“Any First Lady, rightfully, gets to define her role,” says Mrs. Obama. “And that’s a wonderful gift of freedom.” Atelier Versace dress.
On the eve of her departure from the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama has never been a more inspiring ﬁgure—America’s conscience, role model, and mother in chief.
When I arrive at the White House on a hot afternoon in late September to interview Michelle Obama, the place is so eerily quiet I worry for a second that I have come on the wrong day. I have been here every week for a month, sometimes twice a day, to interview people on the First Lady’s staff or to join Mrs. Obama in her motorcade and head out to an event on her schedule. There is usually so much high-stakes, highly choreographed pageantry unfolding that it’s hard to shake the feeling that if you made a move without permission you might get tackled. Indeed, the day I started following Mrs. Obama, I arrived around ten o’clock and had to “hold” in a reception room for ten minutes; then move to a hallway to hold again; then another spot, hold; until at last I was ushered into the Map Room because the First Lady wanted to say hello before we went off to Howard University. Wearing a purple-and-white striped sleeveless Laura Smalls dress, she enveloped me in one of her customary hugs. “I understand you’re going to be with us for a while.” She paused as a look crossed her face, that ornery one she makes when she’s about to deliver a line: “We’re doin’ a deep dive.”
But on this day, a month later: no tours or press conferences, no state dinners or medal ceremonies. Just an enormous, well-appointed mansion, the low fall sun slicing through the cleanest windows in America. Indeed, but for the guards stationed here and there, the place feels entirely empty. Which means that I am (sort of) free to wander around. In the Cross Hall that connects the East Room and the State Dining Room, the mother of all red carpets is rolled up and just sitting there, like it’s about to be hauled away. I bump into Angella Reid, the first (black) woman to serve as chief usher, whom I’d met a couple of years ago when I was here on another assignment. After some inevitable wistfulness about the end of an era, we peek into the Old Family Dining Room, which Mrs. Obama recently redecorated and opened to the public, mostly to catch a glimpse of the mid-sixties painting by Alma Thomas, the first piece of art by a black woman ever displayed in the White House.
It was during that visit two years ago that Joanna Rosholm, Mrs. Obama’s tall, glamorous press secretary, took me on a spin past the First Lady portraits that hang in the Center Hall on the ground floor. We were at a reception, drinks in hand, going from one to the next, when I judged Nancy Reagan’s—purely as a fashion artifact—to be my favorite. Today, with no one around, I feel compelled to take another look. Jackie Kennedy’s has a pastels-in-soft-focus aspect. Hillary Clinton’s portrait looks less like Hillary than Kate McKinnon in a pantsuit doing Hillary. There’s Lady Bird in yellow chiffon; Pat Nixon looking forlorn and trapped; Laura and Barbara Bush, both in somber black. But it is Eleanor Roosevelt’s that really raises an eyebrow. At the bottom of her portrait, her disembodied hands engage in various tasks: knitting, holding a pair of reading glasses, and, inexplicably, fidgeting with her wedding ring, as if she were about to take it off to wash a sinkful of dishes. It is a reminder of just how peculiar the role of First Lady is in American public life. She has a job with no salary, a platform with no power, an East Wing filled with staff but no budget. And it is, as Mrs. Obama will point out to me later, a role that is surprisingly malleable, shaped by the personality, style, and interests (or lack thereof) of the person occupying it. “Everything we do is by choice,” she will tell me. “I could have spent eight years doing anything, and at some level, it would have been fine. I could have focused on flowers. I could have focused on decor. I could have focused on entertainment. Because any First Lady, rightfully, gets to define her role. There’s no legislative authority; you’re not elected. And that’s a wonderful gift of freedom.”
People see themselves in her,” says President Obama. “A dedicated mom, a good friend, and someone who’s not afraid to poke a little fun at herself from time to time
Mrs. Obama took her time. The question she was asked most on the campaign trail was “What kind of First Lady will you be?” The answer was always the same: “I won’t know until I get there.” Early on some critics called her distant or “angry”—an epithet she bristled at. “Michelle never asked to be First Lady,” President Obama writes me by email. “Like a lot of political spouses, the role was thrust upon her. But I always knew she’d be incredible at it, and put her own unique stamp on the job. That’s because who you see is who she is—the brilliant, funny, generous woman who, for whatever reason, agreed to marry me. I think people gravitate to her because they see themselves in her—a dedicated mom, a good friend, and someone who’s not afraid to poke a little fun at herself from time to time.”
