September 2008

Obama's Better Half

Michelle masters the art of change while staying exactly the same  by Annie Gilbar / illustration by Mats Gustafson

Michelle Obama

It turns out she’s just a real girl. Or woman. Always has been. But the times they are a-changin’, and no matter what happens in November, she won’t be the same—or maybe she will. Michelle Obama, 44, still has the same friends she has had all her life, including her best friend, her mother, Marian Robinson. She is a mom first, but also a professional, and as everyone now knows, an Ivy League graduate, a really big deal for a girl from the South Side of Chicago.

She is deeply in love with her husband, in a way women can identify with: She loves his strengths, supports his work and his dreams and doesn’t put up with any nonsense. Regardless of the fact that her husband is running for president—and that, of course, has had a huge impact on her—she is pretty much the same person she’s always been.

Annie Gilbar: I am certain you think about your dad not being here to see what has happened in your life. I lost my dad before my children were born, and I know from a conversation I had with Senator Obama that the tragedy of his life is not that his mother did not live to see him run for president but that she did not live to see your girls, Malia and Natasha. Do you think of your father as these days go by and the girls are exposed to this new life?
Michelle Obama: I think of my dad every day—every single day. I think of him when I look at my girls, when I’m with my family and throughout this experience—as I have through major decisions in my life. I constantly hear his voice in the back of my head, and I often wonder, in all I’m doing, if he would be proud of me. It’s his work ethic, his strength—even when multiple sclerosis took control of his body—his love that had the biggest impact on me. And I miss him every day.

AG: I know your mother quit her job to help you with the girls.
MO: My mother is amazing. She is really my rock. I am so lucky to have her living five minutes away from us and willing and able to stay with the girls when Barack and I are on the road.

AG: Your girlfriends. I know my girlfriends are my source of strength, and my life is so much less complex than yours. What part do your women friends play? How do you communicate? Do they help you get through this time, enjoy what is happening and allow you to share both the good and the not so great?
MO: My best friend has always been and will always be my mother. Barack and I would not be able to balance raising the girls and being out on the campaign trail if it weren’t for her. She is with them during the few days a week I’m on the road—she is the kind of quality and reliable childcare every family needs, and there’s nothing like grandma for that big hug and that extra little piece of candy. She knows and understands me as well as anybody in my life. I can always call her when I need anything—big or small.

Despite the whirlwind of attention, our lives have not changed drastically. My friendships have remained the same and are as strong as ever. My girlfriends have always played an important role for me, as a source of strength and advice—and as a community in which we all raise our kids and learn from one another. We still have potlucks, go out to lunch and chat on the phone, when I’m at home or on the road.

AG: It is obvious to me, watching you in public with the girls, that discipline combined with enormous love, truthfulness, openness and a sense of humor are all part of the example you set for your girls. What is your philosophy on parenting? Is there a set of rules you live by? And has it changed now that your life is so complicated, or can you stick to what you believe you need to do?
MO: Above all, Barack and I really want to instill a sense of confidence in the girls and teach them they really can achieve anything. We want them to dream without limits. And that’s what has been so wonderful about this campaign—they’ve seen their father and a woman, Hillary Clinton, campaign to be president of the United States, so they and others of their generation can go through life with a sense of possibility that generations before them never had.

Barack and I have worked hard to help our girls feel independent. We really encourage them to think for themselves, and they do. They really take the core set of values they’ve learned and apply them to their everyday choices.

My oldest, Malia, does her homework each night—no one tells her to do it. She has her schedule, she knows what she has to do during the week, and she knows that if she has drama or another activity that will run late into the evening, she’ll figure out how to get her work done for the week. You know, I think that’s where discipline comes in early on, because she’s 10, but she knows how to manage her time.

AG: Because of the long campaign, have you changed what you used to do in any way that impacts your parenting philosophy?
MO: No, not really. The girls are used to their father being in politics and being on the road, so our parenting philosophy really hasn’t changed at all over the last year and a half.

