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There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States. It’s not technically a job, nor is it an official government title. It comes with no salary and no spelled-out set of obligations. It’s a strange kind of sidecar to the presidency, a seat that by the time I came to it had already been occupied by more than forty-three different women, each of whom had done it in her own way.
I knew only a little about previous First Ladies and how they’d approached the position. I knew that Jackie Kennedy had dedicated herself to redecorating the White House. I recalled that Rosalynn Carter had sat in on cabinet meetings, Nancy Reagan had gotten into some trouble accepting free designer dresses, and Hillary Clinton had been derided for taking on a policy role in her husband’s administration. Once, a couple of years earlier at a luncheon for U.S. Senate spouses, I’d watched—half in shock, half in awe—as Laura Bush posed, serene and smiling, for ceremonial photos with about a hundred different people, never once losing her composure or needing a break. First Ladies showed up in the news, having tea with the spouses of foreign dignitaries; they sent out official greetings on holidays and wore pretty gowns to state dinners. I knew that they normally picked a cause or two to champion as well.
I understood already that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. I’d learned through the campaign stumbles that I had to be better, faster, smarter, and stronger than ever. My grace would need to be earned. I worried that many Americans wouldn’t see themselves reflected in me, or that they wouldn’t relate to my journey. I wouldn’t have the luxury of settling into my new role slowly before being judged. And when it came to judgment, I was as vulnerable as ever to the unfounded fears and racial stereotypes that lay just beneath the surface of the public consciousness, ready to be stirred up by rumor and innuendo.
I was humbled and excited to be First Lady, but not for one second did I think I’d be sliding into some glamorous, easy role. Nobody who has the words “first” and “black” attached to them ever would. I stood at the foot of the mountain, knowing I’d need to climb my way into favor.
For me, it revived an old internal call-and-response, one that tracked all the way back to high school, when I’d shown up at Whitney Young and found myself suddenly gripped by doubt. Confidence, I’d learned then, sometimes needs to be called from within. I’ve repeated the same words to myself many times now, through many climbs.
Am I good enough? Yes I am.
The seventy-six days between election and inauguration felt like a critical time to start setting the tone for the kind of First Lady I wanted to be. After all I’d done to lever myself out of corporate law and into more meaningful community-minded work, I knew I’d be happiest if I could engage actively and work toward achieving measurable results. I intended to make good on the promises I’d made to the military spouses I’d met while campaigning—to help share their stories and find ways to support them. And then there were my ideas for planting a garden and looking to improve children’s health and nutrition on a larger scale.
I didn’t want to go about any of it casually. I intended to arrive at the White House with a carefully thought-out strategy and a strong team backing me. If I’d learned anything from the ugliness of the campaign, from the myriad ways people had sought to write me off as angry or unbecoming, it was that public judgment sweeps in to fill any void. If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others. I wasn’t interested in slotting myself into a passive role, waiting for Barack’s team to give me direction. After coming through the crucible of the last year, I knew that I would never allow myself to get that banged up again.
My mind raced with all that needed to get done. There had been no way to plan for this transition. Doing anything ahead of time would have been viewed as presumptuous. For a planner like me, it had been hard to sit back. So now we went into overdrive. My top priority was looking out for Sasha and Malia. I wanted to get them settled as quickly and comfortably as possible, which meant nailing down the details of our move and finding them a new school in Washington, a place where they’d be happy.
Six days after the election, I flew to D.C., having set up meetings with administrators at a couple of different schools. Under normal circumstances, I’d have focused solely on the academics and culture of each place, but we were far past the possibility of normal now. There were all sorts of cumbersome new factors to be considered and discussed—Secret Service protocols, emergency evacuation setups, strategies for protecting our kids’ privacy now that they had the eyes of a nation upon them. The variables had become exponentially more complex. More people were involved; more conversations needed to be had before even a small decision could be made.
Thankfully, I was able to keep my key campaign staffers—Melissa, Katie, and Kristen—working with me during the transition. We immediately set about figuring out the logistics of our family’s move while also beginning to hire staff—schedulers, policy experts, communications pros—for my future East Wing offices, as well as interviewing people for jobs in the family residence. One of my first hires was Jocelyn Frye, an old friend from law school who had a fantastic analytic mind and agreed to come on as my policy director, helping to oversee the initiatives I planned to launch.