Once she got her daughters acclimated—she routinely referred to herself as “Mom in chief”—the Harvard-educated lawyer took on issues like support for military families and healthy eating. “It was pooh-poohed as a sort of soft swing at the ball,” she says. By the middle of the second term, she had become more ambitious—launching two education initiatives, Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn—and over the past year and a half finding her métier, turning herself into the First Lady of Popular Culture, mastering social media (thanks to her proximity to a certain couple of teenage girls), appearing as herself on shows like NCIS and Parks and Recreation, singing karaoke with James Corden, and basically charming the pants off of everyone. Somewhere along the way, she became the greatest political communicator of our time—better than Bill Clinton, better than her husband—someone whose speeches actually start national conversations. And throughout all of this, she has remained one of the most glamorous women in the world—admired by teenagers and grandmothers alike—whose daring fashion instincts have won her near-universal accolades from an industry that had a champion in the White House for the first time in decades. When she wore that showstopping Atelier Versace rose-gold chain-mail column to her final state dinner in October, the Internet worked itself into a state of collective mourning over the fact that there will be no more Michelle Obama fashion moments to obsess about.
The White House has changed quite a bit in the past eight years, becoming much warmer, far less formal, and distinctly more diverse. Obamalot, if you will. They have created an ecosystem that is so effortlessly inclusive that, for example, Joe Mahshie, a trip coordinator for the First Lady, and Brian Mosteller, director of Oval Office operations, were married by Joe Biden at his home just a few months ago. Mahshie, my minder today, tells me that he first met Mrs. Obama when his then boyfriend Mosteller took him to join the SoulCycle class that the First Lady goes to once a week with White House staffers. Mahshie and Mrs. Obama struck up a conversation; one of her staffers was taken aback by his forwardness: “Do you know her?” No, we just met, he replied. “Was I not supposed to talk to her? Should I have curtsied?” He laughs. “She creates that possibility.”
In the Blue Room, Cristeta Comerford, the (first woman, first Asian) executive chef, is preparing crudité and hummus with vegetables from Mrs. Obama’s beloved White House garden. (A week from now, Mrs. Obama will hold a press conference on the South Lawn to announce that she has arranged for the National Park Service to care for the garden when she is gone and has raised $2.5 million of private funding to cover the costs. Word to future presidents: Don’t even think about messin’ with my garden.) Some of her staff have gathered, including chief of staff Tina Tchen and communications director Caroline Adler Morales. We are standing around a table noshing and gossiping about Brad and Angelina when Mrs. Obama finally appears, in a black Versace dress. The first thing she says is “Are you sick of me by now?” (Exactly no one is sick of you by now, I want to say but don’t.) We sit down in facing chairs in front of the curved windows that look out onto the Truman Balcony, and I joke that the unsettling quiet makes it feel like it’s already over. Who’s the president? “Is it January?” she says, laughing. “What did I miss?” Which brings up the fraught question of how she’s feeling with the end now in sight.
The day before, I sat with Valerie Jarrett—senior adviser to the president and one of the Obamas’ closest friends—in her office in the West Wing. She made a crack about her hair going gray (“I earned it. Every one of them”) and then described the waning days of the Obama years as “excruciating.” She paused and added, “For me.” Another pause. “I cry a lot. It takes very little to set me off.” Just that past Saturday, at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, she had come unglued during President Obama’s remarks. “He decides to ad lib at the very end of his speech about what it would be like to come back to the museum when Sasha and Malia have children of their own, and he describes holding this little hand and walking through this arc of history, and I looked at the First Lady and she’s crying. I’m sitting next to [White House chief of staff] Denis McDonough, and he’s crying. Tina Tchen is crying. Everybody’s crying! I think we’re all acutely aware that this chapter of their lives is coming to an end. Fortunately they’re young enough to have an extraordinary next chapter, but this is unique, and it’s almost over.”
