It used to be said that behind every successful man is a woman. In the case of President-elect Barack Obama, add his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, to the mix.
Without the involvement of this steely, 71-year-old widow, it is unlikely that Obama would have been able to convince his wife, Michelle, to support his long-shot presidential bid. Robinson made his grueling, year-and-a-half campaign possible by moving into the Obama’s home, just a few miles from her own, and providing Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, with a sense of normalcy while their parents were on the road.
“I am standing here breathing in and out with any level of calm because my 70-year-old [mother] is home with my girls,” Michelle Obama told voters in Chillicothe, Ohio, last spring. “There’s nothing like grandma.”
With Robinson now poised to become the nations’ First Grandma, many wonder whether she will join the Obamas in the White House. Obama has said he hopes she does - although the decision is hers to make.
“I don’t tell my mother-in-law what to do,” he told Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.” “I’m not stupid - that’s why I got elected president, man. But we hope that she comes.”
Some supporters of the Obamas are assuming a more active advocacy. A petition on Huffington Post urges Robinson to move into the White House. “We the undersigned,” it reads, “want to let Marion [sic] Robinson know that the American people support her presence in the Obama White House.” And about 70 percent of the respondents in a poll on Predictify.com say they believe Robinson will do so.
Certainly, Robinson wouldn’t be the first mother-in-law to take up residence in the White House.
Mamie Eisenhower’s mother, the imperious Elvira Doud, wintered there when her son-in-law, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in office, and reportedly liked to demand her daughter’s attention from bed. Bess Truman’s mother, Madge Gates Wallace, not only lived with the First Family, but missed few opportunities to belittle her son-in-law, President Harry S. Truman.
By all accounts, Marian Robinson is a more easygoing, as well as independent sort, who used to tell her son and daughter that she had no intention of raising their children for them.
“The whole time I’m raising [son] Craig and Michelle, I am telling them that, ‘Look, you see, I am raising my kids, so don’t you all have any kids that you expect me to help you raise,’ ” Robinson told the Boston Globe last March. “And look at what I’m doing!”
She quickly added, however, that she could not imagine anyone else doing that job.
“If somebody’s going to be with these kids other than their parents,” she said, “it better be me.”
Asked how she might feel about relocating to Washington (months before Obama’s election), she told the Globe: “I will do whatever she needs me to do. … I’ll be mad, but I’ll do it.”
Since she married the late Fraser Robinson in 1960, Robinson has always put the children first. When they were young, she stayed home while her husband worked swing shifts as a pump operator for the Chicago water department.
Later, when Michelle went to high school, she worked as a secretary. Fraser Robinson, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 30, died in his mid-50s in 1991, the year before Barack and Michelle Obama were married. In the years since, Robinson has supported herself on his pension, supplemented with secretarial jobs.
She gave up her part-time job in a bank only last year in order to assume a greater role in her granddaughters’ lives during the campaign.
The Globe profile described how she stayed with Malia and Sasha at the Obamas’ six-bedroom home whenever her daughter was away. She got the girls up in the morning, and fed them breakfast according to the strictures imposed by their mother, who insists on organics and natural foods. Robinson ensured their lunches were packed, combed their hair, and drove them to school.
Most days, she became a chauffeur after school, shuttling the girls to piano lessons, gymnastics, dance practice, soccer, and tennis. She also prepared dinner (with certain nutritional requirements, of course), supervised their homework, and limited their TV watching to an hour. (Another rule of their mother’s.)
She made her own views of her daughter’s strict routines quite clear.
The 8:30 bedtime? “Ridiculous!” Robinson told the Globe reporter. The TV-for-an-hour rule? “That’s just not enough time,” she said.
Michelle Obama insists she learned those rules from her mother, but Robinson doesn’t recall it that way. “I’ve heard [Michelle] say, ‘Mom, what are you rolling your eyes at? You made us do the same thing,”‘ Robinson said. “I don’t remember being that bad. It seems like she’s just going overboard.”
She told the Globe that she found her daughter’s rules about food particularly troublesome. Her trademark fried chicken for instance, which uses crumbled Ritz crackers and “lots of oil,” apparently doesn’t pass muster.
But she said she follows the rules while staying at her daughter’s home; not so, when the girls sleep over at her modest brick bungalow on the South Side. That’s when the candy can be limitless and bedtime just might be well after 8:30 p.m.