Barack, meanwhile, was working on filling positions for his cabinet and huddling with various experts on ways to rescue the economy. By now, more than ten million Americans were unemployed, and the auto industry was in a perilous free fall. I could tell by the hard set of my husband’s jaw following these sessions that the situation was worse than most Americans even understood. He was also receiving daily written intelligence briefings, suddenly privy to the nation’s heavier secrets—the classified threats, quiet alliances, and covert operations about which the public remained largely unaware.
Now that the Secret Service would be protecting us for years to come, the agency selected official code names for us. Barack was “Renegade,” and I was “Renaissance.” The girls were allowed to choose their own names from a preapproved list of alliterative options. Malia became “Radiance,” and Sasha picked “Rosebud.” (My mother would later get her own informal code name, “Raindance.”)
When speaking to me directly, the Secret Service agents almost always called me “ma’am.” As in, “This way, ma’am. Please step back, ma’am.” And, “Ma’am, your car will be here shortly.”
Who’s “Ma’am”? I’d wanted to ask at first. Ma’am sounded to me like an older woman with a proper purse, good posture, and sensible shoes who was maybe sitting somewhere nearby.
But I was Ma’am. Ma’am was me. It was part of this larger shift, this crazy transition we were in.
All this was on my mind the day I traveled to Washington to visit schools. After one of my meetings, I went back to Reagan National Airport to meet Barack, who was due in on a chartered flight from Chicago. As was protocol for the president-elect, we’d been invited by President and Mrs. Bush to drop by for a visit to the White House and had scheduled it to coincide with my trip to look at schools. I stood waiting at the private terminal as Barack’s plane touched down. Next to me was Cornelius Southall, one of the agents heading my security detail.
Cornelius was a square-shouldered former college football player who’d previously worked as a part of President Bush’s security team. Like all of my detail leaders, he was smart, trained to be hyperaware at every moment, a human sensor. Even then, as the two of us watched Barack’s plane taxi and come to a stop maybe twenty yards away on the tarmac, he was picking up on something before I did.
“Ma’am,” he said as some new piece of information arrived via his earpiece, “your life is about to change forever.”
When I looked at him quizzically, he added, “Just wait.”
He then pointed to the right, and I turned to look. Exactly on cue, something massive came around the corner: a snaking, vehicular army that included a phalanx of police cars and motorcycles, a number of black SUVs, two armored limousines with American flags mounted on their hoods, a hazmat mitigation truck, a counterassault team riding with machine guns visible, an ambulance, a signals truck equipped to detect incoming projectiles, several passenger vans, and another group of police escorts. The presidential motorcade. It was at least twenty vehicles long, moving in orchestrated formation, car after car after car, before finally the whole fleet rolled to a quiet halt, and the limos stopped directly in front of Barack’s parked plane.
I turned to Cornelius. “Is there a clown car?” I said. “Seriously, this is what he’s going to travel with now?”
He smiled. “Every day for his entire presidency, yes,” he said. “It’s going to look like this all the time.”
I took in the spectacle: thousands and thousands of pounds of metal, a squad of commandos, bulletproof everything. I had yet to grasp that Barack’s protection was still only half-visible. I didn’t know that he’d also, at all times, have a nearby helicopter ready to evacuate him, that sharpshooters would position themselves on rooftops along the routes he traveled, that a personal physician would always be with him in case of a medical problem, or that the vehicle he rode in contained a store of blood of the appropriate type in case he ever needed a transfusion. In a matter of weeks, just ahead of Barack’s inauguration, the presidential limo would be upgraded to a newer model—aptly named the Beast—a seven-ton tank disguised as a luxury vehicle, tricked out with hidden tear-gas cannons, rupture-proof tires, and a sealed ventilation system meant to get him through a biological or chemical attack.
I was now married to one of the most heavily guarded human beings on earth. It was simultaneously relieving and distressing.
I looked to Cornelius, who waved me forward in the direction of the limo.
“You can head over now, ma’am,” he said.
I’d been inside the White House just once before, a couple of years earlier. Through Barack’s office at the Senate, I’d signed myself and Malia and Sasha up for a special tour being offered during one of our visits to Washington, figuring it’d be a fun thing to do. White House tours are generally self-guided, but this one involved being taken around by a White House curator, who walked a small group of us through its grand hallways and various public rooms.
