In February, some bristled over her "for the first time I am proud to be an American" comment. Her critics charged that she was unpatriotic in what was perceived as a major campaign stumble.
Soon after that, a sociology thesis that Michelle Obama had written at Princeton surfaced in the media. After surveying black alumni, she suggested that her attendance at an elite, white institution might lead to her alienation in society.
Princeton sociology professor Mitchell Duneier, who did not know Michelle Obama but analyzed her work, said her thesis "suggests a very impressive quality of mind."
"She discovers that those who end up having many white friends still can self-identify as black, and that black Princeton alumni with white friends who don't enjoy black music or participate in black culture still work for the advancement of the race," he told ABCNews.com.
Duneier, author of "Slim's Table" -- about the black men at the Valois Cafeteria in the Obamas' Hyde Park neighborhood -- said he would not be surprised if, as first lady, she took on issues that "reflect her long-standing concerns with problems of sociological significance."
"And I would expect that she will be very systematic, open-minded and original in her approach to any problems she takes on," he said.
After a series of softer television interviews and efforts to downplay the image of an angry black woman, Michelle Obama successfully turned around perceptions, many observers said.
By the time Michelle Obama walked onstage at Chicago's Grant Park on election night in a bold, red-and-black, scoop-neck dress by Narciso Rodriguez, holding the hands of her two photogenic daughters, she was already a celebrity in her own right.
"She's always struck me as more Princess Diana than Angela Davis," said Harris-Lacewell, who said that Michelle Obama will leverage that public fascination for good works.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, who met Michelle Obama early in the campaign, agreed that the future first lady "has been burned with being misunderstood."
Brooks describes her as a "hugger" with an "acerbic and sarcastic" sense of humor. "She was superwarm and engaging and friendly," Brooks told ABCNews.com. "I am hoping after the election she lets more of her personality out."
"Her intelligence comes across and also the sense that this is a woman who shares the experience of educated career women who balance work and family," said Brooks. "She's been there, done that and can be an effective advocate for better support for working families."
Michelle Obama left a demanding job at law firm Sidley Austin in Chicago to raise her oldest daughter Malia. Later, while breast-feeding Sasha, she negotiated a more flexible work schedule at the University of Chicago's Medical Center. Juggling work and family, say those close to her, is what gives the first lady-to-be her passion for helping working mothers.
"What I found myself -- and most of my friends -- doing is we just cope," she told Brooks in a cover story in More magazine. "We're taught that as women: Just handle it. Just adjust. We accommodate to things that aren't healthy instead of turning around and going, 'This has got to change.'"