Chapters 15 & 16

Summary: Chapter 15

As a mother of two young girls, Michelle learns to carve out moments to grab a snack or do some quick shopping. At the hospital, she builds a program that increases the use of volunteers, gets staff more involved in the community, and improves care for the underinsured and the chronically ill. She now knows that Barack’s ambitions will always take him away from home for days on end. When he starts planning his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, she only asks that if he loses, he will move on from politics to something else. Instead, through a series of events, Barack is headed for victory even before his keynote address at the Democratic Convention makes him a national star. He wins the Senate race by a landslide in an election that also sends Republican President George W. Bush back to the White House.

Instead of moving to Washington when Barack takes his seat in the Senate, Michelle stays in Chicago with the girls, despite another senator’s wife’s advice that living apart is bad for families. Michelle finds Washington self-important and the briefing given to new Senate spouses a waste of time. She wants to continue working at the hospital, where she has recently been promoted. It also bothers her that Barack is already talking with advisers about a 2008 presidential run; even six-year-old Malia finds that premature. However, when Michelle thinks of all the people who are less fortunate, like those recently made homeless by hurricane Katrina, and when she thinks of Barack’s character and the opportunity for him to make life better for such people, she agrees to let him campaign and to play the role she knows will be expected of her. She also has another, unspoken thought: as a Black man, he cannot win.

Summary: Chapter 16

Barack hires David Plouffe as overall campaign manager and puts David Axelrod in charge of messaging and media. The campaign launch in Springfield takes place outdoors, on a freezing day that makes Michelle pleased she got warm caps on the girls. The first, crucial contest is the Iowa Caucus. Media coverage is sometimes very negative and very personal: a magazine profile of Barack links a past sermon by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas’ former pastor in Chicago, to Barack’s “radical roots,” and there is speculation that Michelle owes her hospital job to Barack’s political connections. Rumors circulate on the internet about Barack having Muslim loyalties and having had a terrorist for a friend in the 1970s. 

Supported by aide Melissa Winter and communications director Katie Lelyveld, Michelle speaks at homes and visits county fairs, finding that she has more in common with Iowans than some people might expect. Having been given no particular script to follow, she shows a gift for talking from her heart with undecided voters and earns the campaign nickname “the Closer.” She gets used to having Secret Service agents around, and she learns to choose finger foods that will not stain clothing if spilled. When it becomes clear that the family isn’t eating right, she hires Sam Kass, a young chef, to prepare more nutritious meals. He soon becomes part of the family’s inner circle.

At the Iowa Democratic Party’s traditional Jefferson-Jackson dinner eight weeks before the caucus, all candidates seek to showcase their support and their speaking skills. Barack is polling well behind the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, and contending with 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards for second place. The last to speak, Barack gives a strong speech and soon after pulls into a tie with Clinton. Two months later, when he wins the caucus, Michelle thinks that maybe, he can win the presidency, after all.

Analysis: Chapters 15 & 16

These chapters mark a pivotal change in the Obama family’s lives when Barack’s political career abruptly advances as he runs for U.S. Senate and proceeds toward the presidency, and Michelle must find her own public voice. While Barack is in the Senate, Michelle continues her work and defends the balance she has maintained by remaining in Chicago rather than moving to Washington D.C. But as Barack begins to run for president, Michelle is drawn onto the campaign trail. Somewhat to her surprise, she realizes that she can connect with the rural, mostly white Iowans who remind her of her own extended family. Michelle finds that they have much in common with her own story, and she is bothered by reporters who try to question how much her experience with white voters is defined by her race. Michelle’s wariness of latent racism increases as dramatic claims portray the Obamas as outsiders and un-Americans. Michelle, however, believes that people have many fundamental things in common and speaks from her heart. Her speeches become powerful and allow her to connect with voters and support her husband’s campaign.

Despite her skepticism toward politicians, Michelle finds a renewed faith in the potential of positive change. Her own family’s privilege stands in stark contrast to the suffering of others after Hurricane Katrina devastates many African American communities in New Orleans. Though Michelle struggles with the desire to keep Barack close to their family, Michelle has faith in her husband’s abilities to help others as president. His desire to bridge the country’s political divide to make improvements is contagious, and the growing support he gains throughout the campaign illustrates America’s desire for the positive changes he promises. Barack’s view of the campaign is much larger than a single presidency: he sees it as attempting to change the political machine itself and make it more equitable and hopeful for the Americans it serves. Through the energy and drive of the young members of Barack’s grassroots campaign network, Michelle realizes that hope is thriving and that positive change is possible. As she examines changes needed in her own home due to the demands of campaign life, the entrance of chef Sam Kass foreshadows the positive changes she will eventually enact in the White House as she promotes healthy eating and lifestyles for children.