We stared at the cut-glass chandeliers that dangled from the high ceiling of the East Room, where opulent balls and receptions were historically held, and inspected George Washington’s red cheeks and sober expression in the massive, gilt-framed portrait that hung on one wall. We learned, courtesy of our guide, that in the late eighteenth century First Lady Abigail Adams had used the giant space to hang her laundry and that decades later, during the Civil War, Union troops had temporarily been quartered there. A number of First Daughters’ weddings had taken place in the East Room. Abraham Lincoln’s and John F. Kennedy’s caskets had also lain there for viewing.
I could feel my mind sifting through all the various presidents that day, trying to match what I remembered from history classes with visions of the families who’d walked these actual halls. Malia, who was about eight at the time, seemed mostly awestruck by the size of the place, while Sasha, at five, was doing her best not to touch the many things that weren’t supposed to be touched. She gamely held it together as we moved from the East Room to the Green Room, which had delicate emerald-silk walls and came with a story about James Madison and the War of 1812, and the Blue Room, which had French furniture and came with a story about Grover Cleveland’s wedding, but when our guide asked if we’d now please follow him to the Red Room, Sasha looked up at me and blurted, in the unquiet voice of an aggrieved kindergartner, “Oh nooo, not another ROOM!” I quickly shushed her and gave her the mother-look that said, “Do not embarrass me.” But who, honestly, could blame her? It’s a huge place, the White House, with 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors, all of it stuffed with more history than any single tour could begin to cover. It was frankly hard to imagine real life happening there. Somewhere on the level below, government employees flowed in and out of the building, while somewhere above, the president and First Lady lived with their Scottish terriers in the family residence. But we were standing then in a different area of the house, the frozen-in-time, museum-like part of the place, where symbolism lived and mattered, where the country’s old bones were on display.
Two years later, I was arriving all over again, this time through a different door and with Barack. We were now going to see the place as our soon-to-be home.
President and Mrs. Bush greeted us at the Diplomatic Reception Room, just off the South Lawn. The First Lady clasped my hand warmly. “Please call me Laura,” she said. Her husband was just as welcoming, possessing a magnanimous Texas spirit that seemed to override any political hard feelings. Throughout the campaign, Barack had criticized the president’s leadership frequently and in detail, promising voters he would fix the many things he viewed as mistakes. Bush, as a Republican, had naturally supported John McCain’s candidacy. But he’d also vowed to make this the smoothest presidential transition in history, instructing every department in the executive branch to prepare briefing binders for the incoming administration. Even on the First Lady’s side, staffers were putting together contact lists, calendars, and sample correspondence to help me find my footing when it came to the social obligations that came with the title. There was kindness running beneath all of it, a genuine love of country that I will always appreciate and admire.
Though President Bush mentioned nothing directly, I swore I could see the first traces of relief on his face, knowing that his tenure was almost finished, that he’d run the race and could soon head home to Texas. It was time to let the next president through the door.
While our husbands walked off to the Oval Office to have a talk, Laura led me to the private wood-paneled elevator reserved for the First Family, which was operated by a gentlemanly African American in a tuxedo.
As we rode two floors up to the family residence, Laura asked how Sasha and Malia were doing. She was sixty-two years old then and had parented two older daughters while in the White House. A former schoolteacher and librarian, she’d used her platform as First Lady to promote education and advocate for teachers. She inspected me with warm blue eyes.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“A little overwhelmed,” I admitted.
She smiled with what felt like real compassion. “I know. Trust me, I do.”
In the moment, I wasn’t able to fully apprehend the significance of what she was saying, but later I would think of it often: Barack and I were joining a strange and very small society made up of the Clintons, the Carters, two sets of Bushes, Nancy Reagan, and Betty Ford. These were the only people on earth who knew what Barack and I were facing, who’d experienced firsthand the unique delights and hardships of life in the White House. As different as we all were, we’d always share this bond.
Laura walked me through the residence, showing me room upon room upon room. The private area of the White House occupies about twenty thousand square feet on the top two stories of the main historical structure—the one you’d recognize from photos with its iconic white pillars. I saw the dining room where First Families ate their meals and popped my head into the tidy kitchen, where a culinary staff was already at work on dinner. I saw the guest quarters on the top floor, scouting them out as a possible place my mother could live, if we could manage to talk her into moving in with us. (There was a small gym up there as well, which was the place both Barack and President Bush got most excited about during the guys’ version of the tour.) I was most interested in checking out the two bedrooms that I thought would work best for Sasha and Malia, just down the hall from the master bedroom.
