In the past seven years as First Lady of the United States of America, she’s inspired us, championed women’s rights and called out Trump on sexism. It’s no wonder Michelle Obama is being implored to go for the big job herself
Words: Rosamund Urwin
Photography: Ben Baker
Michelle Obama has twice made the hairs stand up on my arms this year. The first, when she spoke in June in her final Commencement Speech about what Barack’s tenure in the White House has meant to her.
“I wake up in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters – two beautiful black young women – head off to school, waving goodbye to their father, the President of the United States.”
The second was in October when she spoke about Donald Trump in New Hampshire – how his bragging about groping women had shaken her to the core. She had to blink back tears.
There are many reasons to despair about Trump winning the race to the White House. It is yet another example of a highly-qualified woman being passed over for a job in favour of a hugely under-qualified man. Worse, this a man who has been accused of sexual assault by at least a dozen women. Who sees everyone who isn’t him – a white American man – as lesser beings. It may not have been our election but what Trump’s success says about the current state of the world has left us all feeling bleak. For me, it’s also the starkest reminder that eight years ago the world felt so very different. Hopeful, progressive, exciting. Barack Obama had just made history as the first black president of the United States and together with his wife, Michelle, represented seismic change. They were super smart, determined, kind, open-minded, relevant – embraced by both the younger generation and old. They made me feel proud. And we’re not quite ready to give that up.
Last week, after Hillary Clinton gave a very classy concession speech, the world’s hope turned once again to the Obamas. However, this time it seems it’s Michelle we’re pinning our futures on. Within hours of Trump’s victory, a social media storm began to whip up a plea for Michelle to run for President, with hashtags including #letsgetmoving, #michelle2020 and #Flotus2020 flooding the internet. And while she has never shown any indication or desire to enter politics as a main player it’s not hard to see why so many people believe she should.
Michelle Obama entered most of our lives during the 2008 election trail. A successful Harvard Law School-educated lawyer, she had mentored her husband when he started at her law firm years earlier. It set the foundations for an incredibly strong couple who very much viewed each other as equals. She stood beside her husband: strong, clever, and proud. I remember watching them dance together at the Inauguration Ball on 20 January feeling envious that America had hit political jackpot. They were so modern and she was a woman you wanted to be your mentor, your friend – and your fashion advisor. Quite a feat.
Indeed, her first years in the White House seemed somewhat stereotypically dominated by fashion headlines. She gained style kudos by championing American designers like Thakoon and Jason Wu in bright colours and modern designs that felt so completely at odds with the First Ladies who went before her – her contemporary wardrobe matching her fresh and modern outlook. But she was obviously so much more than that. She quietly but determinedly began to wage a war on America’s obesity crisis [two thirds of American adults are considered to be overweight or obese] with her Let’s Move initiative, which encouraged younger generations to get off the sofa, calling on her friend and supporter Beyoncé to choreograph a dance to a child-friendly version of Get Me Bodied with an accompanying workout video.
As a proud geek (“I never cut class. I loved getting A’s. I thought being smart is cooler than anything in the world”), she also mentored girls in their education, supporting pupils at an inner-city comprehensive in Tower Hamlets, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in north London and showed just how admired and influential she was to young women when an entire school of girls burst into tears when they met her. But her real focus was raising her two daughters, then seven and 10, away from the glare and scrutiny of the public stage. While we got public glimpses of their family dynamic on social media and during public appearances (like when she called her daughters up on stage during a speech in 2008 so they could all video chat with their father), she took her role as self-declared ‘mom-in-chief’ seriously. Today those girls are almost women. And you only need to see the way they handle themselves among both world leaders and rap stars to know that Michelle got the job done.
But over the last 18 months, as Trump moved from political farce to a true threat, she’s really stepped up and proved her muscle. Clinton called on her repeatedly to provide the warmth and authenticity to her campaign that perhaps didn’t come as naturally to her (that’s no criticism, her credentials and experience more than made up for it). Her speech at The Democratic National Convention, taking Trump down without bringing herself to mention his name was so powerful, so composed, so gracious, despite the horrors that she was addressing, that you can’t watch it without crying. Indeed, it was compared to Martin Luther King’s seminal I Have A Dream Speech.
She’s shown herself to be both honest and kind (think of her motto: “When they go low, we go high”), to be a completely gifted orator, to be able to truly speak to people of America without patronising (the fact that she came from humble beginnings to working class parents in Chicago to an Ivy League university helps). And consequently her popularity is sky high. A recent favourability poll from Bloomberg gave her a rating of +29, well ahead of Barack, Clinton and Trump. Her most recent speech calling out Trump’s sexual behaviour has almost three million views on YouTube. Whether she’s dancing with Beyoncé, belting out Missy Elliot’s Get UR Freak On with James Corden, embracing veterans and military families, discussing world matters with state leaders or inviting underprivileged children to her home to mentor them, she is the same. Warm, engaging, genuine. This ability to connect with anyone, regardless of who they are is unique. It’s a skill that hundreds of leaders try to emulate, and I’m not sure any come anywhere close.
But perhaps her biggest asset is her ability to talk to younger generations with authenticity, a group no other candidate has been able to reach. Her friendship with Beyoncé helps but she’s also relatable and authentic. Her glimpses into her life with Barack make you feel like this is a couple you could spend time with. Talking about conversation at the Obama dinner table to US comedian and TV host Stephen Colbert, she revealed there’s a split in family interests. “Malia will ask [a] serious question: ‘Dad, tell us about your day, and what about that conversation on global warming?” And Sasha and I will be like, ‘no, don’t get him started’. [He starts] ‘I’m glad you asked that. Let me just answer that in three points.’ And Sasha and I just want to talk about our favourite song on the Lemonade album.”
The Obamas will leave the White House on 20 January. Luckily, they won’t disappear completely; the family is staying in Washington so that their younger daughter Sasha can finish in school. Michelle is expected to campaign heavily for girls’ education globally and write a memoir (she’s tipped to receive a $12 million advance).
Michelle Obama might not have been the president for the last eight years but she has been – and continues to be – wonderfully presidential. She is the full package; a public figure who is relatable, warm, sincere, engaging, intelligent, and forward thinking all in one fell swoop. A rare find in a landscape dominated with leaders who fail to incite passion or intelligent debate among us, half as much as we need them to. While she may never want to be president, she embodies the qualities that one should have. That we all should strive to have – for the next four years and beyond.
All is not lost
Political journalist Gaby Hinsliff selects her five other most inspiring leaders
Scotland’s first minister is tough, funny, fearlessly feminist and highly conscious of being a role model for young women. She’s called out sexism, backed women for top jobs and pointedly thanked a defeated Hillary Clinton last week for being a “milestone for women”.
Canada’s prime minister gives seriously good Instagram (yoga on his desk). But he also appointed Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet, campaigns against climate change and personally welcomed refugees from Syria with coats. The closest thing the world has to Obama.
Africa’s first female president, 78, is credited with rebuilding Liberia following a violent civil war. She endured an abusive husband and was a political prisoner; she has said that, “With all I went through, I should be dead”. Instead she’s revolutionised the perception of women.
Aung San Suu Kyi
A symbol of peaceful resistance and courage, the Burmese National League of Democracy leader spent 15 years under house arrest. Now, she travels the world as Myanmar’s leader, campaigning for human rights. She says: “Fear is a habit; I am not afraid.”
Queen Elizabeth II
OK, she’s not a politician, but our graceful head of state and has been counselling prime ministers for half a century. (Not to mention the time she dipped a toe in the Scottish referendum by pointedly telling well-wishers outside church to think ‘very carefully’).