On Jan. 20, Michelle Obama will hand her home over to a man who rose to power in part by spreading lies about her husband and intends to pulverize much of his work. If presidential tradition and her own recent conduct are any guide, she will carry herself through inauguration morning with quiet calm and few hints of what she is really thinking. After President-elect Donald Trump recites the oath of office, a helicopter — no longer called Marine One, because the president will not be on board — will lift the Obamas into new lives.
Soon after, Obama will have a choice to make: Should she start — or rather, resume — speaking in public with her fuller voice?
When her husband became the 2008 Democratic nominee for president, Obama edited herself. She had to, in the face of unceasing Republican attacks and then the challenge of being the first African-American first lady. Her statements were authentic but limited. She called herself the “mom in chief” and charmed late-night TV hosts in clips that exploded the next day on social media. Sometimes she spoke as much with her body as her voice, hula-hooping and playing hopscotch with children, turning appearances into marathon hugging sessions. She became a specialist in light jokes, as she demonstrated in September, when she went on a shopping expedition with Ellen DeGeneres to CVS. “Wine in a box! How does this work?” she asked in mock wonder.
She took on issues that were vital but hard to disagree with: She was pro-veteran, anti-childhood obesity. The approach worked brilliantly, protecting and elevating her, putting her as far above reproach as anyone in the mosh pit of American politics can hope to be. The less explicitly political she sounded, the more political influence she wielded, in convention speeches and other key moments.
This approach carried a price: It did not capture the true depth, originality and directness of Michelle Obama.
In a 2008 interview with The Times, she recalled her years of leading young people through sometimes-painful conversations about race, and made the case for being forthright. “I hate diversity workshops,” she said. “Real change comes from having enough comfort to be really honest and say something very uncomfortable,” she said.
Does Obama still believe that? In Trump’s America, the hunger among Democrats for her to speak out will be enormous. But she knows better than anyone what that could cost her.
The Michelle Obama whom friends, family and aides know, whom many Chicagoans remember, is an incisive social critic, a lawyer who can drive home an argument, a source of fresh observations and pointed commentary. Long before she arrived at the White House, she had formed her own worldview, based on a life full of dramatic changes and contrasts.
When she attended Princeton, one of her roommates moved out rather than live with a black girl; one of her aunts, as it happened, worked as a maid in town. Her father was a Chicago water worker, part of the vast municipal workforce. Later she worked in the mayor’s office, seeing city government from a much different height. Though she attended Harvard Law School and worked at a top firm, the job that seemed most formative involved public-service training for young people of disparate backgrounds: University of Chicago alumni alongside veterans of housing projects and gangs. She was influenced by others, including her brainy dreamer of a husband, but she fused these experiences into her own point of view and a distinctive voice: warm, skeptical, funny, blunt.
She questioned why power was locked up in political dynasties. When she worked at the University of Chicago, she pointed out the institution’s isolation amid the black south side. A professor, Cathy Cohen, remembers Obama telling her, “I grew up not far from here, and the university never once reached out to me.” Old colleagues there, and in other jobs, too, say Obama’s ability to talk frankly about difficult issues, such as performing medical trials on poor black Chicagoans, was one of her strengths.
She had a penchant for defying what others expected her to say or think. In interviews, she shredded the script of the dutiful helpmeet. “What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 2004 when her husband was running for the U.S. Senate. “And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy.”
A few years later, when her husband announced his presidential run, “60 Minutes” asked if she feared for his safety. “As a black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station,” she said.
Sometimes, in those early days on the trail, she sounded like a counselor, even a minister. “If there is anyone who has a broken relationship with another woman,” she said to a mostly female crowd in South Carolina in 2007, the first of six years I spent covering her, “if there was a woman in your life that you have not communicated with because of ego or embarrassment or jealousy or fear of rejection, a sister or a friend or a mother or a child who could or should be a part of your community, I ask you to reach out to that woman today.”
In interviews, longtime aides to the Obamas said that she does not yet know exactly how she wants to sound as a former first lady, that she has been focused on tying up her eight years in the White House as smoothly as possible. Obama will be 53 when she leaves the White House, and her goal, friends and aides say, is to look at her life afresh.
Some of those aides make a powerful case that even as Obama is likely to be spending time writing a memoir and giving speeches, she will be most effective if she sticks to the calibrated tone she has employed for her husband’s two terms. She has always admired Laura Bush’s restrained approach, they say. Obama never longed for a particularly public life and does not relish the fray. Leaving the spotlight could be a relief, as it was for Bush: “After nearly eight years of hypervigilance, of watching for the next danger or tragedy that might be coming, I could at last exhale; I could simply be,” Bush said of leaving the White House in her 2010 memoir.
Besides, the best way for Obama to preserve her popularity and authority may be to hold back, to avoid jeopardizing what she has worked to build. Even when she is bathed in public admiration, she is the target of revolting attacks — a prominent Trump supporter recently insinuated she was a male ape — and speaking out more could provoke worse. As first lady, she used hints, invitations, art, sometimes even clothing to convey her viewpoint. If she mostly avoided controversial topics, her mere presence spoke volumes, and was there really any mistaking the fundamentals of what she believed?
On Friday morning, Obama’s eyes glossed as she gave her final remarks as first lady. She exhorted young people to educate themselves and “build a country worthy of your boundless promise” — an uplifting message that included a subtle critique.
But others who know her predict that with time, Obama will find a new voice. Both Obamas, two of the few unifying figures in a fractured Democratic Party, will face enormous pressure to help oppose and rebuild. For years, she has mostly bottled up her critiques of Republicans, but they are scorching, say those who have heard the private version. Some Democrats dream of her running for president in 2020, and though Obama and those close to her say the idea is out of the question, the general appetite to hear from her may not be as easy for her to dismiss.
The themes of the hour — unfairness, opportunity, whether to have even a shred of faith in the system — are ones she has thought about her entire adult life. Being in the White House has given her eight years’ worth of insights she has barely shared. She may be the most powerful black woman in the country, a position that begs to be used. Obama cares about representation — for example, insisting on appearing on the cover of Vogue even when some of her advisers questioned the decision. The world has only one observant, original, wildly popular African-American first lady, and for her to hoard her ideas and views would be a waste.
Last summer, after a wave of groping accusations against Trump, Obama gave a speech sharper and more vehement than most of her other statements as first lady. “I can’t believe that I’m saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women,” she said. “And I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this.”
Aides and friends have often said that while Obama never embraced politics like her husband, her capacity for outrage is greater. “While I’d love nothing more than to pretend like this isn’t happening,” she said in the speech, “it would be dishonest and disingenuous to me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream.”
As she stood on the stage, sharing her forthright opinion with the world, she sounded like someone: the pre-White House Michelle Obama.