When I bring this up to Mrs. Obama, she lets out a big sigh. “You know, there are little . . . moments. Even today I was looking out at this view here.” She gestures to the windows. “Looking out on the South Lawn and the Washington Monument and it had just rained and the grass was really green and everything popped a little bit more. It’s soooo beautiful. And for that moment I thought, I’m going to miss waking up to this, having access to this anytime I want.” She recrosses her legs. “But on the flip side . . . it’s time. I think our democracy has it exactly right: two terms, eight years. It’s enough. Because it’s important to have one foot in reality when you have access to this kind of power. The nature of living in the White House is isolating. And I think Barack and I—because we’re kind of stubborn—we’ve maintained some normalcy, mostly because of the age of our kids. I go out to dinner with my girlfriends; I go to Sasha’s games; Barack has coached a little basketball with Sasha’s team. But at the same time, when you can’t walk into CVS?”
There is a CVS a block away from here, I say. “I know,” she says with a look of comic weariness. “But I always think, Fun for me! But a complete hassle for my Secret Service agents.” She pauses. “When you’re not engaged in the day-to-day struggles that everybody feels, you slowly start losing touch. And I think it’s important for the people in the White House to have a finger on the pulse.”
I think our democracy has it exactly right: two terms, eight years,” says Mrs. Obama. “It’s enough. Because it’s important to have one foot in reality when you have access to this kind of power
One of the ways that Michelle Obama has kept her finger on the pulse—and one foot in reality—is by spending a lot of time around young people, usually students, mostly in private and off the record. Shortly after she got to the White House, she launched a mentoring program for disadvantaged girls, which in practical terms means that she has been meeting with two dozen high school juniors and seniors at the White House, sometimes once a month, every year since 2009. “I spend meaningful time with these girls,” she tells me. You can see on her face and hear in her voice that this is where Mrs. Obama’s heart lies—and it’s one indication of how she might occupy herself post–White House. Eric Waldo, the executive director of the First Lady’s Reach Higher project (which aims to encourage all American students to educate themselves past high school), calls his boss “the school counselor in chief for the country” and tells me that the foundational reason she made education a priority is that she had a “bad experience in high school. A counselor told her, ‘I’m not sure if you’re Princeton material.’ And when she got to Princeton, she felt lost.” She tells this story to kids in private, says Waldo, “and they have these same doubts, and you see it happen, where suddenly she’s just, like, a person.”
Mrs. Obama also likes to go to where students are—to high schools and campuses—to surprise them. One morning in early September—a morning when there’s a headline on the front page of every paper about Georgetown University’s decision to offer admission preference to the descendants of slaves—her motorcade pulls out of the South Gate and zips unimpeded across town to Howard University, Seth Meyers and his Late Night production crew in tow.
At one point, Meyers is sitting onstage in an auditorium filled with about 300 students, mostly freshmen, who think they’re here for a taped interview with America’s Got Talent host Nick Cannon, who also happens to be a 36-year-old freshman at Howard. But Cannon is a decoy, and when the First Lady walks out from behind the curtain, all the students shoot straight up out of their seats as if jolted by an electrical shock, and the cheering and shrieking and crying, sustained for a full minute, is like no other sound I’ve heard. If you want to understand exactly what Michelle Obama means to black teenagers, listen to that sound. “I don’t usually get standing ovations like that,” says Meyers. “Thank you.”
Kids are watching us,” she says. “I experience it every single day. They hang on my every word, what I wear, what I say. They are writing papers about us. They come to us and they’re like, ‘I dressed like you for Halloween’
But when everyone settles down and students are given a chance to ask Mrs. Obama questions, a surprising theme emerges. Most of us are now familiar with her story: born and raised in a blue-collar family on the South Side of Chicago, endured an hour-and-a-half commute to attend the city’s first magnet high school, worked several jobs and borrowed a lot of money to get herself through Princeton, then Harvard Law. But what I didn’t know was how tentative and insecure she was in the beginning. A young man from Macon, Georgia, stands up and asks if there’s anything she would have changed about her freshman year. “I probably would have tried more things. . . . You all should not be spending time alone in your rooms unless you’re studying. And when you’re not, get out there. Meet people, introduce yourself. Just assume that everyone wants to know you. OK?” A moment later, someone asks what her freshman year taught her about herself. She recounts the story about being told that Princeton “was reaching too high. That the schools I was applying to were too . . . much for me.” You can still hear the disgust in her voice all these years later. “And then I got there and I looked around and thought: I’m just as smart as these people! What were they thinkin’? So there are a lot of people who will try to step on your confidence based on their assumptions about who they think you are.” A murmur of recognition ripples through the audience. “For all of you sitting here, with those doubts in your head—because those whispers of doubt, they stay with you for a very long time—ignore them. . . . I still carry that with me today, as First Lady of the United States, because there are people who don’t think I should be doing that either.”
