Michelle Obama Leaves a Legacy Beyond Race
Michelle Obama embraced the traditional role of first lady in a most non-traditional way, using social media and the power of her personality to make her mark on how Americans eat and exercise – and how young women, in particular, view and value their potential.
It was a deliberate move for a woman whose legacy was established before she set foot inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: She was the first African-American first lady in U.S. history.
Entering the White House in 2009 at the age of 45, she went from a reluctant occupant who considered staying back in Chicago while her children finished out the school year to a passionate advocate for causes she cared about and a fiery campaigner for her husband’s successor.
“Whatever pressure she had was all psychological,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian at the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio. But he added, “I don’t think she set limitations on herself. It was really well planned from the beginning.”
As the first African-American first lady, the pressure must have been enormous but Michelle Obama rarely showed cracks in her facade. She seemed to fly above the problems other women thrust into the bright spotlight have faced in recent years. She never saw her weight become an issue, as happened with Kate Middleton. Her work life didn’t become a target, as it did for Cherie Blair. Her issue advocacy never caused her husband problems the way Hillary Clinton’s health care policy proposals did for Bill Clinton.
There were the very occasional slips – such as the 2013 interview when she called herself “a busy single mother” before quickly correcting herself. But these slips were newsworthy mainly because they were so rare.
Instead she let her causes speak for her. There was criticism that came with that approach. Some felt she wasn’t feminist enough or vocal enough. Others thought she wasn’t focused enough on a legislative agenda -- unlike Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush she never testified about one of her issues on Capitol Hill.
“She used other powerful tools to get her message across,” said Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush and now directs the First Ladies Initiative at American University. “She used the media. She used social media. She used non-traditional methods of communicating and getting her message out to the public.”
She rarely talked directly about poverty or race but she spoke volumes through her actions. She tackled childhood obesity through her “Let’s Move!” program and graduation rates through her Reach Higher Initiative and Let Girls Learn programs – two areas that impact minorities and needy families the most.
Mrs. Obama didn’t speak out about gun violence, but when a 15-year-old girl who performed at her husband’s second inauguration was shot in Chicago, she attended the funeral. She didn’t give a eulogy but her quiet presence spoke volumes.
The first lady also started a mentoring program for disadvantaged school girls – meeting with them in her office at the White House. It was another quiet outreach on her part – not much publicized -- but one important to her.
“I spend meaningful time with these girls,” Mrs. Obama told Vogue magazine.
And, with her eight years as the nation’s most high-profile spouse coming to an end, her legacy will be more than simply this nation’s latest “first.”
“She was the first African-American first lady and that was apparent anytime anyone saw a photo of her and that just became a part of the general consciousness. It almost faded in its importance,” Anthony said.
All this is embedded in the fibers of who Michelle Obama is and where she came from.
Born Michelle Robinson on January 17, 1964 in the South Side of Chicago to working-class parents descended from slaves, she was diligently studious, earning good enough grades to get into a magnet school that required a long bus ride across town twice a day.
“At 6 a.m. every morning I had to get on a city bus and ride for an hour, sometimes more, just to get to school,” she told students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
She recounted to the class how some of her teachers thought she set her sights too high when she dreamed of going to Princeton.
“I used that negativity to fuel me, to keep me going, and in the end, I got into Princeton, and that was one of the proudest days of my life,” she recalled.
“I am here today because I want you to know that my story can be your story,” Obama emphasized to those Bell Multicultural students. “The details might be a little different, but so many of the challenges and triumphs will be just the same.”
And that has been the core of her message throughout her time in the White House, using her rise from humble roots to first lady of the land to demonstrate to children that anything is possible.
Advisers to Obama cited a 2009 trip to London, when she spoke to girls at an inner-city school there, as a moment she realized the power that came with her position. The students greeted her like a rock star and, at times, she fought back tears as she spoke to them.
“I want you to know that we have very much in common,” she said.
