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One Saturday evening at the end of May, Barack took me out on a date. In the four months since becoming president, he’d been spending his days working on ways to fulfill the various promises made to voters during the campaign; now he was making good on a promise to me. We were going to New York, to have dinner and see a show.
For years in Chicago, our date nights had been a sacred part of every week, an indulgence we built into our lives and protected no matter what. I love talking to my husband across a small table in a low-lit room. I always have, and I expect I always will. Barack is a good listener, patient and thoughtful. I love how he tips his head back when he laughs. I love the lightness in his eyes, the kindness at his core. Having a drink and an unrushed meal together has always been our pathway back to the start, to that first hot summer when everything between us carried an electric charge.
I dressed up for our New York date, putting on a black cocktail dress and lipstick, styling my hair in an elegant updo. I felt a fluttering excitement at the prospect of a getaway, of time alone with my husband. In the last few months, we’d hosted dinners and gone to Kennedy Center performances together, but it was almost always in an official capacity and with lots of other people. This was to be a true night off.
Barack had dressed in a dark suit with no tie. We kissed the girls and my mom good-bye in the late afternoon and walked hand in hand across the South Lawn and climbed onto Marine One, the presidential helicopter, which took us to Andrews Air Force Base. We next boarded a small Air Force plane, flew to JFK Airport, and were then helicoptered into Manhattan. Our movements had been planned meticulously in advance by our scheduling teams and the Secret Service, meant as always to maximize efficiency and security.
Barack (with the help of Sam Kass) had chosen a restaurant near Washington Square Park that he knew I’d love for its emphasis on locally grown foods, a small, tucked-away eatery called Blue Hill. As we motorcaded the last stretch of the journey from the helipad in lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village, I noted the lights of the cop cars being used to barricade the cross streets, feeling a twinge of guilt at how our mere presence in the city was mucking up the Saturday evening flow. New York always awakened a sense of awe in me, big and busy enough to dwarf anyone’s ego. I remembered how wide-eyed I’d been on my first trip there decades earlier with Czerny, my mentor from Princeton. Barack, I knew, felt something even deeper. The wild energy and diversity of the city had proven the perfect hatching place for his intellect and imagination years back when he was a student at Columbia.
At the restaurant, we were shown to a table in a discreet corner of the room as around us people tried not to gawk. But there was no hiding our arrival. Anyone who came in after we did would have to get swept with a magnetometer wand by a Secret Service team, a process that was usually quick but still an inconvenience. For this, I felt another twinge.
We ordered martinis. Our conversation stayed light. Four months into our lives as POTUS and FLOTUS, we were still retrofitting—figuring out how one identity worked with the other and what this meant inside our marriage. These days, there was almost no part of Barack’s complicated life that didn’t in some way impact mine, which meant there was plenty of shared business we could have discussed—his team’s decision to schedule a foreign trip during the girls’ summer vacation, for example, or whether my chief of staff was being listened to at morning staff meetings in the West Wing—but I tried in general to avoid it, not just this night, but every night. If I had an issue with something going on in the West Wing, I usually relied on my staff to convey it to Barack’s, doing what I could to keep White House business out of our personal time.
Sometimes Barack wanted to talk about work, though more often than not he avoided it. So much of his job was just plain grueling, the challenges huge and often seemingly intractable. General Motors was days away from filing for bankruptcy. North Korea had just conducted a nuclear test, and Barack was soon to leave for Egypt to deliver a major address meant to extend an open hand to Muslims around the world. The ground around him never seemed to stop shaking. Anytime old friends came to visit us at the White House, they were amused by the intensity with which both Barack and I quizzed them about their jobs, their kids, their hobbies, anything. The two of us were always less interested in talking about the intricacies of our new existence and more interested in sponging up bits of gossip and everyday news from home. Both of us, it seemed, craved glimpses of regular life.