For me, the girls’ sense of comfort and home was key. If we pared back all the pomp and circumstance—the fairy-tale unreality of moving into a big house that came with chefs, a bowling alley, and a swimming pool—what Barack and I were doing was something no parent really wants to do: yanking our kids midyear out of a school they loved, taking them away from their friends, and plopping them into a new home and new school without a whole lot of notice. I was preoccupied by this thought, though I was also comforted by the knowledge that other mothers and children had successfully done this before.
Laura took me into a pretty, light-filled room off the master bedroom that was traditionally used as the First Lady’s dressing room. She pointed out the view of the Rose Garden and the Oval Office through the window, adding that it gave her comfort to be able to look out and sometimes get a sense of what her husband was doing. Hillary Clinton, she said, had shown her this same view when she’d first come to visit the White House eight years earlier. And eight years before that, her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, had pointed out the view to Hillary. I looked out the window, reminded that I was part of a humble continuum.
In the coming months, I’d feel the power of connection to these other women. Hillary graciously shared wisdom over the phone, walking me through her experience picking out a school for Chelsea. I had a meeting with Rosalynn Carter and a phone call with Nancy Reagan, both women warm and offering support. And Laura kindly invited me to return with Sasha and Malia a couple of weeks after that first visit, on a day when her own girls, Jenna and Barbara, could be there to introduce my kids to the “fun parts” of the White House, showing them everything from the plush seats of the in-house movie theater to how to slide down a sloping hallway on the top floor.
This was all heartening. I already looked forward to the day I could pass whatever wisdom I picked up to the next First Lady in line.
We ended up moving to Washington right after our traditional Christmas holiday in Hawaii so that Sasha and Malia could start school just as their new classmates were coming back from winter break. It was still about three weeks ahead of the inauguration, which meant that we had to make temporary arrangements, renting rooms on the top floor of the Hay-Adams hotel in the center of the city. Our rooms overlooked Lafayette Square and the North Lawn of the White House, where we could see the grandstand and metal bleachers being set up in preparation for the inaugural parade. On a building across from the hotel, someone had hung a massive banner that read, “Welcome Malia and Sasha.” I choked up a little at the sight.
After a lot of research, two visits, and many conversations, we’d opted to enroll our daughters at Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school with an excellent reputation. Sasha would be a second grader in the lower school, which was located in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, and Malia would attend fifth grade on the main campus, which sat on a quiet block just a few miles north of the White House. Both kids would need to commute by motorcade, escorted by a group of armed Secret Service agents, some of whom would also remain posted outside their classroom doors and follow them to every recess, playdate, and sports practice.
We lived in a kind of bubble now, sealed off at least partially from the everyday world. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d run an errand by myself or walked in a park just for fun. All movements first required a discussion about both security and schedule. The bubble had formed around us slowly over the course of the campaign as Barack’s notoriety grew and as it became more necessary to put boundaries up between us and the general public—and, in some instances, between us and our friends and family members. It was odd, being in the bubble, and not a feeling I particularly enjoyed, but I also understood it was for the best. With a regular police escort, our vehicles no longer stopped at traffic lights. We rarely walked in or out of a building’s front door when we could be rushed through a service entrance or loading dock on a side street. From the Secret Service’s point of view, the less visible we could be, the better.
I held on to a hope that Sasha and Malia’s bubble might be different, that they could remain safe but not contained, that their range would be greater than ours. I wanted them to make friends, real friends—to find kids who liked them for reasons other than that they were Barack Obama’s daughters. I wanted them to learn, to have adventures, to make mistakes and bounce back. I hoped that school for them would be a kind of shelter, a place to be themselves. Sidwell Friends appealed to us for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it was the school Chelsea Clinton had attended when her father was president. The staff knew how to safeguard the privacy of high-profile students and had already made the sorts of security accommodations that would now be needed for Malia and Sasha, which meant we wouldn’t be too big a drain on the school’s resources. Above all, I liked the feel of the place. The Quaker philosophy was all about community, built around the idea that no one individual should be prized over another, which seemed to me like a healthy counterbalance to the big fuss that now surrounded their father.
On the first day of school, Barack and I ate an early breakfast in our hotel suite with Malia and Sasha before helping them into their winter coats. Barack couldn’t help but to offer bits of advice about surviving a first day at a new school (keep smiling, be kind, listen to your teachers), adding finally, as the two girls donned their purple backpacks, “And definitely don’t pick your noses!”
