By Kate Andersen Brower
She was never a political person, so although she enjoyed the perks of the job, she's also ready for a more "normal" life. When Michelle Obama walks out of the White House for the last time as first lady on Jan. 20, 2017, she undoubtedly will breathe a sigh of relief. The Obamas will head to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony and the formal handover of the presidency to the new first family in what Lady Bird Johnson — Michelle’s predecessor nearly 50 years ago — called “the great quadrennial American pageant.” The first lady will be saying good-bye to the butlers and maids her family has grown to love and to the incredible platform she had in the White House, but she will also be released from the stresses and strains that accompany life there. And she will be free to speak her mind.
While researching my book, First Women, in 2015, I interviewed friends and advisers to the Obamas who told me that Michelle and the president were already eager to leave. “They’re ready, they’re done!” President Barack Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn said, although because Donald Trump’s win threatens Michelle's husband’s legacy, her departure now likely will be bittersweet. Part of Michelle’s eagerness to leave the White House is because, as she recently told Vogue, “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.” But part of it is her very nature: She is not a political person and she has largely resisted campaigning, which shows just how remarkable it is that she campaigned so passionately for Hillary Clinton.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Michelle Obama used her voice in a way that no other modern first lady has ever done: Spurred, in part, by her deep disdain for Donald Trump, who had anointed himself the de facto leader of the so-called birther movement, she became the single most effective surrogate for Hillary Clinton, who was once her husband’s political rival. At the Democratic National Convention, the first lady introduced a slogan that would resonate with men and women across the country — “When they go low, we go high” — and in October, she gave an impassioned speech denouncing Trump’s response to a leaked video tape that showed the Republican nominee using vulgar language to describe sexual assault. Without mentioning his name, the first lady said his demeaning words had “shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.” Her disgust was palpable: “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman,” she said near tears. “It is cruel. It is frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts.” Because she is not an avid campaigner or an office seeker herself, her message resonated even more with voters.
Growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side, Michelle was uneasy at first being surrounded by so many White House residence staffers who are there to serve the first family’s every need, from one administration to the next. One of the first times she met Chief Usher Admiral Stephen Rochon, who ran the executive mansion when the Obamas moved in, she pleaded with him, “Please, call me Michelle.” He replied, to her dismay, “I can’t do that, Mrs. Obama.” Few people would call her “Michelle” ever again. (Even though there were times when staffers said they were in danger of forgetting their own rule. She was especially relaxed on long trips, one staffer told me, even occasionally offering to get staffers drinks.) As first lady, Michelle had to abandon a career she enjoyed, earning almost $275,000 a year at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she was vice president of external affairs. She had been the breadwinner in the Obama family — in fact, living in the White House is the first time she was unemployed in her adult life — and it was Michelle who was her husband’s mentor when they first met. “I think that all things being equal, she would have loved to have stayed in her life in Chicago,” a former Obama staffer told me on the condition of anonymity — no Obama friend wants to make it seem like Michelle did not appreciate being first lady.
Still, Michelle joined the ranks of some of her predecessors who were not always happy about the assignment. Martha Washington called herself a “state prisoner.” Before moving into the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy proclaimed: “The one thing I do not want to be called is ‘First Lady.’ It sounds like a saddle horse.” Michelle admitted that living in the White House is like living in a “really nice prison.” Melania Trump will be added to that list: Before Trump's June 2015 announcement of his candidacy, she pleaded with him, "We have such a great life. Why do you want to do this?" Even though there was so much vitriol less than 48 hours before, the outgoing first lady and the incoming one shared tea and polite conversation in the elegant Yellow Oval Room on the second floor of the White House after Trump's victory. During their conversation, which quickly became fodder for Twitter jokes referencing the fact that part of Melania’s RNC speech was plagiarized from Michelle’s 2008 DNC one, Michelle offered Melania advice about raising their 10-year-son Barron in the White House, just as Laura Bush had offered her advice eight years earlier. It is not as simple as a sorority, but more like a complicated sisterhood of women who are married to men representing different political ideologies and who are bound together by this shared title of "first lady."