That evening in New York, we ate, drank, and conversed in the candlelight, reveling in the feeling, however illusory, that we’d stolen away. The White House is a remarkably beautiful and comfortable place, a kind of fortress disguised as a home, and from the point of view of the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting us, it would probably be ideal if we never left its grounds. Even inside it, the agents seemed happiest if we took the elevator instead of the stairs, to minimize the risk of a stumble. If Barack or I had a meeting in Blair House, located just across an already closed-off part of Pennsylvania Avenue, they’d sometimes request that we take the motorcade instead of walking in the fresh air. We respected the watchfulness, but it could feel like a form of confinement. I struggled sometimes, trying to balance my needs with what was convenient for others. If anyone in our family wanted to step outside onto the Truman Balcony—the lovely arcing terrace that overlooked the South Lawn, and the only semiprivate outdoor space we had at the White House—we needed to first alert the Secret Service so that they could shut down the section of E Street that was in view of the balcony, clearing out the flocks of tourists who gathered outside the gates there at all hours of the day and night. There were many times when I thought I’d go out to sit on the balcony, but then reconsidered, realizing the hassle I would cause, the vacations I’d be interrupting, all because I thought it would be nice to have a cup of tea outdoors.
With our movements so controlled, the number of steps Barack and I took in a day had plummeted. As a result, both of us had grown fiercely dependent on the small gym on the top floor of the residence. Barack ran on the treadmill about an hour every day, trying to beat back his physical restlessness. I was working out every morning as well, often with Cornell, who’d been our trainer in Chicago and now lived part-time in Washington on our behalf, coming over at least a few times a week to push us with plyometrics and weights.
Setting aside the business of the country, Barack and I never lacked for things to discuss. We talked that night over dinner about Malia’s flute lessons; Sasha’s ongoing devotion to her perilously frayed Blankie, which she kept draped over her head as she slept at night. When I told a funny story about how a makeup artist recently tried and failed to put false eyelashes on my mom before a photo shoot, Barack tipped his head and laughed, exactly the way I knew he would. And we had a new and entertaining baby in the house to talk about as well—a seven-month-old, completely rambunctious Portuguese water dog we’d named Bo, a gift to our family from Senator Ted Kennedy and a fulfillment of the promise we’d made to the girls during the campaign. The girls had taken to playing a hide-and-seek game with him on the South Lawn, crouching behind trees and shouting his name as he scampered across the open grass, following their voices. All of us loved Bo.
When we finally finished our meal and stood up to leave, the diners around us rose to their feet and applauded, which struck me as both kind and unnecessary. It’s possible that some of them were glad to see us go.
We were a nuisance, Barack and I, a disruption to any normal scene. There was no getting around that fact. We felt it acutely as our motorcade zipped us up Sixth Avenue and over toward Times Square, where hours earlier police had cordoned off an entire block in front of the theater, where our fellow theatergoers were now waiting in line to pass through metal detectors that normally weren’t there and the performers would need to wait an extra forty-five minutes to start the show due to the security checks.
The play, when it finally began, was marvelous—a drama by August Wilson set inside a Pittsburgh boardinghouse during the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the South and flooded into the Midwest, just as my relatives on both sides had done. Sitting in the dark next to Barack, I was riveted, a little emotional, and for a short while able to get lost in the performance and the sense of quiet contentment that came with just being off duty and out in the world.
As we flew back to Washington late that night, I already knew it would be a long time before we did anything like this again. Barack’s political opponents would criticize him for taking me to New York to see a show. The Republican Party would put out a press release before we’d even gotten home, saying that our date had been extravagant and costly to taxpayers, a message that would get picked up and debated on cable news. Barack’s team would quietly reinforce the point, urging us to be more mindful of the politics, making me feel guilty and selfish for having stolen a rare moment out and alone with my husband.
But that wasn’t even it. The critics would always be there. The Republicans would never let up. Optics would always rule our lives.
It was as if with our date Barack and I had tested a theory and proven both the best and the worst parts of what we’d suspected all along. The nice part was that we could step away for a romantic evening the way we used to, years earlier, before his political life took over. We could, as First Couple, feel close and connected, enjoying a meal and a show in a city we both loved. The harder part was seeing the selfishness inherent in making that choice, knowing that it had required hours of advance meetings between security teams and local police. It had involved extra work for our staffers, for the theater, for the waiters at the restaurant, for the people whose cars had been diverted off Sixth Avenue, for the police on the street. It was part of the new heaviness we lived with. There were just too many people involved, too many affected, for anything to feel light.