My mother joined us in the hallway, and we took an elevator downstairs.
Outside the hotel, the Secret Service had erected a security tent, meant to keep us out of sight of the photographers and television crews who’d posted themselves by the entrance, hungry for images of our family in transition. Having arrived only the night before from Chicago, Barack was hoping to ride all the way to school with the girls, but he knew it would create too much of a scene. His motorcade was too big. He’d become too heavy. I could read the pain of this in his face as Sasha and Malia hugged him good-bye.
My mom and I then accompanied the girls in what would become their new form of school bus—a black SUV with smoked windows made of bulletproof glass. I tried that morning to model confidence, smiling and joking with the kids. Inside, however, I felt a thrumming nervousness, that sense of inching perpetually farther out on a limb. We arrived first at the upper school campus, where Malia and I hustled past a gauntlet of news cameras and into the building, the two of us flanked by Secret Service agents. After I delivered Malia to her new teacher, the motorcade took us to Bethesda, where I repeated the routine with little Sasha, releasing her into a sweet classroom with low tables and wide windows—what I prayed would be a safe and happy place.
I returned to the motorcade and rode back to the Hay-Adams, ensconced in my bubble. I had a busy day ahead, every minute of it scheduled with meetings, but my mind would stay locked on our daughters. What kind of day were they having? What were they eating? Were they being gawked at or made to feel at home? I’d later see a media photo of Sasha taken during the morning trip to school, one that brought me to tears. I believe it was snapped as I was dropping off Malia, while Sasha waited in the car with my mom. She had her round little face pressed up against the window of the SUV and was staring outward, wide-eyed and pensive, taking in the sight of photographers and onlookers, her thoughts unreadable but her expression sober.
We were asking so much of them. I sat with that thought not just for that entire day but for months and years to come.
The pace of the transition never slowed. I was bombarded with hundreds of decisions, all of them evidently urgent. I was supposed to pick out everything from bath towels and toothpaste to dish soap and beer for the White House residence, choose my outfits for the inauguration ceremony and fancy balls that would follow it, and figure out logistics for the 150 or so of our close friends and relatives who’d be coming from out of town as our guests. I delegated what I could to Melissa and other members of my transition team. We also hired Michael Smith, a talented interior designer we’d found through a Chicago friend, to help us with furnishing and redecorating the residence and the Oval Office.
The president-elect, I learned, is given access to $100,000 in federal funds to help with moving and redecorating, but Barack insisted that we pay for everything ourselves, using what we’d saved from his book royalties. As long as I’ve known him, he’s been this way: extra-vigilant when it comes to matters of money and ethics, holding himself to a higher standard than even what’s dictated by law. There’s an age-old maxim in the black community: You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far. As the first African American family in the White House, we were being viewed as representatives of our race. Any error or lapse in judgment, we knew, would be magnified, read as something more than what it was.
In general, I was less interested in the redecorating and inauguration planning than I was in figuring out what I could do with my new role. As I saw it, I didn’t actually have to do anything. No job description meant no job requirements, and this gave me the freedom to choose my agenda. I wanted to ensure any effort I made helped advance the new administration’s larger goals.
To my great relief, both our kids came home happy after the first day of school, and the second, and the third. Sasha brought back homework, which she’d never had before. Malia was already signed up to sing in a middle school choral concert. They reported that kids in other grades sometimes did a double take when they saw them, but everyone was nice. Each day afterward, the motorcade ride to Sidwell Friends felt a little more routine. After about a week, the girls felt comfortable enough to start traveling to school without me, swapping my mother in as their regular escort, which automatically made drop-offs and pickups a bit less of a production, involving fewer agents, vehicles, and guns.
My mother hadn’t wanted to come with us to Washington, but I’d forced the issue. The girls needed her. I needed her. I liked to believe that she needed us, too. For the last few years, she’d been a nearly every-day presence in our lives, her practicality a salve to everyone’s worries. At seventy-one, though, she’d never lived anywhere but Chicago. She was reluctant to leave the South Side and her home on Euclid Avenue. (“I love those people, but I love my own house,” she told a reporter after the election, not mincing any words. “The White House reminds me of a museum and it’s like, how do you sleep in a museum?”) I tried to explain that if she moved to Washington, she’d meet all sorts of interesting people, wouldn’t have to cook or clean for herself anymore, and would have more room on the top floor of the White House than she’d ever had at home. None of this was meaningful to her. My mother was impervious to all manner of glamour and hype.