AG: How do you find time to be with your husband—-just the two of you? I know that must be even more important than ever. Has the way you spend time with each other changed? How do you make sure you get it, and what do you do together?
MO: Barack and I have always loved to go out on dates. When he’s home, we’ll still go out to dinner or see a movie—usually one or the other, because we’re too tired to do both! When we’re able to spend time as a family, we like to go on walks, visit parks and parades, go swimming or see a movie, or we’ll do something at home, like make dinner together or play games. Our family time is precious to us.

AG: I’m sure the reality has hit that you are just beginning a life that will mean being front and center in the public eye almost all the time. What does that mean to you? How will you keep it all together?
MO: Well, as much as I’m in the public eye, out there campaigning for Barack, my first and most important role is being a mom. I’m on the road maybe two or three times a week, and I only spend one night out of town. So it’s not as if I’m out there giving speeches and hosting events each and every day. I’m still able to have time to myself.

AG: One of the most impressive things you have said is that if you were First Lady, it would prove what an investment in public education can produce. I, too, am a product of the public-education system. Is it your dream to make quality public education available to all children in our country?
MO: I am the product of a public education, and I think that all kids who are willing to work hard deserve the opportunity to attend quality public schools and the university of their choice. A quality education is something every child should be guaranteed, regardless of where they come from, how much money their family has or the color of their skin. As president, Barack will ensure that all of our children are given this fundamental right and opportunity.

AG: Is it daunting to think of what goals you will prioritize when you get to Washington? You are a graduate of Harvard, probably the best law school in this country. How will that education help you as First Lady?
MO: Well, as I’ve been traveling the country, I’ve been holding roundtables with working women over the last year and a half. The conversations we have are something I would want to continue in an Obama White House. I love working with people—doing something, putting myself out there, really touching people and listening. Making a difference in people’s lives. That’s where my personal happiness comes from.

AG: You and the senator took cuts in pay, many times, to work in the public sector. What inspired you to do that, and how do you carry that message to others?
MO: My parents always encouraged me to do what made me happy. I learned early on in my professional career that corporate America really wasn’t for me. I wanted to do more for the people who needed my help the most. Barack has always carried with him a rare sense of compassion, and you see that in the career choices he’s made—turning down a career on Wall Street to move to the South Side of Chicago and help lift up neighborhoods devastated by steel-plant closings, teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and running for office to repair our broken political system that has failed so many Americans over the last eight years.

I think the excitement that his campaign has generated and the interest in Barack’s story have really inspired people to take a second look at their choices and follow their hearts. When people do what makes them happy, it translates into everything they do and sort of becomes contagious. And seeing someone like Barack, who has dedicated so much of his life to public service, really paints a positive picture for young people deciding whether they’ll take a job in the classroom or on Wall Street.

AG: When you and the senator made the decision for him to run (which you have always said you did together), what was that conversation?<
MO: Well, after I got over my initial reaction, which was to say, “No!” the conversation turned immediately to the girls and how this would affect them—how it would affect our family. But when I took a step back and considered the qualities I wanted in a president, for myself and my daughters, I knew I had to do whatever I could to make sure Barack Obama is our next president of the United States.

AG: My guess is the senator believes his nomination was a joint achievement for both of you. Is that true? Do you think so?
MO: Barack is the candidate, and I’m so proud of the way he’s run this race, kept his cool and stayed true to himself. But this is not just his achievement. We’ve come so far, and it’s the result of the incredible hard work and dedication of our campaign team across the country and the tens of thousands of volunteers and supporters who have joined this movement for change.

AG: If your husband weren’t running for office, would you have run? Why him and not you?
MO: There are many ways I’m interested in giving back to my community—I ran an AmeriCorps program earlier in my career, and I’m focused on being a good mom. In our relationship, Barack is the person with the passion to run for office.

AG: We all lament the lack of basic manners in both adults and children. Do you focus on teaching your girls manners, and which are most important to you?<
MO: I think there’s a lack of respect and compassion in today’s society. We’ve always taught the girls the importance of respect for others. It’s really the same thing Barack talks about on the campaign trail—we may have differences with one another on various issues, but the key is to listen and have enough respect to find the common ground.