“For nothing in my life’s path would have predicted that I would be standing here as the first lady of the United States of America. There was nothing in my story that would land me here. I wasn’t raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of.”
Then she gave the message she would reiterate throughout her tenure: “If you want to know the reason why I’m standing here, it’s because of education. I loved getting A’s. I liked being smart. I loved being on time. I loved getting my work done. I thought being smart was cooler than anything in the world.”
When she entered the White House in January 2009, her focus was her own two girls. She made it clear to aides from the beginning that Malia and Sasha, who were 10 and 7 at the time, came first. She traveled less and did fewer events than her predecessors in order to spend more time with them.
When she did invest her time and energy in a project, she wanted to, as she has put it, “move the needle.” She is famous for being on schedule and judicious with her time, wanting to be used where she can have an impact.
And she has – the White House garden, healthy eating, Let’s Move!, veterans and military families, childhood obesity, and education have all come to the forefront, thanks to her efforts.
While these are traditional issues for the first lady, she has used modern ways to promote them: doing a potato sack race with Jimmy Fallon, dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, appearing on “The Biggest Loser,” utilizing various forms of social media, and simply going to schools and working out with kids.
Her eight years in the White House have also been scandal-free – no small accomplishment in today’s toxic “gotcha” political environment. During the mudslinging, scandal-filled 2016 election, she remained untargeted. Even Donald Trump, who is not one to mince words, didn’t attack her, despite her frequent – though veiled -- barbs aimed at him.
First ladies are usually off-limits, as Anita McBride noted, but Trump seldom obeyed convention. His calculation seems to have been two-fold. One, the first lady was gracious when Melania Trump plagiarized Mrs. Obama’s 2008 convention speech. Two, the first lady is popular—and there’s little to be gained by going after her. She leaves the White House one of the most popular first ladies in history, as her approval rating has never dropped below 60 percent.
Naturally the question is what she will do with that popularity. What comes next for Michelle Obama, who is expected to be in wide demand?
“It’s time for us to tap out for a second,” she told People magazine. “There are already calls and requests to come and speak and do things. And if we’re not careful we can be just as busy as we are this week.”
She isn’t offering details. Her friends, advisers, staff and former staff are equally mum about what she will do. Obama adviser and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett provided some ideas, saying the couple will travel and make speeches.
“I think they’ll have plenty to do without having to be in the headlines, which I don’t think they intend to do,” Jarrett said recently at a Politico event.
Obama is expected to write a book (or two) and give speeches. One literary agent estimated to Vanity Fair that the first lady would be able to earn about $100,000 per speaking engagement, while sources in the publishing industry told the New York Times she could get a $10 million advance for her memoirs.
She has also said she wants to continue her Let’s Move initiative. One thing she is not expected do is run for public office, a la Hillary Clinton. After the election in November, when she was giving a speech at the White House on issue of veterans' homelessness, someone in the audience yelled, "Run for president!"
Mrs. Obama laughed and pointed a finger, saying: "You be quiet back there."
She has also ensured that a part of her will remain at the White House long after she is gone. In October she unveiled a larger version of her White House garden, which will become a permanent part of the grounds, thanks to $2.5 million in private funding and a deal with the National Park Service.
There is even a memorial paving stone: “WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN GARDEN, established in 2009 by First Lady Michelle Obama with the hope of growing a healthier nation for our children.”
In her remarks at its dedication, she noted: “This garden has taught us that if we have the courage to plant a seed, just be brave enough to plant it, then take care of it, water it, tend to it, invite friends to help us take care of it, weather the storms that inevitably come, if we have the courage to do that, we never know what might grow. Now that's what this garden has taught me, to be fearless in those efforts, to try some new things, to not be afraid to mess up. Things we tell our kids all the time.”
And that is the message that has been with Michelle Obama all her life.
“So often she spoke about the young girl that was Michelle Robinson,” historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony said. “It was almost like … wherever she went, there was this ghost of her younger self always keeping her honest. In a way, she was almost always pinching herself and I think that was a really key thing to her success and happiness.”