From the Truman Balcony, I could see the fullness of the garden taking shape on the southwest corner of the lawn. For me, it was a gratifying sight—a miniature Eden in progress, made up of spiraling young tendrils and half-grown shoots, carrot and onion stalks just beginning to rise, the patches of spinach dense and green, with bright red and yellow flowers blooming around the edges. We were growing food.
In late June, our original garden-helper crew from Bancroft Elementary joined me for our first harvest, kneeling together in the dirt to tear off lettuce leaves and strip pea pods from their stems. This time they were also entertained by Bo, our puppy, who proved to be a great lover of the garden himself, bounding in circles around the trees before sprawling belly-up in the sun between the raised beds.
After our harvest that day, Sam and the schoolkids made salads with their fresh-picked lettuce and peas in the kitchen, which we then ate with baked chicken, followed by cupcakes topped with garden berries. In ten weeks, the garden had generated over ninety pounds of produce—from only about $200 worth of seeds and mulch.
The garden was popular and the garden was wholesome, but I also knew that for some people it wouldn’t feel like enough. I understood that I was being watched with a certain kind of anticipation, especially by women, maybe especially by professional working women, who wondered whether I’d bury my education and management experience to fold myself into some prescribed First Lady pigeonhole, a place lined with tea leaves and pink linen. People seemed worried that I wasn’t going to show my full self.
Regardless of what I chose to do, I knew I was bound to disappoint someone. The campaign had taught me that my every move and facial expression would be read a dozen different ways. I was either hard-driving and angry or, with my garden and messages about healthy eating, I was a disappointment to feminists, lacking a certain stridency. Several months before Barack was elected, I’d told a magazine interviewer that my primary focus in the White House would be to continue my role as “mom in chief” in our family. I’d said it casually, but the phrase caught hold and was amplified across the press. Some Americans seemed to embrace it, understanding all too well the amount of organization and drive it takes to raise children. Others, meanwhile, seemed vaguely appalled, presuming it to mean that as First Lady I’d do nothing but pipe-cleaner craft projects with my kids.
The truth was, I intended to do everything—to work with purpose and parent with care—same as I always had. The only difference now was that a lot of people were watching.
My preferred way to work, at least at first, was quietly. I wanted to be methodical in putting together a larger plan, waiting until I had full confidence in what I was presenting before going public with any of it. As I told my staff, I’d rather go deep than broad when it came to taking on issues. I felt sometimes like a swan on a lake, knowing that my job was in part to glide and appear serene, while underwater I never stopped pedaling my legs. The interest and enthusiasm we’d generated with the garden—the positive news coverage, the letters pouring in from around the country—only confirmed for me that I could generate buzz around a good idea. Now I wanted to highlight a larger issue and push for larger solutions.
At the time Barack took office, nearly a third of American children were overweight or obese. Over the previous three decades, rates of childhood obesity had tripled. Kids were being diagnosed with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes at record rates. Even military leaders were reporting that obesity was one of the most common disqualifiers for service.
The problem was woven into every aspect of family life, from the high price of fresh fruits to widespread cuts in funding for sports and rec programs in public schools. TV, computers, and video games competed for kids’ time, and in some neighborhoods staying indoors felt like a safer choice than going outside to play, as Craig and I had done when we were kids. Many families in underserved sections of big cities didn’t have grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Rural shoppers across large swaths of the country were similarly out of luck when it came to accessing fresh produce. Meanwhile, portion sizes at restaurants were increasing. Advertising slogans for sugary cereal, microwavable convenience foods, and supersized everything were downloaded directly into the minds of children watching cartoons.
Attempting to improve even one part of the food system, though, could set off adversarial ripples. If I were to try to declare war on sugary drinks marketed to kids, it would likely be opposed not just by the big beverage companies but also by farmers who supplied the corn used in many sweeteners. If I were to advocate for healthier school lunches, I’d put myself on a collision course with the big corporate lobbies that often dictated what food ended up on a fourth grader’s tray at the cafeteria. For years, public health experts and advocates had been outmatched by the better-organized, better-funded food and beverage industrial complex. School lunches in the United States were a six-billion-dollar-a-year business.
