Code name: Renaissance.
How apropos that first lady Michelle Obama’s Secret Service code sums up her life and persona perfectly. She is indeed a Renaissance woman in that she is accomplished, refined, has far-ranging talents and seemingly does it all: (working) mother, loving wife, dutiful daughter. Twice-Ivy League-educated lawyer and slayer of fashion all day, every day; genuine, down to earth, accessible, determined, compassionate; opener of the White House and a solitary black woman essentially holding the country down because she is holding our commander in chief down.
In the time that President Barack Obama has been in office, Michelle Obama has maintained an overall likability rating of over 70 percent (even when her husband’s has slipped under 40)—their favorability in the stratosphere, of course, for black folk. Like her husband, who rode into office in 2009 as our sepia-toned working-class version of Camelot, Michelle Obama can do no wrong.
In the fourth installment of His Lasting Legacy, a look back over this final year of the Obama administration, we turn away for a bit from the president and take a closer look at his wife. We spoke to two authors who penned books on Michelle Obama and who have covered the first lady and her husband’s historic rise to the highest office in the land. Both writers have seen Michelle Obama up close and personal and witnessed her evolution from a working mother of two young girls in the Midwest to the lady of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Allison Samuels, author of the 2013 tome on the first lady, What Would Michelle Do? A Modern-Day Guide to Living With Substance and Style, offers that perhaps Michelle Obama’s greatest gift is about her ability to “pull back” yet still manage to maintain her sense of self.
“With Michelle, you see that there’s more there than she’s showing,” says Samuels. “You can see she’s charming and talented and smart. Just as smart as [President Obama] is. I think she understood how to pull back just enough without losing too much of herself. In our lifetime, to see how you balance all those things as a woman, and support your man, and support your children, and take care of your mother. She’s doing it all. … And looks fashionable doing it. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that done so well in such a public space.”
For biographer Peter Slevin, author of the 2015 PEN Literary Award-nominated biography Michelle Obama: A Life, the first lady is the most intentional of all the first ladies in that she went in knowing exactly what she wanted to do, and then executed.
“She was much more purposeful and much more methodical in developing her agenda then we’re accustomed to seeing,” says Slevin. “All first ladies have had significant projects to which they attached their name, yet she was more ambitious in doing meaningful work than her modern predecessors. She was more determined to make a difference in more disciplined and creative ways, and she’s really determined to make a difference.”
Mom in Chief
From the very beginning of the Obama administration, Michelle Obama made a decision to put family first. She brought her mother, Marian Robinson, into the White House and made sure her daughters remained as humble and as normal as one can be while living in the bubble that is the White House.
She also remains the president’s “true north.”
“Michelle Obama always says what she thinks. That the president can rely on her to tell him what’s going on,” explains Slevin. “Valerie Jarrett said she doesn’t sugarcoat her perspective, or dance around the issues; she calls it like she sees it. Although she chooses her moments.”
“She understood exactly what she was going to do the moment he won the election. That she was going to be first mom in charge, which is what she said, and she was going to support [the president],” says Samuels. “She understood any missteps that she made was going to impact him more so than any other first lady. She was very clear on what her boundaries needed to be, and she has stayed true to them this whole time.”
There was some critique from traditionally white, upper-middle-class feminist corners (summarily dismissed by some) when this Ivy League-educated lawyer announced that her first priority as first lady would be providing a safe space for her daughters by working three days a week and holding her husband down from behind the scenes. In the face of these criticisms, Obama kept it moving.
“Feminists said, ‘Mom in chief. Are you kidding me? This woman who went to Princeton and Harvard Law, and she had a 20-year career, and she’s talking about being mom in chief?’ But like seemingly all things that she considers, Michelle Obama brought her own interpretation of feminism to the equation, including the right to own your own choices. And she is making them,” says Slevin. “A very considered, kind of, smorgasbord of choices.”
“I think she’s this woman who’s very focused and clear on what’s important in life,” says Samuels. “That sounds cliché, but it really isn’t. Particularly not in that world, where you can get taken off track so easily. She’s focused.”