I made such a visceral connection to the things she told the students at Howard that I say to her one day at the White House, “Turns out we have a lot in common.” She stares at me for a second, then gets that look on her face. “You’re a black girl from the South Side of Chicago?” We both crack up; her staff falls into hysterics. She asks me about my background (blue-collar family: mailman dad, bus-driver mom), and she says, “You and I know, there was no magic. I’m sure you didn’t have people following you around begging you to apply to their colleges. I want kids to know: Don’t wait for somebody to come along and tell you you’re special. Because that may never happen.
“Kids are watching us,” she continues. “I experience it every single day. They hang on my every word, what I wear, what I say. And it’s not just kids at Howard; it’s not just African-American kids. They are writing papers about us. They come to us and they’re like, ‘I dressed like you for Halloween.’” I let out a nervous chuckle, and she shoots me a look that says, True story. “Little blonde white girl. I’m like, ‘Really, sweetie?’ And she said, ‘Yes! And I looked just like you!’ And I’m like, ‘Of course you did! And you did such a great job!’” We pause to laugh and ponder this for a moment. “But that means something to me. Maybe because I still have kids and I know that they’re influenced by people they look up to, but it makes us want to live right and do right and be right—Every. Single. Day—so that we don’t ever disappoint these kids and they have something to hold on to, and so that they know—as I say all the time—I can do this. You can do this.”
Earlier in the day, Mrs. Obama ambushed four freshmen in one-on-one encounters in a classroom with Seth Meyers’s cameras rolling. I sat behind the cameramen with Tina Tchen and took it all in, in a state of bemused amazement. Here was the First Lady of the United States of America, hiding behind a curtain while two dozen people—White House staffers, talk-show producers—waited in silence for the unsuspecting eighteen-year-olds to enter and get . . . Punk’d, essentially. Surprise! “All of our elaborate ruses,” said Tchen with a weary laugh. Three of the four students buckled and stammered in a state of overwrought disbelief; a student named Trey, both laughing and crying, said, “You can’t do this to people.” Mrs. Obama hugged him for longer than usual and said, “We know this is a shock to the system.” But there was one girl who appeared entirely immune to this friendly scheme. Seemingly unimpressed and unsurprised, she asked a question about partying and then clicked off on her heels. Toodle-oo! Her detachment felt like a sharp little rebuke, a reminder that not everyone wants to be—or can be—touched by the strange magic of Michelle Obama in the prime of her gift.
Apparently it goes both ways. Just before we leave Howard, the First Lady does an interview with Lilly Singh, a 28-year-old YouTube star with nearly ten million subscribers, whose brand is all about girl power—or, as it were, Girl Love. Mrs. Obama initially seems on guard: subdued, less expansive than usual. “Be, like, funky!” Singh says to her before they start. “I’ll do a little bit of an intro, be all excited, you know, ‘Wassup?!’” As the cameras are ready to roll, Singh leans into her guest and yells, “Chillin’ with FLOTUS! No big deal!” And then this: “FLOTUS is like, ‘Girl, you trippin’!’” Mrs. Obama gamely soldiers on through the segment, which ends with Singh holding up pictures of people the First Lady knows and asking her to “compliment” them. “Whatever you like,” she says. “I just want to know what lives in your heart.” One of the photos is of Jill Biden, and Mrs. Obama rattles off a list: “Dear friend, partner, blue-star mom, kind, curious, smart, professional.” There are more photos, more compliments, and then Singh holds up a picture of herself. The First Lady proceeds with caution. “Beautiful. Smart. Entrepreneurial. Funny,” says Mrs. Obama. “Uhhhh. . . .” She pauses for a moment and then puts a little something extra on the next compliment. “Loud.”