Still, it felt to me like the right time to push for change. I was neither the first nor the only person to be drawn to these issues. Across America, a nascent healthy food movement was gaining strength. Urban farmers were experimenting in cities across the country. Republicans and Democrats alike had tackled the problem at state and local levels, investing in healthy living, building more sidewalks and community gardens—a proof point that there was common political ground to be explored.
Midway through 2009, my small team and I began coordinating with West Wing policy people and meeting with experts inside and outside government to formulate a plan. We decided to keep our work focused on children. It’s tough and politically difficult to get grown-ups to change their habits. We felt certain we’d stand a better chance if we tried to help kids think differently about food and exercise from an early age. And who could take issue with us if we were genuinely looking out for kids?
My own kids were by then out of school for the summer. I’d committed myself to spending three days a week working in my capacity as First Lady while reserving the rest of my time for family. Rather than put the girls in day camps, I decided to run what I called Camp Obama, where we’d invite a few friends and make local excursions, getting to know the area in which we now lived. We went to Monticello and Mount Vernon and explored caves in the Shenandoah Valley. We visited the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to see how dollars got made and toured Frederick Douglass’s house in the southeast part of Washington, learning how an enslaved person could become a scholar and a hero. For a while, I required the girls to write up a little report after each visit, summarizing what they had learned, though eventually they started protesting and I let the idea go.
As often as we could, we scheduled these outings for first thing in the morning or late in the day so that the Secret Service could clear the site or rope off an area ahead of our arrival without causing too much of a hassle. We were still a nuisance, I knew, though without Barack along we were at least somewhat less of a nuisance. And when it came to the girls, anyway, I tried to let go of any guilt. I wanted our kids to be able to move with the same kind of freedom that other kids had.
One day, earlier in the year, I’d had a dustup with the Secret Service when Malia had been invited to join a group of school friends who were making a spur-of-the-moment trip to get some ice cream. Because for security reasons she wasn’t allowed to ride in another family’s car, and because Barack and I had our daily schedules diced down to the minute and set weeks in advance, Malia was told she’d have to wait an hour while the leader of her security detail was summoned from the suburbs, which of course then merited a bunch of apologetic phone calls and delayed everyone involved.
This was exactly the kind of heaviness I didn’t want for my daughters. I couldn’t contain my irritation. To me, it made no sense. We had agents standing in practically every hallway of the White House. I could look out the window and see Secret Service vehicles parked in the circular drive. But for some reason, she couldn’t just get my permission and head off to join her friends. Nothing could be done without her detail leader.
“This isn’t how families work or how ice cream runs work,” I said. “If you’re going to protect a kid, you’ve got to be able to move like a kid.” I went on to insist that the agents revise their protocols so that in the future Malia and Sasha could leave the White House safely and without some massive advance planning effort. For me, it was another small test of the boundaries. Barack and I had by now let go of the idea that we could be spontaneous. We’d surrendered to the idea that there was no longer room for impulsiveness and whimsy in our own lives. But for our girls, we’d fight to keep that possibility alive.
Sometime during Barack’s campaign, people had begun paying attention to my clothes. Or at least the media paid attention, which led fashion bloggers to pay attention, which seemed then to provoke all manner of commentary across the internet. I don’t know why this was, exactly—possibly because I’m tall and unafraid of bold patterns—but so it seemed to be.
When I wore flats instead of heels, it got reported in the news. My pearls, my belts, my cardigans, my off-the-rack dresses from J.Crew, my apparently brave choice of white for an inaugural gown—all seemed to trigger a slew of opinions and instant feedback. I wore a sleeveless aubergine dress to Barack’s address to the joint session of Congress and a sleeveless black sheath dress for my official White House photo, and suddenly my arms were making headlines. Late in the summer of 2009, we went on a family trip in the Grand Canyon, and I was lambasted for an apparent lack of dignity when I was photographed getting off Air Force One (in 106-degree heat, I might add) dressed in a pair of shorts.
It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say. In London, I’d stepped offstage after having been moved to tears while speaking to the girls at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, only to learn that the first question directed to one of my staffers by a reporter covering the event had been “Who made her dress?”
