Oprah Talks to First Lady Michelle Obama
In this exclusive cover story, Michelle Obama opens up about the biggest surprises of life in the White House (“If you want pie, there’s pie!), the rules she’s laid down for Malia and Sasha (“I want the kids to be treated like children, not little princesses”) and how she hopes to use “one of the best jobs in the world” to help women.
EDITED BY MICHELLE BURFORD
O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE | APRIL 2009
On the second floor of the White House, the Yellow Oval Room—part of the First Family’s private residence—offers a stunning view of the nation’s capital. The Washington Monument stretches into the heavens. The Lincoln Memorial sits above the glassy water of the Reflecting Pool. In the distance, you can see the U.S. Capitol, where the world’s attention was focused on January 20 as millions gathered to witness an event many had thought would never happen. This room is where I interviewed First Lady Michelle Obama in February, and as I gazed out the windows and took in the view, I was struck by the immense legacy she and her family have inherited. I felt the weight of history, and I understood what she means when she says, as she often does, “This is not about us.”
Yet for all the majesty of the White House, the First Lady has already infused it with a palpable ease; her presence makes the place feel open and approachable. When we sit down to talk, she seems as relaxed as she did when I first interviewed her and her husband in their Chicago apartment in 2004. “This room has the best light in the house,” she tells me as we settle in, shoes off, on a comfortable sofa. “And there’s pie here, too. The pie in the White House is dangerously good.”
The Obamas packed up their belongings in Chicago and headed for Washington in early January so 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha could get started at their new school. A few weeks later, Michelle and her mother, Marian Robinson, began settling the family into their new home. When I returned to Chicago after the inauguration, I spent the weekend thinking, I wonder what the Obamas are doing now? Later, when I was looking for some cough syrup in my medicine cabinet, I suddenly thought, Michelle never has to go out to buy cough syrup again! For the First Lady and her family, it’s a whole new reality. As we talk, she tells me how they’re adjusting—and what she’s planning to do in her awesome new role.
Oprah: I had heart palpitations coming through the White House gate, recognizing that this really is now your home. It’s the White House, and it’s your home.
Michelle Obama: And it’s a beautiful home. When you go out and come back, especially at night, with all the white lights on—it’s just beautiful. We feel privileged, and we feel a responsibility to make it feel like the people’s house. We have the good fortune of being able to sleep here, but this house belongs to America.
O: Your saying that makes me feel different than I’ve ever felt about the White House. When you say that, I actually do now, for the first time, think, “Yeah, it is the people’s house.” How did you come to understand that so clearly?
Well, I had some time to think about it, because we ran for so long…
O: The longest run anybody’s ever seen.
Right. And at some point, you start thinking about what living here would really mean. I’ve taken Barack’s mantra: This isn’t about us. There’s so much history here that no one family can claim this space as their own.
O: So when did it hit you?
I don’t think it has. Everything’s been moving at the speed of light. The whole process of transitioning here, the inauguration, all the protocol, seeing to it that the girls are doing well—I’ve really just been trying to make sure everything gets done.
O: I can’t imagine what the inauguration was like for you. For me, it felt like a moment in time that had been coming since time began.
I definitely sensed that, standing on the Capitol steps. But I would love to see a tape of what was going on down on the Mall. Because when you hear from people who were there, they talk about the emotions and the calm and the fact that you had more than a million people descending on this very small city with no incident, all love—I long to know that feeling as well.
O: What was your prayer the night before you moved into the White House?
That we stay whole as a family through this process. And when Barack and I talked, he said he wanted to get through the day with everyone intact, everyone who attended—he said he would feel good when every last visitor left safely. And fortunately that happened.
O: Every last visitor. Every train. Every bus. There were so many people. And all of them had their eyes on you. Were you in your body?
Oh, I was in it. And it was pretty cold.
O: One of my favorite moments was during the parade—the two of you getting out of the car and walking, and your arms are linked and your head is sort of on his shoulder. I loved that. But I wondered about the conversation before you got out. Did you just suddenly say, “Look, we’re going to walk for a while now”?
We were trying to see if the girls wanted to get out. They were like, “No”—they wanted to stay in the car. And while we were out, they were partying in there—when we got back in, they had the music blaring. But Barack and I felt that walking outside was a natural extension of the campaign: “Okay, we can’t come over to you, we can’t hug you—can’t do that—but we can be out here waving.” Of course, then there was a point where we felt like, “Whoa, three blocks is long.” My feet started hurting.