Over a five-day stretch, I watch Mrs. Obama appear on three different stages, in three knockout dresses, in front of three entirely different kinds of audiences to speak about three unrelated things, and each time she takes the room’s breath away. First, because of how tall and otherworldly she can seem from a distance, but also because of how bold she can be—how confident in her ability to speak forcefully and intimately at once.
She has this extraordinary ability to meet people where they are,” says Valerie Jarrett. “And I think that’s hard to do from the lofty perch of the White House. But she has never climbed up on the perch!
One of the events is a conversation with former First Lady Laura Bush, on the subject of the military as seen from their particular vantage points. Taking in the two women side by side puts a fine point on just how modern Mrs. Obama is, in her blue-and-white, floral-print Michael Kors dress with its ironic, exaggerated fifties silhouette—while Mrs. Bush looks conservative in a lime-green dress, set hair, kitten heels, and string of pearls. Bob Woodruff, the moderator, asks if they could each speak to what it’s like to live in the White House with a war going on. Mrs. Bush talks about being fearful for troops in harm’s way. “You’re in the lap of luxury, really—beautiful house where your sheets are changed every single day . . . and our troops are lying out on the ground somewhere. . . . You worry about them all the time, every single day.” And Mrs. Obama says this: “When we first came into office, the first term, our visits [to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center] would last for hours because there would be 25, 50, 75 folks that we would be seeing, going from room to room, many with devastating injuries. And now, today, just last week, Barack went to visit and he was there for 30 minutes because there are fewer of our men and women who are being injured in war. And that feels good. That’s something that a commander in chief thinks about before they pop off about going to war. Because when you’ve spent time on a base, and you know these men and women . . . you don’t just talk about war like there are no implications. It’s serious business. And lives are changed forever.”
Her skill at speaking in public is something to behold. Think of the most enduring line from the, um, deplorable election cycle we were all just put through: When they go low, we go high. Mrs. Obama’s family motto was part of her jaw-dropping speech at the Democratic National Convention in late July, and it remained a topic of conversation for weeks. Hillary Clinton herself, during the second debate, answered the fusillade of gutter lies from Donald Trump by invoking it. For the record, Mrs. Obama claims she did not watch the debates. “I can’t. That’s part of staying hopeful and positive—be able to go high. . . . Sometimes that means just not engaging. And that’s not just with these debates. If I didn’t have to be at my husband’s debates, I wouldn’t have watched those, either.”
But it became clear after watching another speech, Mrs. Obama addressing a Clinton rally in New Hampshire in mid-October—her voice shaking with indignation at the sexual predation of Trump—that she must have reengaged at some point. It was the best, most overtly political speech of her life, a smart bomb that hit its target dead center. Midway through, a woman shouted, “Preach it, First Lady!” And then a minute later, a man bellowed, “We’re with you!,” making overt the awkward fact that Mrs. Obama has that thing—that emotional connection, that relatable empathy—that Clinton seemed somehow to lack over the past year. An unscientific scroll-poll through the comments about the speech on YouTube shows that . . . oh, let’s just take a stab and say five out of ten people wish she would run for president.
Ain’t gonna happen. “Absolutely not,” says Valerie Jarrett. I tell her that there are people who will insist that those speeches are setting her up for a run. Jarrett argues exactly the opposite: The speeches connect precisely because she’s not a politician and never will be. “Nobody questions her motives,” she says. “Everybody knows exactly why she’s doing what she’s doing. There are no hidden agendas. She’s pure in mission, honest, kind, empathetic.” She adds, “She has this extraordinary ability to meet people where they are. And I think that’s hard to do from the lofty perch of the White House. But she has never climbed up on the perch! I’ve never met anybody with quite that gift before.”
Mrs. Obama, as everyone now knows, was a political spouse who did not love campaigning and was very careful about how and when she participated in the process. Melissa Winter, the First Lady’s deputy chief of staff, the only person on her team who has been on board from the beginning, remembers Mrs. Obama’s evolution during that 2008 campaign: first living rooms in Iowa and New Hampshire “with eighteen people sitting cross-legged on the floor.” Then backyards, then community centers, then gymnasiums. As the crowds grew, so did Mrs. Obama’s confidence. “The moment when I realized she’s bigger than all of us,” says Winter, “is when we were at the convention in Denver and she gave that really pivotal speech where she introduced herself to the country and she introduced her husband. That was when I realized this woman has such a presence and she has such a grace about her. The only thing practiced about her was how hard she worked on her speech.” When I was in the First Lady’s office one morning, I could not help noticing that a teleprompter was set up in the corner for rehearsal sessions. “She really pours herself into them,” says Winter. “I think she enjoys it now.”
