Nine years later, Michelle Obama ends her time as First Lady as one of the most popular political figures in recent memory. So it’s worth looking back on those fears, both to take the measure of her accomplishments and as a reminder of a certain national capacity for blindness. In a recent interview with Vogue, she said that, as a teen-ager on the South Side of Chicago, she had been told at school that she wasn’t “Princeton material.” During that first campaign, Obama, a graduate of Princeton and of Harvard Law, heard that she was not First Lady material. She was “angry,” “abrasive,” “nontraditional,” too big, too black, not someone Americans were “ready” for—not a lady, like Cindy McCain, the wife of her husband’s eventual Republican rival. When, in February of 2008, in a rare misstep, Obama said that her husband’s success in the early primaries had meant that “for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is really making a comeback,” Mrs. McCain let it be known that she would never say such a thing. Following an event at which Michelle joked about Barack’s breakfast-making skills, Maureen Dowd wrote, in the Times, “Many people I talked to afterward found Michelle wondrous. But others worried that her chiding was emasculating.”
Sometimes, the message came in the form of a hint, but often it came in an outright slur. Future scholars of American conspiracy theories may be puzzled by the bizarre case of the “Whitey tape.” In the spring of 2008, there were widespread, and false, rumors of a video in which Michelle, furious (or whining, or scheming, or smug), used that word to incite a black audience and promised racial revenge. Referring to the tape, the Republican operative Roger Stone told Fox News, “I believe a network has it.” Stone later became an adviser to Donald Trump. While the birther movement, which Trump championed, painted Barack Obama as foreign, there was an effort to confine Michelle to a very American place: the ghetto.
There were echoes of that assumption even when the intent was to praise her. “Michelle Obama is by now so well assimilated that she can wear a dress and pearls that are photocopies of the clothes and jewels worn by Jackie Kennedy—and pull it off with grace and panache,” Newsweek observed in March, 2008, as if being a facsimile would, for someone like Obama, be the pinnacle of success. After eight years in which she has been acclaimed as an author of style, that sounds absurd.
The Kennedy name also evoked the familiar fear that “he might get hurt.” Barack Obama had to confront African-Americans’ reluctance to vote for him in the primaries out of a belief that the nomination would make him an assassination target. (He received Secret Service protection earlier than the other candidates.) Before the South Carolina primary, Michelle was deployed, in part, to reassure black voters that it was a threat the family was ready to face. What she conveyed was that the campaign was an exercise not in potential martyrdom but in hopeful exuberance.
Her success in the White House has had as much to do with her comfort with herself as with what might be her central precept: never believe that there is a room you have no right to walk into. It’s a message that she has delivered in speeches at historically black colleges and in her mentorship of girls. It has also come across in her work, with Jill Biden, to support military families. As the stages got bigger, Obama’s oratory became more dominant and yet, at the same time, more intimate. In one of her enduring speeches, given at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she revisited her fears that the Presidency would change her husband. What she had realized, she said, was that power doesn’t change who you are—“it reveals who you are.”
In her case, it revealed, by way of “Carpool Karaoke,” what it’s like to drive around with a First Lady singing “Get Ur Freak On.” Her cool seems effortless, though her control of it is precise. Her iconoclasm gains strength from its fusion with irreproachability. She has been cheerfully scrupulous about White House traditions and rituals, including such niceties as designing what will be known as the Obama China. The trim color is Kailua Blue, an homage to the waters off Honolulu, where her husband grew up. She brought out the new china for tea with Melania Trump, two days after the election. “Melania liked Mrs. O a lot!” President-elect Trump tweeted afterward. Indeed, Melania, in her Convention speech, had photocopied Michelle.
In Council Bluffs, Obama said, “I don’t want my girls to live in a country, in a world based on fear.” At the time, Malia was nine; Sasha was six. Obama was still imagining what the future held for her daughters, and for the daughters of all Americans, when she said, in a speech in October, that Trump’s comments about women had “shaken me to my core.” She became one of Hillary Clinton’s most tireless advocates in the final weeks of the campaign. Given the outcome, there may be something melancholy about the echoes of the Iowa speech in the pleas she made to voters, urging them not to give in to the fears that Trump’s candidacy thrived on. Perhaps they did. But no one should doubt that Michelle Obama’s courage has left an indelible mark. Her time as First Lady changed this country and clarified its vision. And she has been one of the revelations.
Author: Amy Davidson