beyonce, and more. But the centerpiece is Mrs. Obama herself.

So one hot day in May of last year, she arrived with just 15 minutes' notice at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C. Beyonce's video had just hit the Internet, and students had spent a few gym classes practicing the choreography.

All the students were outside on the playground when Mrs. Obama arrived, wearing black slacks and a bright yellow blouse that showed off those arms.

The beat kicked in, the cameras started rolling and the first lady started dancing.

"I was surprised when she did the dances," recalls health and physical education teacher Michelle Ortiz, who spent some time speaking with Mrs. Obama. "She mentioned that she didn't know the choreography, but that she would give it a shot."

She did what the kids did: the running man, the Dougie, the jump rope thing. She picked up the moves quickly. She spoke to the crowd, then asked if they wanted to dance some more.

"Lots of times kids have an issue because they don't have a connection with an adult," Ortiz says. "Like, you could never possibly understand what it's like to be a kid. Now the first lady is doing a dance that we like to do. It shows like, wow, she's still in touch."

Quite literally: "She gave me a hug," Ortiz says. "She smelled really good, like nice perfume. I didn't realize how tall she was."

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