O: How did your feet feel at the seventh ball that night?
What a good workout, right? I just remembered that even though it was the seventh ball for me, it was the first ball for everyone there. I thought about that during the parade, too. I thought, “I’m going to stand here and cheer for every last person, because this is why they came—to walk in front of the president of the United States.”
O: Weren’t you freezing?
I was a little cube of ice. My coat had layers, but from the legs down, I was cold. I would have loved to be wearing a pair of warm, toasty boots.
O: But your shoes looked good! So after the inauguration, what was your first weekend in the White House like?
Well, we still had family here, so it was almost like a wedding. A huge, very complicated wedding. The last visitors didn’t leave until Sunday. And then the first Monday was kind of weird. You know: “Now we live here, and Barack is getting up and going to work, and it’s just us. This is our home now.” But the kids didn’t act any differently.
O: They didn’t?
No. They have been so steady and rock solid that I pinch myself sometimes. Sometimes I pinch them—are you real? Because they’ve adjusted so well. And that was always my concern: How are they going to do? How is this going to be for these little precious girls who were doing just fine in Chicago and had a happy life? But once I saw them thriving—not just living, but thriving, happy, excited about their day and very much focused on their world—that’s when I was able to breathe.
O: And how are you adjusting? What are your days like?
My day is structured so that I’m usually not working until 10 or 10:30. That gives me time to get the girls out of the house. My mom is taking them to school because it’s less of a scene for her. With all the security involved, it’s a more normal experience for them when I don’t go.
O: What do people at school call you? First Lady? Mrs. Obama?
When I introduce myself, I usually say, “Hi, I’m Michelle—Malia and Sasha’s mom.” And then when you sit down with another parent and have a conversation, all the titles melt away anyway, and you’re just talking about your kids. But to get back to your question, after I see the girls off, I usually work until 3 or 4. Then they’re back and we start in on homework. Then Dad comes home and we all have dinner. That’s the beauty of living above the office: Barack is home every day. The four of us sit down to eat as a family. We haven’t had that kind of normalcy for years. And now I can just pop over to his office, which sometimes I’ll do if I know he’s having a particularly frustrating day.
O: You pop over to the Oval Office?
Yes. I’ll just pop over and say hi. And all of this—this being together as a family—is what has made the transition easy. We have each other, in a really fundamental way.
O: What are weekends like?
We’re still getting the kids’ activities schedule straight. They’re trying to figure out what they want to do. Sasha has played basketball—
O: She’s coming up in the basketball tradition.
I know, Barack’s losing his mind. I was like, “Settle down—don’t act too excited, or she will not want to do it.”
O: And how is your mother doing? I am so impressed with her. We had a conversation right before you moved, and she said she was going to make sure you all had your dinners as a family—but that she would not be at the table.
O: When I asked her why, she said, “Because that’s Michelle’s family.”
My mom has some really wise approaches to family. But there are times when we’re like, “Mom, come down here.”
O: She originally wanted her own apartment.
And I told her, “You can live right here and never even see us if you don’t want to!”
O: She told me that the reason she decided to live here is that she didn’t want you and the president to have to pay for her to have her own place.
Oh, that’s good. We’re cheap, for sure. And I bet she said so!
O: But there is a lot of room here.
Plenty of room. There are many times when she drops off the kids, we hang out and talk and catch up, and then she’s like, “I’m going home.” And she walks upstairs.
O: Like she’s going across town. So she’s adjusting well to living in Washington?
Yes. She’s made friends, she’s had visitors, she’s been to the Kennedy Center more than I have. She was actually so busy one weekend that she forgot to check my schedule. Then she thought, “Well, maybe Michelle’s going to need me Sunday.” And I said, “Actually, yeah, the first state dinner is Sunday. But we’ll get a babysitter. Don’t worry.” [Laughter.] Pretty soon she’s going to come and say, “You know, I can’t pick those kids up, I’ve got so much going on.”
O: What’s it like to walk into a world where you have so many people available to handle your every need? You’ve gone from doing everything, managing your whole household, getting the kids off to school, picking up your own cough syrup…
Going to Target…
O: Going to Target—and now you walk into this world…
Where, if you want pie, there’s pie. If something breaks, it’s fixed. In an hour. Look, I appreciate it.