I’d finally called Craig. “You’ve got to talk to Mom for me,” I said. “Please get her on board with this.”
Somehow that worked. Craig was good at strong-arming when he needed to be.
My mother would end up staying with us in Washington for the next eight years, but at the time she claimed the move was temporary, that she’d stay only until the girls got settled. She also refused to get put into any bubble. She declined Secret Service protection and avoided the media in order to keep her profile low and her footprint light. She’d charm the White House housekeeping staff by insisting on doing her own laundry, and for years to come, she’d slip in and out of the residence as she pleased, walking out the gates and over to the nearest CVS or Filene’s Basement when she needed something, making new friends and meeting them out regularly for lunch. Anytime a stranger commented that she looked exactly like Michelle Obama’s mother, she’d just give a polite shrug and say, “Yeah, I get that a lot,” before carrying on with her business. As she always had, my mother did things her own way.
My whole family came for the inauguration. My aunts, uncles, and cousins came. Our friends from Hyde Park came, along with my girlfriends and their spouses. Everyone brought their kids. We’d planned twin festivities for the big and small people over inauguration week, including a kids’ concert, a separate lunch for kids to take place during the traditional luncheon at the Capitol right after the swearing in, and a scavenger hunt and children’s party at the White House that would go on while the rest of us went to inaugural balls.
One of the surprise blessings of the final few months of campaigning had been an organic and harmonious merging of our family with Joe Biden’s. Though they’d been political rivals only months earlier, Barack and Joe had a natural rapport, both of them able to slide with ease between the seriousness of their work and the lightness of family.
I liked Jill, Joe’s wife, right away, admiring her gentle fortitude and her work ethic. She’d married Joe and become stepmother to his two sons in 1977, five years after his first wife and baby daughter were tragically killed in a car accident. Later, they’d had a daughter of their own. Jill had recently earned her doctorate in education and had managed to teach English at a community college in Delaware not just through Joe’s years as a senator but also through his two presidential campaigns. Like me, she was interested in finding new ways to support military families. Unlike me, she had a direct emotional connection to the issue: Beau Biden, Joe’s older son, was serving in Iraq with the National Guard. He’d been granted a short leave to travel to Washington and see his dad get sworn in as vice president.
And then there were the Biden grandkids, five altogether, all of them as outgoing and unassuming as Joe and Jill themselves. They’d shown up at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and swept Sasha and Malia right into their boisterous fold, hosting our girls for a sleepover in Joe’s hotel suite, all too happy to ignore the politics happening around them in favor of making new friends. We were grateful, always, to have the Biden kids around.
Inauguration Day was bitingly cold, with temperatures never going above freezing and the wind making it feel more like fifteen degrees. That morning, Barack and I went to church with the girls, my mom, Craig and Kelly, Maya and Konrad, and Mama Kaye. All the while, we were hearing that people had begun forming lines at the National Mall before dawn, bundled up as they waited for the inaugural activities to begin. As cold as I would eventually get that day, I’d forever remember how many people stood outside for many more hours than I did, convinced it was worth it to endure the chill. We’d learn later that nearly two million people had flooded the Mall, arriving from all parts of the country, a sea of diversity, energy, and hope stretching for more than a mile from the U.S. Capitol past the Washington Monument.
After church, Barack and I headed to the White House to join up with Joe and Jill, along with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their wives, all of us gathering for coffee and tea before motorcading together to the Capitol for the swearing in. At some point earlier, Barack had received the authorization codes that would allow him to access the country’s nuclear arsenal and a briefing on the protocols for using them. From now on, wherever he went, he’d be closely trailed by a military aide carrying a forty-five-pound briefcase containing launch authentication codes and sophisticated communications devices, often referred to as the nuclear football. That, too, was heavy.
For me, the ceremony itself would become another one of those strange, slowed-down experiences where the scope was so enormous I couldn’t fully process what was going on. We were ushered to a private room in the Capitol ahead of the ceremony so that the girls could have a snack and Barack could take a few minutes with me to practice putting his hand on the small red Bible that had belonged 150 years earlier to Abraham Lincoln. At that same moment, many of our friends, relatives, and colleagues were finding their seats on the platform outside. It occurred to me later that this was probably the first time in history that so many people of color had sat before the public and a global television audience, acknowledged as VIPs at an American inauguration.