First ladies are expected to embody American womanhood: They should be perfect mothers, helpmates to their husbands, and champions of an apolitical, noncontroversial issue. There is no job description and no pay, but they are endlessly scrutinized. As the first African-American first lady, friends say, Michelle was always aware of — and often frustrated by — how much extra scrutiny she was under. When asked if Michelle turned to her predecessors for advice, Dunn told me flatly: “No, not a chance.” That is because she was so different from the women who came before her — many of them were from wealthy families, had spent years in the public eye as the wives of senators and governors, and all of them were white. She felt an extra degree of responsibility because of the historic role she played and early on during her husband’s 2008 campaign, she was surprised by the backlash caused by one particular off-the-cuff comment. “For the first time in my adult life,” she said at an event in Milwaukee, “I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” A New Yorker cover depicting her with an Afro, wearing combat boots, and a Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder while fist-bumping her husband in the Oval Office also troubled her. Years later, during a commencement at Tuskegee University in May 2015, she talked about the unfair expectations she faced. Not only was she compared to the previous first ladies, she said, she also faced a separate standard “sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
Of course, there is also an absurdity to the superficiality to the position. In Michelle’s case, there was seemingly endless discussion about her chiseled arms with how-to guides featured in fitness magazines around the world and she caused an uproar in the fashion world when she decided to wear a bold red gown from the British label Alexander McQueen to the China state dinner in 2011 instead of wearing a piece from an American designer. At a 2013 summit in Africa with Laura Bush, Michelle referenced the ridiculousness of the social media uproar sparked by her decision to get bangs: “While people are sorting through our shoes and our hair and whether we cut it or not ... whether we have bangs ... We take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see, and eventually people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we are standing in front of.”/blockquote> But Michelle’s frustrations went beyond annoyance and veered into genuine concern for her family. In her personal speech at the Democratic National Convention this year, she revealed the sacrifices and inner struggles faced by every first lady. She described the first days they lived in the White House, and what it was like watching her 7- and 10-year-old daughters leave for their first day of school and “pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns.” She laughed, “And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, What have we done?” Because of her husband’s ambition, her children were now public figures. Rosalynn Carter shared that same guilty feeling decades earlier as she watched her young daughter, Amy, put on a bulletproof vest under a small blue windbreaker during a particularly dangerous foreign trip. The Obamas worked hard to give their daughters some semblance of a normal life, even encouraging them to invite friends over for sleepovers in the Solarium, a third-floor family room in the White House. Last summer, Sasha, then 15, even worked at Nancy’s, one of the Obamas’ favorite seafood restaurants in Martha’s Vineyard. She went by her full name, Natasha, in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the job a secret. Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Michelle Obama’s first press secretary, remembers how her boss made the ground rules clear to her daughters. “While she appreciated that there are staff there to pay attention to those details, those staff are not there for the girls,” Lelyveld said.
This isn’t to say Michelle didn’t enjoy the perks of the job, including traveling on Air Force One, meeting world leaders, and trumpeting important causes. But it was the family dinners Michelle treasured most. She saw her husband more than ever once they were in the White House and they essentially “lived above the store.” She made it clear to her husband’s advisers that she expected to have a family dinner most nights at 6:30 p.m. She had a very traditional approach to being first lady — unlike Hillary Clinton, who had a West Wing office, Michelle and her girls rarely ventured into the West Wing. Incredibly, the Obamas are the first first family to turn off the lights in the living quarters themselves. “She treats it just as if it were her house,” former White House Usher Worthington White told me./blockquote> Michelle was the youngest woman to hold the position since Jacqueline Kennedy — Melania, now 46, will be two years older than Michelle was when she became first lady — and like Jackie, Michelle passionately guarded her family’s privacy in the White House. (Jackie even had tall rhododendron bushes planted along the fence along the South Lawn of the White House to block the view of photographers with long-range camera lenses.) For her part, Michelle made a small change that spoke volumes: Before the Obamas, at night, an usher would drop off a folder of work for the president on the reading table on the backside of a sofa, outside their bedroom in the family’s private living quarters. Michelle did not like that because the folder was clearly visible when they walked out of their bedroom. It made her feel like her family had no sanctuary. So she told the staff to put all of her husband’s work in his office in the Treaty Room, an office on the second floor, and all of her work in an ante office. It was clear that for Michelle, the rooms on the second and third floors of the White House were not an extension of the Oval Office — they were her family’s home. Her mother, Marian Robinson, lives in a suite on the third floor, and President Obama joked that she was the only member of the family who had the freedom to walk into a CVS without sparking attention.
The Obamas have made the rare decision to stay in Washington, D.C., after the 2016 election while Sasha finishes high school at Sidwell Friends. President George W. Bush retreated into relative seclusion in Dallas, and the Clintons chose the New York City suburb of Chappaqua to continue political life. From their leafy Kalorama neighborhood in Northwest Washington, Michelle will probably pen a memoir, as most first ladies have done. It will be the first time she will earn an income in almost a decade. In some cases, as was the case with Betty Ford, a former first lady’s autobiography can outsell her husband’s, and Michelle’s will undoubtedly be a huge best seller — her approval ratings consistently have been higher than her husband’s and either candidate's for the presidency, and she is a sought-after interview for any television show. Once she leaves the White House, she will have less to lose and will be able to be even more honest and take more risks to champion causes she truly believes in. We’ve already seen hints of this with her Tuskegee commencement address and how she forcefully took on Donald Trump during the campaign. Friends say that in their post-presidency, both she and the president will do more work around urban issues, including gun control and the My Brother’s Keeper initiative the president started to help young men of color. And after the election, it is clear that they will serve as figureheads for a badly bruised Democratic party.
One thing Michelle will not do is run for office herself. "There are three things that are certain in life: death, taxes and Michelle is not running for president," the president has said, joking, but not really. Asked by James Corden in her now-viral Carpool Karaoke segment what she’ll miss most about her eight years as first lady, Michelle did not hesitate to say the White House residence staff. The butlers, cooks, and maids became her lifeline, and she grew accustomed to their company. Many of them are African-American and for them, serving the first African-American family in the White House was an honor. Recently one butler told me, “I’m so proud of them.” And many of them will miss her dearly. “Once I remembered Michelle asked for a drink, and I had to reach down to get a glass and left my hand on the bar,” the butler recalled fondly, “All of a sudden I felt her hand pat mine. She was thanking me.”/blockquote>