AG: I thought it was so interesting that Laura Bush came to your defense when you were criticized. Did you contact her? Were you surprised?<
MO: I was really touched by her thoughtfulness. It was wonderful to hear her perspective, since she has gone through this already. Laura takes a balanced, calm and cool approach to the issues, which is why I think so many people like her. I sent her a little thank-you note.

AG: You’ve promised the girls you would buy them a dog in the White House. Do they have a special breed in mind?
MO: Malia is pretty allergic, so our search has been limited to dogs that won’t aggravate her allergies. We’re looking at a few breeds—all hypoallergenic, of course!

AG: Do you spend time thinking about what you’d want to do if you’re in the White House? Can you get excited about planning dinner menus?
MO: If we have the honor and opportunity to be in the White House, my primary focus will be making sure the girls are happy and healthy and settled. After that, there are a number of issues that are close to my heart, stemming from my career and my experience on the campaign trail—including national service and discussions with women on work-life balance.

For now, I’m approaching things one day at a time, and the only menu I’m worried about is what to bring for the girls’ potluck at the end of camp. The other parents have been very kind about assigning me paper products during the campaign—and I’m grateful for that!

AG: Do you think you will be able to “green” up the White House?
MO: Well, I haven’t made any plans for the White House just yet, but I do know there are plenty of things that can be done, like changing the light bulbs, buying organic and supporting local food suppliers when possible.

AG: The “clotheshorse” stuff—do you get a kick out of people thinking you are such a style maven? Did you ever think you were before all the brouhaha?
MO: You know, while I love fashion, I don’t have a lot of time to think about it. It’s flattering to be called a fashion icon, but it’s also pretty funny—because I really just wear what makes me comfortable. I have a little of everything. I’ve had a lot of occasions this year to get dressed up, particularly for election nights throughout the primary season, but I spend most of my time with the girls—at home, on the soccer field, running errands—in stuff you can throw on and get dirty, and you don’t have to lose your mind because you got a spot on it.

AG: If you ever find yourself with free alone time, what do you do?
MO: I love to exercise. For me, it’s more than just physical; it’s therapeutic. Just to take an hour for myself is something I try to do at least three times a week—as often as I can, really. I think too often women juggling work, family and so much more overlook investing in themselves because there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I often wish there was a machine to make two more of me so I could be everywhere I felt I needed to be at once.

That’s one of the things I talk about when I meet women on the campaign trail: the importance of wholeness, diet and nutrition—really taking care of yourself and, whenever we can, putting ourselves higher on our to-do lists. The benefits go beyond physical—the mental benefits of exercise are important, because the sanity I seek isn’t just for myself, it’s for my entire family. The strength of a community is often directly related to the strength of its women, and we need to make sure we’re providing families the resources they need to not only survive but thrive.

AG: Is music a part of your life? What’s on your playlist, and when are you able to listen?
MO: Music is a big part of my life. My favorite artist is Stevie Wonder—hands down. Barack and I actually walked down the aisle to “You and I.” These days, the girls really dictate the music on in the car—so there’s a lot of Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers. In fact, on Malia’s 10th birthday, we all had a little impromptu dance party with the girls’ cousins in our hotel room in Butte, Montana.

AG: The senator has said he watches SportsCenter and The Wire. I like Prison Break, Brothers & Sisters and Mad Men—strange mix, huh? What do you watch on television? And can you really get out to movies anymore?
MO: I love HGTV. Our team has found ourselves on the campaign bus with ESPN on for the boys in one section and HGTV or the Food Network on where the female staff is gathered. And, of course, if the girls are on the bus, it’s all Hannah Montana and SpongeBob.

We’ve only seen kid movies recently. Barack and I took the girls to see Wall-E.

AG: What was your dream when you were young? You know, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
MO: I wanted to be a pediatrician. Go figure.

ANNIE GILBAR is the Editor in Chief of LA, Los Angeles Times Magazine.