Barack and I both knew what this day represented to many Americans, especially those who’d been a part of the civil rights movement. He’d made a point of including the Tuskegee Airmen, the history-making African American pilots and ground crews who fought in World War II, among his guests. He’d also invited the group known as the Little Rock Nine, the nine black students who in 1957 had been among the first to test the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision by enrolling at an all-white high school in Arkansas, enduring many months of cruelty and abuse in the name of a higher principle. All of them were senior citizens now, their hair graying and shoulders curving, a sign of the decades and maybe also the weight they’d carried for future generations. Barack had often said that he aspired to climb the steps of the White House because the Little Rock Nine had dared to climb the steps of Central High School. Of every continuum we belonged to, this was perhaps the most important.
Almost exactly at noon that day, we stood before the country with our two girls. I remember really only the smallest things—how brightly the sun fell across Barack’s forehead just then, how a respectful hush came over the crowd as the Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts, began the proceedings. I remember how Sasha, too small for her presence to register amid a sea of adults, stood proudly on a footstool in order to stay visible. I remember the crispness of the air. I lifted Lincoln’s Bible, and Barack placed his left hand on it, vowing to protect the U.S. Constitution—with a couple of short sentences, solemnly agreeing to take on the country’s every concern. It was weighty and at the same time it was joyful, a feeling mirrored in the inaugural speech Barack would then deliver.
“On this day,” he said, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
I saw that truth mirrored again and again in the faces of the people who stood shivering in the cold to witness it. There were people in every direction, as far back as I could see. They filled every inch of the National Mall and the parade route. I felt as if our family were almost falling into their arms now. We were making a pact, all of us. You’ve got us; we’ve got you.
Malia and Sasha were quickly learning what it meant to be watched publicly. I realized this once we climbed into the presidential limo and began our slow crawl to the White House, leading the inaugural parade. By then, Barack and I had said good-bye to George and Laura Bush, waving as they lifted off from the Capitol in a Marine helicopter. We’d also had lunch. Barack and I were served duck breast in a formal marbled hall inside the Capitol with a couple hundred guests, including his new cabinet, members of Congress, and the justices of the Supreme Court, while the girls feasted on their favorite delicacies—chicken fingers and mac and cheese—with the Biden kids and a handful of cousins in a nearby room.
I marveled at how our daughters had managed themselves perfectly throughout the inauguration, never fidgeting, slouching, or forgetting to smile. We still had many thousands of people watching from the sides of the road and on television as the motorcade made its way up Pennsylvania Avenue, though the darkened windows made it difficult for anyone to see inside. When Barack and I stepped out to walk a short stretch of the parade route and wave to the public, Malia and Sasha stayed behind inside the warm cocoon of the moving limo. It seemed to hit them then that they were finally relatively alone and out of sight.
By the time Barack and I climbed back in, the two girls were breathless and laughing, having released themselves from all ceremonial dignity. They’d shucked off their hats and messed up each other’s hair and were thrashing around, engaged in a sisterly tickle fight. Tired out, finally, they sprawled across the seats and rode the rest of the way with their feet kicked up, blasting Beyoncé on the car stereo as if it were just any old day.
Barack and I both felt a kind of sweet relief just then. We were the First Family now, but we were also still ourselves.
As the sun began to set on Inauguration Day, the air temperature dropped further. Barack and I, along with the indefatigable Joe Biden, spent the next two hours in an outdoor reviewing stand in front of the White House, watching bands and floats from all fifty states pass by us on Pennsylvania Avenue. At some point, I stopped feeling my toes, even after someone passed me a blanket to wrap around my legs and feet. One by one, our guests in the stand excused themselves to go get ready for the evening balls.
It was nearly 7:00 p.m. when the last marching band finished and Barack and I walked through the dark and into the White House, arriving for the first time as residents. Over the course of the afternoon, the staff had pulled off an extraordinary top-to-bottom flip of the residence, whisking the Bushes’ belongings out and our belongings in. In the span of about five hours, the carpets had been steamed to help keep Malia’s allergies from being activated by traces of the former president’s dogs. Furniture was brought in and arranged, floral decorations set out. By the time we rode the elevator upstairs, our clothes were organized neatly in the closets; the kitchen pantry had been stocked with our favorite foods. The White House butlers who staffed the residence, mostly African American men who were our age or older, stood poised to help us with anything we needed.