O: How many people are on the staff?
There are about 95 people who manage the residence. But I want it to feel like home, so it’s important for me to get to know the people we work with, to be able to joke with them and tease them.
O: Before you moved in, you said you wanted the girls to keep making their own beds and doing chores. Is the staff on board with that?
It took a second. At first they were like, “Are you sure?” But if these girls don’t learn how to make a bed or clean a room, what are they going to do when they go to college? It can’t be foreign to them to be part of a working household. So in the first few days, I gathered my East Wing team and the residence staff—the folks who clean the chandeliers, the people in the kitchen, everyone—and thanked them for helping us transition through the move. Then I talked about our vision for this house: that it would be filled with life, that we’d have people in and out, that the kids would roam around. I want the kids to be treated like children, not little princesses. I told everyone that they should make their beds, they should clean their plates, they should act respectfully—and that if anyone on the staff sees differently, they should come to me. So the girls help set the table, they help bring the food out, they work with the butler staff, and they’re in the kitchen laughing and making their toast in the morning. And everyone has adjusted to the rules. Now I joke with the staff: “Don’t spoil them—spoil Mom!”
O: You can handle it!
I can handle it.
O: There’s a solidness about the girls—a groundedness—that speaks to the great work you’ve done as a mother. What are you most proud of in terms of raising them?
It’s that: that they’re so steady. And that they’re kind—to each other, and to other children. It’s important to me that they have empathy. I want them to be able to think, “Well, I could see how that person feels and why that would hurt.” And to make decisions not just based on their own needs but on what’s going on around them.
O: How are they with each other?
There’s genuine love and affection. I’m big on the idea that their sister is all each of them has. Even when they argue, I want them to act with respect. I say, “Do you know how painful it is for a mother to watch her two children, who she loves equally, arguing?” I say, “You don’t see it much, but the one or two times you’ve seen Dad and me disagree, you started falling apart.” And they get it.
O: Are there fewer arguments between you and the president now that you don’t have to fix things around the house?
Absolutely. That was kind of a growth point in our marriage that I’ve talked about before—the stress of needing help, and then finally realizing that the help doesn’t necessarily have to come from your husband. It can come from anywhere.
O: You seemed to grow together over the course of the campaign. The connection between the two of you seemed to intensify.
When you work on something really hard together and enjoy the successes and challenges with each other, and then get through it not just whole but stronger—you realize how blessed you are, how much love you have together. So, yes, I think we’ve grown. But not just me and Barack. It’s the girls, too. And our whole extended family.
O: And how have you managed to stay in touch with family and friends?
That’s the thing about being the First Lady: You try to catch your friends up on what’s happening in your life, and they’re like, “We know—we read it in the paper.”
O: “We saw it in the Tribune.”
So we get to see friends—we’ve been back to Chicago—but I think people will wind up coming here to visit us because…
O: It’s hard to travel when you’re First Lady.
It is. You know, you asked me when it hit me that all this was really happening. I’ll tell you when it hit me. There was a moment before our first visit to the White House, when we came to meet the Bushes. I had flown in early to visit a school, and then I went back to the airport so Barack and I could ride to the White House together. As we drove up, my Secret Service agent said, “There’s the president-elect’s motorcade.” And there were like 20 cars! There was everything in that motorcade except the caboose! Now I tease Barack: “You’ve got the horse and carriage, the dogsled, the airplane, the bike…”
O: And the kids know he’s home when they hear his helicopter landing.
Once someone on my staff e-mailed to tell me that the president was on his way. But you could already hear the helicopter, so it was like, well, no kidding.
O: “Dad’s home!”
The girls don’t move. I’m like, “You want to see Daddy landing in the helicopter?” “No, that’s okay. We already saw it.”
O: Is living in the White House fun?
There’s fun every day. I have one of the best jobs in the world. Because I don’t have to fix the economy, thank goodness. Yet I get to go say hello to the people who make this government work, who hold us up and who will still be here after we’re gone. I get to go read to kids. We’re also working on a wonderful new garden project.
O: Will kids get to visit the garden?
We want to use it as a point of education, to talk about health and how delicious it is to eat fresh food, and how you can take that food and make it part of a healthy diet. You know, the tomato that’s from your garden tastes very different from one that isn’t. And peas—what is it like to eat peas in season? So we want the White House to be a place of education and awareness. And hopefully kids will be interested because there are kids living here. We’re even putting a swing set on the South Lawn.