I will take the same approach leaving as I did coming in. I won’t know until I’m there. I’ve never been the former First Lady of the United States of America before
The most demanding part of being First Lady, it turns out, is emotional. “I have to be in tune,” says Mrs. Obama. “All the time. I have to be in tune with my husband, where he is, how he’s feeling. I have to be in tune with where my family is. The same thing is true in the work that I do. It’s all about me feeling where people are. So that’s why I try to be really present, even when I’m on a rope line. I never take for granted my interactions with people. And it’s never black-and-white. I’m usually reading the crowd, reading the people that I’m with. I guess if this role has changed me, it’s improved my ability to do that. I’ve gotten better at sensing where people are at any given time.”
It’s a Monday afternoon in mid-September, and the First Lady, wearing dark greenish-gray jeans, Converse low-tops, and a Raquel Allegra top, is rehearsing a bit with Ellen DeGeneres before cohosting a full hour of her talk show. “Here are some tough issues facing the country today,” says Ellen. “I want to get the White House’s official position on these.” She then brings up a series of the least pressing issues imaginable. “Is it pop or soda?” “Toilet paper: Under or over?” But when she gets to “Twizzlers or Red Vines?” Mrs. Obama reveals a little something about her highly controlled life. “I know what a Twizzler is,” the First Lady says, “but what’s a Red Vine?” There’s some back-and-forth about what distinguishes the two red licorices, and then Mrs. Obama says to Ellen, “You don’t know what they are. We need clarity!” Finally she chooses Twizzlers but then looks over at Tina Tchen, who is seated in the front row. “Unless politically I shouldn’t. . . .” Both are correct, says Tina, playing along. “My people will decide which one I prefer,” Mrs. Obama says. Everyone cracks up. “That is my life!”
Between takes, Ellen blasts her favorite songs, mostly seventies R&B, soul, and funk—and Mrs. Obama seems to know the lyrics to every one, singing along to herself with her eyes closed while someone touches up her makeup or a techie fusses over her mic. At one point, she and Ellen sing the Salt-N-Pepa song “Shoop” to each other, a tune with complex wordplay that is more than a little racy. Music, Mrs. Obama tells me, “is my best de-stresser in life. The times when Barack and I are at our most relaxed are when we invite some friends over who we have known forever. And you put a little music on top of that? Some good food? It renews your spirit to get back in the game.”
The taping is a huge success, and Ellen seems to be only half kidding afterward when she tries to get Mrs. Obama to sign a “contract” saying that “if you ever decide to do a talk show, you will do it with me.” Mrs. Obama looks at the “contract” and says, “What’s all this? This is not even real.” She pauses like a pro to let the audience laugh. “I am a lawyer!” Later I ask the First Lady if she did any acting as a kid. “Gosh. I don’t know. I think back to the little . . . it was called the Operetta Workshop, in the basement of the Woodlawn AME Church, where we would put on plays, put on operas. We did some plays in a school auditorium until maybe I was eight years old. But let me just say this: That was the extent of my . . . theatrical training.” She laughs. “You know, it’s the silliness in me. It has always been there. I love to make people laugh. It comes from my family. My family is funny. People sit around and play the dozens. My father—he was a storyteller. If you met any of my uncles, my cousins, everybody’s a ham and can talk for hours, everybody’s got a little sarcasm, they’ve got a little edge.”
She has that edge. She is skilled at the good-natured put-down, and she likes to tease people, not least of all her husband. I had also heard from someone that you might not want to get into an argument with her. When I bring this up to Valerie Jarrett, she looks at me over the top of her glasses and says, “It’s hard work. I’ve tried it.” Mrs. Obama sheepishly concedes, “It’s a tough place, our household. We’re pretty competitive, We’re all opinionated. I’m talking from Grandma on down, so, yeah, if that’s not in your personality, I can be a bit much. Because I get worked up about stuff. I can kinda go: And then. And another thing. Sometimes my team is like, ‘OK, reel that back in and settle down.’ But when I get on a point—‘Well, why are we doing this?’—I will beat a dead horse. They’re like: ‘OK! We get it. You don’t want to do it!’ ” She lets out a big, deep chuckle. “’Nuff said.”