I was almost too cold to take anything in. We were due at the first of ten inaugural balls in less than an hour. I remember seeing very few people upstairs beyond the butlers, who were strangers to me. I remember, in fact, feeling a little lonely as I moved down a long hallway, past a bunch of closed doors. For the last two years, I’d been constantly surrounded by people, with Melissa, Katie, and Kristen always right by my side. Now, suddenly, I felt very much on my own. The kids had already headed to another part of the house for their evening of fun. My mom, Craig, and Maya were staying with us in the residence but had been packed into cars and shuttled off already to the night’s festivities. A hairdresser waited to style me; my gown hung on a rack. Barack had disappeared to take a shower and put on his tux.
It had been an incredible, symbolic day for our family and I hoped for the country, but it was also a kind of ultramarathon. I had only about five minutes alone to soak in a warm bath and reboot myself for what came next. Afterward, I’d have a few bites of steak and potatoes that Sam Kass had prepared. I’d have my hair touched up and makeup redone, and then I’d slip into the ivory silk chiffon gown I’d picked for the night ahead, specially made for me by a young designer named Jason Wu. The dress had a single shoulder strap and delicate organza flowers sewn across it, each one with a tiny crystal at its center, and a full skirt that cascaded richly to the floor.
In my life so far, I’d worn very few gowns, but Jason Wu’s creation performed a potent little miracle, making me feel soft and beautiful and open again, just as I began to think I had nothing of myself left to show. The dress resurrected the dreaminess of my family’s metamorphosis, the promise of this entire experience, transforming me if not into a full-blown ballroom princess, then at least into a woman capable of climbing onto another stage. I was now FLOTUS—First Lady of the United States—to Barack’s POTUS. It was time to celebrate.
That night, Barack and I went to the Neighborhood Ball, the first inaugural ball ever to be broadly accessible and affordable to the general public and where Beyoncé—real-life Beyoncé—sang a stunning, full-throated rendition of the R&B classic “At Last,” which we’d chosen as our “first dance” song. From there, we moved on to a Home States Ball and after that to the Commander in Chief Ball, then onward to the Youth Ball, and six more beyond that. Our stay at each one was relatively brief and pretty much exactly the same: A band played “Hail to the Chief,” Barack made a few remarks, we tried to beam our appreciation to those who’d come, and as everyone stood and watched, we slow danced yet another time to “At Last.” I held on to my husband each time, my eyes finding the calm in his. We were still the same seesawing, yin-and-yang duo we’d been for twenty years now and still connected by a visceral and grounding love. This was one thing I was always content to show.
As the hour got late, however, I could feel myself starting to sag.
The best part of the evening was supposed to be what came last—a private party being held for a couple hundred of our friends back at the White House. It was there that we’d finally be able to let down, have some champagne, and stop worrying about how we appeared. For sure, I’d be taking off my shoes.
It was close to 2:00 a.m. by the time we got ourselves there. Barack and I walked across the marble floors leading to the East Room to find the party in full swing, drinks flowing and elegantly dressed people swirling beneath the sparkling chandeliers. Wynton Marsalis and his band were playing jazz on a small stage at the back of the room. I saw friends from nearly every phase of my life—Princeton friends, Harvard friends, Chicago friends, Robinsons and Shieldses galore. These were the people I wanted to laugh with, to say, How in holy hell did we all get here?
But I was done. I’d hit a final fence line. I was also thinking ahead, knowing that the next morning—really just a matter of hours from now—we’d be going to the National Prayer Service and after that we’d stand and greet two hundred members of the public who were coming to visit the White House. Barack looked at me, reading my thoughts. “You don’t need to do this,” he said. “It’s okay.”
Partygoers were moving toward me now, eager to interact. Here came a donor. Here was the mayor of a big city. “Michelle! Michelle!” people were calling. I was so exhausted I thought I might cry.
As Barack stepped over the threshold and got promptly sucked into the room, I froze for a split second, then pivoted and fled. I had no energy left to verbalize some First Lady–like excuse or even wave to my friends. I just walked quickly away over the thick red carpet, ignoring the agents who trailed behind me, ignoring everything as I found the elevator to the residence and took myself there—down an unfamiliar hallway and into an unfamiliar room, out of my shoes and out of my gown and into our strange new bed.
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