O: So Dad can look out from the Oval Office and see the girls.
Yes—though I hope the swing set won’t be just for the Obama girls. I want the staff to feel that they can bring their children to the place where they work and let them feel connected to what their parents do.
O: It’s wonderful that you want to be so inclusive. But do you get privacy when you need it?
Absolutely—as much as we need. This is our home, and everyone treats it that way. There is a great deal of respect and decorum around the residence.
O: How will the decorating style change?
It will reflect our family. I want comfortable sofas, I want art that reflects contemporary and traditional, I want to bring in new American artisans.
O: You want more than just a few plates on the walls. You want pieces that are inclusive of American culture.
Right. And we want approachable comfort.
O: So you can take off your shoes.
And you’ve got to be able to make a fort with the sofa pillows! Everything must be fort-worthy.
O: Okay, shifting gears now. How are you a different woman today than you were when Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007?
I’m more optimistic. More hopeful. It comes from traveling all over America and connecting with so many different people. And this was long before anyone thought Barack had a chance. This was the kindness of strangers. I think we should all have to get to know one another around kitchen tables. It changed me. It’s helped me to give other people the benefit of the doubt.
O: What did you see that changed you?
I saw our shared values. We fundamentally want the same things for ourselves and for each other. We want our kids to be safe and to grow up with some resources and aspire to a slightly better life than ours. No one’s looking for a handout. People just want fairness and opportunity.
O: That’s so good to hear. Because you know what? We live in an American Idol culture where it seems like everyone just wants to be in the spotlight.
That’s not the America I saw. People value their communities. They’re rooting for one another. Even in places where I thought people wouldn’t accept or relate to me, I always walked out feeling like, “Wow—that was fun.” That changed me. And it helped prepare me for this. Because I think if you’re going to be First Lady, you have to believe in the possibility of what this country stands for. You have to see it in action and know what you’re working toward.
O: That’s so interesting—and it all came from sitting around kitchen tables. Speaking of which, did you change your diet during the campaign?
When we first started running, my big concern was making sure we ate well on the road. So we started looking at our diet, trying to eliminate junk, getting seasonal fruits and vegetables that were grown locally. We walked the kids through reading labels. We talked about why one juice might be better than another.
O: What foods did you give up?
Things with artificial ingredients. That’s a tough change for a lot of families, though, because so many foods aren’t real anymore. But lots of people don’t have access to a farmers’ market, or can’t afford to shop at one, so this is a bigger issue. It’s really big, because changing your diet makes such a difference. I’ve seen it in my own family. We have more energy. And I caught only one cold during the last year of the campaign, even after shaking millions of hands!
O: On the campaign trail, weren’t people offering you every kind of food imaginable?
Yes, and a lot of times, I’d eat it. Hey, I love pie. I love a good candy bar. And sometimes when you’re working so hard, the only thing you have is that candy bar and those potato chips. But if I went home to a balanced diet, then those days wouldn’t kill me. I feel the same about the girls. If they’re eating healthy most times, I don’t panic when they get popcorn at the movies. I don’t want them freaking out about food.
O: That’s right. In addition to eating well, do you work out?
Yes. There’s a small gym here that has everything we need. I work out about four or five days a week—and Barack does six. He’s a workout zealot.
O: Well, you look better than ever—despite the rumors that you’ve got a baby bump.
[Laughter.] I know—I was like, “Baby bump? As hard as I work on my abs?!”
O: By the way, nobody would be happier if you were pregnant than Gayle King. Out of nowhere, she’ll tell me, “Oh God, I really hope Michelle gets pregnant—and that it’s a boy!”
[More laughter.] Here’s the scoop: Not pregnant. And not planning on it.
O: Not pregnant.
O: Okay, so that’s settled. Back to exercise. You do treadmill?
I do treadmill, I do weights—
O: I think anyone who saw you on the cover of Vogue knows you do weights. Those arms!
I also do some jump rope, some kickboxing—and I’d like to take up Pilates, if I could figure out whether there’s time. After I had Malia, I began to prioritize exercise because I realized that my happiness is tied to how I feel about myself. I want my girls to see a mother who takes care of herself, even if that means I have to get up at 4:30 so I can do a workout.