White House protocol dictates where the portraits of the First Ladies hang. The most recent former First Lady gets pride of place, at the east end of the Ground Floor Corridor. So when Michelle Obama’s portrait earns that spot sometime next year, all of the others will be moved one space to the west. Presumably, should Hillary prevail (this story went to press just prior to the election), Bill Clinton’s portraits will eventually hang in the White House in two places: upstairs on the State Floor, as president, and a new one that will replace Mrs. Obama’s, which will move down the line, further into history. And who will Michelle Obama be then?
“I will take the same approach leaving as I did coming in,” she says. “I won’t know until I’m there. I’ve never been the former First Lady of the United States of America before.” She thinks for a moment. “But I will always be engaged in some way in public service and public life. The minute I left my corporate-law firm to work for the city, I never looked back. I’ve always felt very alive using my gifts and talents to help other people. I sleep better at night. I’m happier. So we’ll look at the issues that I’ve been working on. The question is: How do I engage in those issues from a new platform? I can’t say right now, because we can’t spend that much time really doing the hard work of vetting offers or ideas or options because we’re still closing things out here.” She laughs. “We’re still in full implement mode. Doesn’t it feel that way? You’ve been with me for a month. Don’t feel like anyone’s lettin’ me slow down.”
One of the more tantalizing things about the Obamas’ immediate future is that they are going to live in Washington, D.C., until Sasha finishes high school in a couple of years. Jarrett is going to “stick around for a bit,” too, she says. “My daughter just moved here.” She points out that Mrs. Obama already has “a life outside this bubble. She has developed really good friendships with people in D.C. who have nothing to do with the administration. It’s harder for [the president] to do that. But I think that what works about them is that wherever they are, they figure it out. And they make it good and they make it fun and they make it make sense. I do think that whoever the president’s successor is, they need not worry about having a second president in Washington. I think that they take it from President George W. Bush’s playbook in that you’ve had your time and it’s up. So you’re not going to see her on MSNBC as a commentator. That I can assure you.”
As our interview in the Blue Room slips past the hour mark, I tell Mrs. Obama that she has been described as both brave and cautious. Are they mutually exclusive? “I would say I’m strategic. I really do think that’s the word. If I push back against something that somebody asked me to do, it’s less out of caution and more out of ‘What are we doing this for? Is this a good use of my time?’”
I mention that Jarrett described her fashion choices as brave. A deeply skeptical look furrows her brow. “Yeah, no . . . I don’t think about it like that. It all boils down to comfort level: If I’m going to make you comfortable, then I have to be comfortable first. So my first reaction isn’t ‘Who made this?’ But ‘Let’s try it on. What does it look like? Oooh, that’s cute. Oh, wow. I never thought of wearing something like this. Let’s put a belt on it. I feel gooood in this.’ There are definitely designers that I love, people I love to work with. And who they are as people matters. Are they good people? Do they treat their staff well? Do they treat my staff well? Are they young? Can I give them a boost? But! When all of that is equal . . . is it cute?!”
That Gucci map dress you wore on Ellen sure looked good, I say.
“Well, that was a cute dress!” she says. “That’s how I felt in it! I put it on and I thought, This is so cute!” A few moments later, we stand up and a photographer appears to take our picture. Do we look cute? I ask, and the First Lady says, “Well, I know I look cute because this dress is smokin’!” She hugs me not once but three times, and it reminds me of something she said about advice she gave those students at Howard: Have fun, make friends, play music, and have a party in your dorm room. Don’t take it all so seriously.
“I always touch people,” she says, “because I know that there’s a level of anxiety, people are teary or they’re nervous, and I just try to physically hold them and bring them down and say: ‘We’re here. I’m just Michelle.’ I want them to be able to walk away from that moment feeling like it meant something to them. And if they’re too nervous, if it feels too . . . formal, people can’t breathe.” She pauses for moment. “So that’s what I try to do with my interactions: a hug, a touch. It’s like music. It’s like friendship.”