On the eve of her departure from the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama has never been a more inspiring ﬁgure—America’s conscience, role model, and mother in chief.
When I arrive at the White House on a hot afternoon in late September to interview Michelle Obama, the place is so eerily quiet I worry for a second that I have come on the wrong day. I have been here every week for a month, sometimes twice a day, to interview people on the First Lady’s staff or to join Mrs. Obama in her motorcade and head out to an event on her schedule. There is usually so much high-stakes, highly choreographed pageantry unfolding that it’s hard to shake the feeling that if you made a move without permission you might get tackled. Indeed, the day I started following Mrs. Obama, I arrived around ten o’clock and had to “hold” in a reception room for ten minutes; then move to a hallway to hold again; then another spot, hold; until at last I was ushered into the Map Room because the First Lady wanted to say hello before we went off to Howard University. Wearing a purple-and-white striped sleeveless Laura Smalls dress, she enveloped me in one of her customary hugs. “I understand you’re going to be with us for a while.” She paused as a look crossed her face, that ornery one she makes when she’s about to deliver a line: “We’re doin’ a deep dive.”
First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama wears Atelier Versace dress
But on this day, a month later: no tours or press conferences, no state dinners or medal ceremonies. Just an enormous, well-appointed mansion, the low fall sun slicing through the cleanest windows in America. Indeed, but for the guards stationed here and there, the place feels entirely empty. Which means that I am (sort of) free to wander around. In the Cross Hall that connects the East Room and the State Dining Room, the mother of all red carpets is rolled up and just sitting there, like it’s about to be hauled away. I bump into Angella Reid, the first (black) woman to serve as chief usher, whom I’d met a couple of years ago when I was here on another assignment. After some inevitable wistfulness about the end of an era, we peek into the Old Family Dining Room, which Mrs. Obama recently redecorated and opened to the public, mostly to catch a glimpse of the mid-sixties painting by Alma Thomas, the first piece of art by a black woman ever displayed in the White House.
It was during that visit two years ago that Joanna Rosholm, Mrs. Obama’s tall, glamorous press secretary, took me on a spin past the First Lady portraits that hang in the Center Hall on the ground floor. We were at a reception, drinks in hand, going from one to the next, when I judged Nancy Reagan’s—purely as a fashion artifact—to be my favorite. Today, with no one around, I feel compelled to take another look. Jackie Kennedy’s has a pastels-in-soft-focus aspect. Hillary Clinton’s portrait looks less like Hillary than Kate McKinnon in a pantsuit doing Hillary. There’s Lady Bird in yellow chiffon; Pat Nixon looking forlorn and trapped; Laura and Barbara Bush, both in somber black. But it is Eleanor Roosevelt’s that really raises an eyebrow. At the bottom of her portrait, her disembodied hands engage in various tasks: knitting, holding a pair of reading glasses, and, inexplicably, fidgeting with her wedding ring, as if she were about to take it off to wash a sinkful of dishes. It is a reminder of just how peculiar the role of First Lady is in American public life. She has a job with no salary, a platform with no power, an East Wing filled with staff but no budget. And it is, as Mrs. Obama will point out to me later, a role that is surprisingly malleable, shaped by the personality, style, and interests (or lack thereof) of the person occupying it. “Everything we do is by choice,” she will tell me. “I could have spent eight years doing anything, and at some level, it would have been fine. I could have focused on flowers. I could have focused on decor. I could have focused on entertainment. Because any First Lady, rightfully, gets to define her role. There’s no legislative authority; you’re not elected. And that’s a wonderful gift of freedom.”
Mrs. Obama took her time. The question she was asked most on the campaign trail was “What kind of First Lady will you be?” The answer was always the same: “I won’t know until I get there.” Early on some critics called her distant or “angry”—an epithet she bristled at. “Michelle never asked to be First Lady,” President Obama writes me by email. “Like a lot of political spouses, the role was thrust upon her. But I always knew she’d be incredible at it, and put her own unique stamp on the job. That’s because who you see is who she is—the brilliant, funny, generous woman who, for whatever reason, agreed to marry me. I think people gravitate to her because they see themselves in her—a dedicated mom, a good friend, and someone who’s not afraid to poke a little fun at herself from time to time.”
