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Before Michelle: The story of Barack Obama's proposal to Sheila Miyoshi Jager

The Independent logo The Independent 3/05/2017 Rachel Hosie
© Provided by Independent Print Limited

For many people, former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle are #relationshipgoals.

But few know that Barack actually proposed to a different woman long before he met Michelle.

In new biography Rising Star by David J. Garrow, the spotlight is shone on Obama’s relationship with Sheila Miyoshi Jager when he was living in Chicago in his early 20s. 

She was of Dutch and Japanese ancestry and, like Obama’s distant mother, also studied anthropology.

Although the couple were a natural fit, Jager told Garrow that their life together felt isolating - “an island unto ourselves” in which Obama would “compartmentalise his work and home life.”

At the time, Obama was a community organiser who tried to write fiction in his free time, but he already believed he would one day become president of the United States, and Jager was one the few people he told of his ambitions.

She quickly realised he had “a deep-seated need to be loved and admired.”

As the relationship progressed, they started discussing marriage. “In the winter of ‘86, when we visited my parents, he asked me to marry him,” she told Garrow. 

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with former United States President Barack Obama at a restaurant during Obama's visit to address the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada June 6, 2017. The Obama family: Life after the White House

Ironically, Jager’s parents were opposed to the union due to concerns over Obama’s professional prospects and because they thought she was too young. She told Barack “not yet,” but they didn’t split up.

But Jager believes Obama changed around the age of 25 in 1987: “He became... so very ambitious very suddenly,” she told Garrow.

“I remember very clearly when this transformation happened, and I remember very specifically that by 1987, about a year into our relationship, he already had his sights on becoming president.”

However, Obama believed that to fulfill his political destiny, he needed to “fully identify as African American.” Garrow explains that as a black politician in Chicago, having a non-African-American spouse could hinder your prospects.

This put pressure on Jager and Obama’s relationship and they suddenly found themselves arguing about race and politics all the time. The “resolution of his black identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career,” she said.

Of course, it wasn’t as if Obama didn’t care for his girlfriend at all - he did - but he “felt trapped between the woman he loved and the destiny he knew was his.”

By the time Obama was about to leave Chicago to go to Harvard Law School the relationship was falling apart, but that didn’t stop him asking Jager to go to Harvard with him and get married - never mind the fact that she was going off on a research trip to Seoul. 

18 times Barack and Michelle Obama gave us relationship goals

Jager thinks this proposal was mostly “out of a sense of desperation over our eventual parting and not in any real faith in our future.” The couple went their separate ways.

After his first year of law school, Obama met Michelle Robinson at the law firm where she worked and he was a summer associate. They soon found themselves in a serious relationship.

However, Jager was not completely out of the picture as she was soon to arrive at Harvard on a teaching fellowship.

“Barack and [Jager] had continued to see each other irregularly throughout the 1990-91 academic year, notwithstanding the deepening of Barack’s relationship with Michelle Robinson,” Garrow writes. But Jager admitted she felt bad about it.

After Barack and Michelle got married, however, his relationship with Jager became no more than the very occasion letter or phone call, only when there were serious things to discuss.

Although Jager and Obama’s relationship came during a formative time in the future president’s life, it’s his marriage with Michelle that saw him through his years in the biggest job on the planet.

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