O: When you first told me that a few years ago, I was like, “You get up at 4:30 to work out?”
Well, I just started thinking, if I had to get up to go to work, I’d get up and go to work. If I had to get up to take care of my kids, I’d get up to do that. But when it comes to yourself, then it’s suddenly, “Oh, I can’t get up at 4:30.” So I had to change that. If I don’t exercise, I won’t feel good. I’ll get depressed. Of course, it’s easier to do it here, because I have much more support now. But I always think about women who don’t have support. That’s why work-family balance isn’t just a policy conversation; it’s about changing the expectations of who we have to be as women and parents.
O: What you mentioned earlier is key: We have to ask for help. You can’t do it all. It’s impossible.
That’s a conversation I’d love for us to have as a society. How do we set expectations that are attainable?
O: And how do we change the perception of what women should be able to handle? Parents have always needed help—but our generation decided that women should somehow do everything. Yet for thousands and thousands of years, parents had kids so that the kids could help them!
And we once lived in small enough communities where people could help each other. Families were together. That’s how I grew up. My grandmother lived around the corner, my grandfather lived two blocks away, they each lived with aunts and uncles. My paternal grandparents lived maybe ten blocks away. It was rare to see a family where one person was trying to cook, clean, watch the kids, do it all. You always had a community. But nowadays people have to move away from their community just to find a job. And then they’re leaving their support base. So we have to acknowledge that that’s going on and ask what it does to the family structure and what it means in terms of how we have to reengineer support.
O: Your saying that out loud is so powerful for women. And liberating. You’re a mighty force. You know, I’ve wondered: Do you feel the glare of the fishbowl?
I don’t pay attention to it. There isn’t a bigger fishbowl, but I don’t own the glare.
O: Now that your husband is president, everybody has an opinion about what he should or should not be doing. How do you handle that? I sometimes get offended—and I’m not married to him!
We live in the experience that we’re actually having. In just a few weeks, my husband got a stimulus bill passed and made some amazing policy changes that will affect people’s lives in a fundamentally positive way. I’m so proud of him. That’s the reality. Everything else is just what comes with the territory. The people who disagree with Barack don’t dislike him; they just disagree. That’s what democracy is about. But at some point, you’ve got to make a decision and move forward, and your hope is that people will give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re making decisions based on what you think is best for the country.
O: Gayle once interviewed you for her radio show and was blown away by something you said: that your husband has never disappointed you. Gayle was like, “I can’t believe that!”
Barack is a human being with flaws. And I can rattle down all the flaws and tease him about them every day, but those flaws are not fundamental. They don’t hit upon things that are intolerable to me. In terms of his core values, he has never disappointed me. He is a very consistent person—which is why I knew unequivocally that he would be a phenomenal president. He is steady. Has he made me mad? Yes. Does he sometimes do things that I don’t like? Absolutely.
O: That’s called marriage.
But as a human being, he has never disappointed. And I would hope he could say the same about me. Ask him!
O: I will. First chance I get. Has your love deepened during this whole process?
Absolutely. I don’t lose sight of the fact that he’s the president, but first and foremost he’s my husband, my friend, and the father of my children. That didn’t change with his hand on the Lincoln Bible. But it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the gravity of what he’s doing. The way I can honor that is by working by his side and adding value to what he’s doing in any way that I can. That’s my part in this. That’s why I’m out there trying to be an aid and a support to his vision and his values. I am supporting the president of the United States.
O: It seems that every woman I speak to—black, white, older, younger—says the same thing about you: “She’s just like us.” People feel an affection for you that I find so touching.
I’ve always thought that what I owe the American people is to let them see who I am so there are no surprises. I don’t want to be anyone but Michelle Obama. And I want people to know what they’re getting.
O: What I see in you is a confidence that comes from such an authentic place. A reporter who interviewed me 10 years after she’d first met me said, “Gee, you’re the same person—but it feels like you’ve become more of yourself.” When did you get to be this much of yourself?
I think in my 40s, I started feeling very comfortable in my own skin. Motherhood helps, marriage helps—those learning curves that force you to be better. And my hope is that my 50s will hone that. I never consider myself a finished project.
O: So what do you know for sure, Michelle Obama?
I know that all I can do is be the best me that I can. And live life with some gusto. Giving back is a big part of that. How am I going to share this experience with the American people? I’m always thinking about that.