Posing in white, Michelle Obama wears Carolina Herrera dress
Once she got her daughters acclimated—she routinely referred to herself as “Mom in chief”—the Harvard-educated lawyer took on issues like support for military families and healthy eating. “It was pooh-poohed as a sort of soft swing at the ball,” she says. By the middle of the second term, she had become more ambitious—launching two education initiatives, Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn—and over the past year and a half finding her métier, turning herself into the First Lady of Popular Culture, mastering social media (thanks to her proximity to a certain couple of teenage girls), appearing as herself on shows like NCIS and Parks and Recreation, singing karaoke with James Corden, and basically charming the pants off of everyone. Somewhere along the way, she became the greatest political communicator of our time—better than Bill Clinton, better than her husband—someone whose speeches actually start national conversations. And throughout all of this, she has remained one of the most glamorous women in the world—admired by teenagers and grandmothers alike—whose daring fashion instincts have won her near-universal accolades from an industry that had a champion in the White House for the first time in decades. When she wore that showstopping Atelier Versace rose-gold chain-mail column to her final state dinner in October, the Internet worked itself into a state of collective mourning over the fact that there will be no more Michelle Obama fashion moments to obsess about.
The White House has changed quite a bit in the past eight years, becoming much warmer, far less formal, and distinctly more diverse. Obamalot, if you will. They have created an ecosystem that is so effortlessly inclusive that, for example, Joe Mahshie, a trip coordinator for the First Lady, and Brian Mosteller, director of Oval Office operations, were married by Joe Biden at his home just a few months ago. Mahshie, my minder today, tells me that he first met Mrs. Obama when his then boyfriend Mosteller took him to join the SoulCycle class that the First Lady goes to once a week with White House staffers. Mahshie and Mrs. Obama struck up a conversation; one of her staffers was taken aback by his forwardness: “Do you know her?” No, we just met, he replied. “Was I not supposed to talk to her? Should I have curtsied?” He laughs. “She creates that possibility.”
In the Blue Room, Cristeta Comerford, the (first woman, first Asian) executive chef, is preparing crudité and hummus with vegetables from Mrs. Obama’s beloved White House garden. (A week from now, Mrs. Obama will hold a press conference on the South Lawn to announce that she has arranged for the National Park Service to care for the garden when she is gone and has raised $2.5 million of private funding to cover the costs. Word to future presidents: Don’t even thinkabout messin’ with my garden.) Some of her staff have gathered, including chief of staff Tina Tchen and communications director Caroline Adler Morales. We are standing around a table noshing and gossiping about Brad and Angelina when Mrs. Obama finally appears, in a black Versace dress. The first thing she says is “Are you sick of me by now?” (Exactly no one is sick of you by now, I want to say but don’t.) We sit down in facing chairs in front of the curved windows that look out onto the Truman Balcony, and I joke that the unsettling quiet makes it feel like it’s already over. Who’s the president? “Is it January?” she says, laughing. “What did I miss?” Which brings up the fraught question of how she’s feeling with the end now in sight.
The day before, I sat with Valerie Jarrett—senior adviser to the president and one of the Obamas’ closest friends—in her office in the West Wing. She made a crack about her hair going gray (“I earned it. Every one of them”) and then described the waning days of the Obama years as “excruciating.” She paused and added, “For me.” Another pause. “I cry a lot. It takes very little to set me off.” Just that past Saturday, at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, she had come unglued during President Obama’s remarks. “He decides to ad lib at the very end of his speech about what it would be like to come back to the museum when Sasha and Malia have children of their own, and he describes holding this little hand and walking through this arc of history, and I looked at the First Lady and she’s crying. I’m sitting next to [White House chief of staff] Denis McDonough, and he’s crying. Tina Tchen is crying. Everybody’s crying! I think we’re all acutely aware that this chapter of their lives is coming to an end. Fortunately they’re young enough to have an extraordinary next chapter, but this is unique, and it’s almost over.”
When I bring this up to Mrs. Obama, she lets out a big sigh. “You know, there are little . . . moments. Even today I was looking out at this view here.” She gestures to the windows. “Looking out on the South Lawn and the Washington Monument and it had just rained and the grass was really green and everything popped a little bit more. It’s soooo beautiful. And for that moment I thought, I’m going to miss waking up to this, having access to this anytime I want.” She recrosses her legs. “But on the flip side . . . it’s time. I think our democracy has it exactly right: two terms, eight years. It’s enough. Because it’s important to have one foot in reality when you have access to this kind of power. The nature of living in the White House is isolating. And I think Barack and I—because we’re kind of stubborn—we’ve maintained some normalcy, mostly because of the age of our kids. I go out to dinner with my girlfriends; I go to Sasha’s games; Barack has coached a little basketball with Sasha’s team. But at the same time, when you can’t walk into CVS?”
There is a CVS a block away from here, I say. “I know,” she says with a look of comic weariness. “But I always think, Fun for me! But a complete hassle for my Secret Service agents.” She pauses. “When you’re not engaged in the day-to-day struggles that everybody feels, you slowly start losing touch. And I think it’s important for the people in the White House to have a finger on the pulse.”