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Michelle Obama’s not-so-quiet return to the limelight

Posted at 4:01 AM, Nov 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-20 06:12:30-05

When Michelle Obama left the White House in January 2017, she did what most former first ladies often do — she ditched us for a while. But now she’s back, on a revolutionary, arena-filling book tour, and she’s got plenty to say.

After eight years of living in what she once called the “fishbowl,” Obama retreated and began to re-learn life in the real world, away from the 18-acre compound on Pennsylvania Avenue.

She and husband, former President Barack Obama, didn’t geographically go all that far. Their home, which they reportedly purchased for $8.1 million in 2017, is less than three miles from the White House. But for Michelle Obama, just being able to make toast and sit outside makes it feel much farther away.

“Here I am in my new home, just me and (our dogs) Bo and Sunny, and I do a simple thing. I go downstairs and open the cabinet in my own kitchen — which you don’t do in the White House because there’s always somebody there going, ‘Let me get that. What do you want?’ . . . and I made myself toast,” Obama told Oprah Winfrey in a recent interview in Elle magazine.

“And then I took my toast, and I walked out into my backyard. There were dogs barking in the distance, and I realized Bo and Sunny had really never heard neighbor dogs. They’re like, ‘What’s that?’ And I’m like, ‘Yep, we’re in the real world now, fellas,’ ” she said.

It’s mundane, really, making toast and hearing dogs bark. But it’s the normalcy of Michelle Obama’s life that she recognized people had been missing. She may have roared back onto the public stage this past week with the launch of her memoir, “Becoming,” but her return to the public eye reminds just how relatable Obama was and remains.

“It’s difficult to put your finger on what makes someone likable,” says Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.” “I think it’s because she’s self-deprecating, and she has an easy smile. There are so many great photos of her in the White House, and on the road talking to young girls who came from lower-income homes like hers and hear the obvious joy she felt just simply being around them. That’s special, and it cannot be manufactured.”

Finding her new path

Obama has been a periphery presence since she left the White House. She made headlines in February for the book deal, not that she signed one, that was expected, but that she and Barack Obama scored a whopping payday, reportedly in the neighborhood of $60 million — $30 million each.

She was also vocal in the midterm campaign season, most recently encouraging people to get out and vote. She became a co-chair for a non-profit organization called, “When We All Vote.”

“Democracy doesn’t wait for you to be bothered,” said Obama at a Las Vegas speech in September. “It moves on as it rightly should, and therefore, the people who vote determine the direction of the country, determine the mood, the tone, and the people who stay out don’t get a say. And I want every American to feel the power of that choice.”

It was a tiptoe of sorts around the elephant in the room. Many former presidents and first ladies follow the unwritten rule not to talk badly about the current president, and for a while there, Obama skirted naming names. But once she hit the book tour circuit, Obama took the gloves off, spilling her feelings about the anger she felt toward President Donald Trump.

“What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington? What if that person went looking for our girls?” she wrote. “Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this I’d never forgive him.”

Obama’s feelings about Trump were perhaps not all that surprising, considering the divisiveness of the political dialogue during the presidential campaign, but it was her revelatory personal stories that served as a gentle reminder of just how open Obama was when she was first lady.

She wrote that she struggled with fertility, suffered a miscarriage and only got pregnant with her two daughters when she used in vitro fertilization. She said her marriage, while “phenomenal,” needed lots of care, including marriage counseling. She talked about needing to nurture her own feelings before she could fix anyone else’s and that she and Barack Obama were “finding each other again,” after the fast-pace of the White House.

She talked about being a young African-American woman in Chicago, and how she often felt like the odd-one-out, both in her family, and at Princeton University, the sense of isolation and loneliness sometimes overwhelming.

“I didn’t come into (being first lady) with a blank slate,” she said during a speaking engagement several weeks before the book came out. “I had big jobs. I went to Princeton. I went to Harvard. I am a lawyer. But as Barack’s ascent got faster and higher, I had to figure out and balance marriage and balance becoming a spouse. I’ve learned that you can have it all, but not all at the same time.”

Finding that balance was vital because the Obama tenure marked a historic turning point — having an African-American family in the White House.

“The line in her book about identifying more with ‘the struggles of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King’ than with Eleanor Roosevelt says it all,” says Brower. “Michelle Obama is groundbreaking as the first African-American first lady. She was the ancestor of slaves.”

“It’s incredible to think that she lived in a house built by slaves — which she talked about. The African-American residence staff, especially the butlers, had tears in their eyes when the Obamas moved in. They never thought they would see the day when they would be serving an African-American first family. That is simply remarkable given this country’s history.”

Lessons learned

It’s a stark contrast between Obama, the former first lady who’s comfortable with sharing a lot, and Melania Trump, the intensely private current first lady. Trump has barely shared anything about her personal life, beyond her biography.

As rumors and innuendoes swirled around her this year, on topics ranging from her husband’s alleged infidelities to her mysterious medical procedure, Trump stayed quiet, doubling-down on her stoicism.

Obama took a pass on the opportunity to comment on her successor’s approach in an interview with ABC News.

“One of the things you learn as a former, it’s, like, I don’t judge what a current is doing, you know?” Obama said. “So, I’d prefer not to, you know, speak on what she’s doing versus what I did because I think every first lady approaches this job differently.”

Obama did, however, say that she offered her help to Trump, making it clear that she would always be there for her if she has a question — something Trump has yet to take her up on.

“Mrs. Trump is a strong and independent woman who has been navigating her role as first lady in her own way,” Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump’s spokeswoman told CNN. “When she needs advice on any issue, she seeks it from her professional team within the White House.”

And that was that.

The rest of the story

The “boring” stuff that Obama put in the book was interesting, too. Those strange details about what it was really like to live in the White House sound like the juiciest bits of gossip when Obama disclosed them this past week, during her myriad talk show appearances, interviews and book tour stops — like that the first family must pay for their own food in the White House, something Obama didn’t know until she got there.

“It’s crazy because you don’t know it, and most people don’t know what it’s like to live in the White House,” Obama told ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel during a recent appearance. “Rent is free, staff is free. We shouldn’t be mooching off of the taxpayers.”

And that she worked a few deals with her Secret Service detail from time to time just so she could get out and go to a mall, or a quick shopping trip for the pets.

“After Bo expertly disemboweled or shredded every last dog toy bought for him by the staff who did our regular shopping, I personally escorted him over to PetSmart in Alexandria one morning,” writes Obama in “Becoming.” “And for a short while, I enjoyed glorious anonymity while browsing for better chew toys as Bo — who was as delighted by the novelty of the outing as I was — loafed next to me on a leash.”

“Michelle became America’s mom. She really did. In a ‘I’ve got your back’ kind of way,” Alyssa Mastromonaco, who served as deputy chief of staff in the Obama administration, told CNN. “She wasn’t really partisan. She wanted all the children to be healthy and happy and wanted the White House, which she considered a very special place, to be open to all the children, and I think no matter what people got that about her.”

That Michelle Obama resonated with Americans — and that she seemed to not be bothered by her detractors — is what makes her book tour nostalgic. Obama might not pop up again for a while after her book becomes old news, and one place we will never see again will be the White House.

But politics appears out of the question.

“Let me very clear: It will never happen,” Valerie Jarrett told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Monday. “She has committed her life to public service. And she’s going to use her incredible platform to be a force for good, but not in politics.”