This stuff got me down, but I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to use what power I could find inside a situation I’d never have chosen for myself. If people flipped through a magazine primarily to see the clothes I was wearing, I hoped they’d also see the military spouse standing next to me or read what I had to say about children’s health. When Vogue proposed putting me on the cover of the magazine shortly after Barack was elected, my team had debated whether it would make me seem frivolous or elitist during a time of economic worry, but in the end we’d decided to go ahead with it. It mattered every time a woman of color showed up on the cover of a magazine. Also, I insisted on choosing my own outfits, wearing dresses by Jason Wu and Narciso Rodriguez, a gifted Latino designer, for the photo shoot.
I knew a little about fashion, but not a lot. As a working mother, I’d really been too busy to put much thought into what I wore. During the campaign, I’d done most of my shopping at a boutique in Chicago where I’d had the good fortune of meeting a young sales associate named Meredith Koop. Meredith, who’d been raised in St. Louis, was sharp and knowledgeable about different designers and had a playful sense of color and texture. After Barack’s election, I was able to persuade her to move to Washington and work with me as a personal aide and wardrobe stylist. Very quickly, she also became a trusted friend.
A couple of times a month, Meredith would roll several big racks of clothing into my dressing room in the residence, and we’d spend an hour or two trying things on, pairing outfits with whatever was on my schedule in the coming weeks. I paid for all my own clothes and accessories—with the exception of some items like the couture-level gowns I wore to formal events, which were lent to me by the designers and would later be donated to the National Archives, thus adhering to White House ethics guidelines. When it came to my choices, I tried to be somewhat unpredictable, to prevent anyone from ascribing any sort of message to what I wore. It was a thin line to walk. I was supposed to stand out without overshadowing others, to blend in but not fade away. As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high end, and I’d be criticized also if I was too casual. So I mixed it up. I’d match a high-end Michael Kors skirt with a T-shirt from Gap. I wore something from Target one day and Diane von Furstenberg the next. I wanted to draw attention to and celebrate American designers, most especially those who were less established, even if it sometimes frustrated old-guard designers, including Oscar de la Renta, who was reportedly displeased that I wasn’t wearing his creations. For me, my choices were simply a way to use my curious relationship with the public gaze to boost a diverse set of up-and-comers.
Optics governed more or less everything in the political world, and I factored this into every outfit. It required time, thought, and money—more money than I’d spent on clothing ever before. It also required careful research by Meredith, particularly on foreign trips. She’d often spend hours making sure the designers, colors, and styles we chose paid proper respect to the people and countries we visited. Meredith also shopped for Sasha and Malia ahead of public events, which added to the overall expense, but they, too, had the gaze upon them. I sighed sometimes, watching Barack pull the same dark suit out of his closet and head off to work without even needing a comb. His biggest fashion consideration for a public moment was whether to have his suit jacket on or off. Tie or no tie?
We were careful, Meredith and I, to always be prepared. In my dressing room, I’d put on a new dress and then squat, lunge, and pinwheel my arms, just to be sure I could move. Anything too restrictive, I put back on the rack. When I traveled, I brought backup outfits, anticipating shifts in weather and schedule, not to mention nightmare scenarios involving spilled wine or broken zippers. I learned, too, that it was important to always, no matter what, pack a dress suitable for a funeral, because Barack sometimes got called with little notice to be there as soldiers, senators, and world leaders were laid to rest.
I came to depend heavily on Meredith but also equally on Johnny Wright, my fast-talking, hard-laughing hurricane of a hairdresser, and Carl Ray, my soft-spoken and meticulous makeup artist. Together, the three of them (dubbed by my larger team “the trifecta”) gave me the confidence I needed to step out in public each day, all of us knowing that a slipup would lead to a flurry of ridicule and nasty comments. I never expected to be someone who hired others to maintain my image, and at first the idea was discomfiting. But I quickly found out a truth that no one talks about: Today, virtually every woman in public life—politicians, celebrities, you name it—has some version of Meredith, Johnny, and Carl. It’s all but a requirement, a built-in fee for our societal double standard.
How had other First Ladies managed their hair, makeup, and wardrobe challenges? I had no idea. Several times over the course of that first year in the White House, I found myself picking up books either by or about previous First Ladies, but each time I’d lay them down again. I almost didn’t want to know what was the same and what was different about any of us.
I did, in September, have a pleasant overdue lunch with Hillary Clinton, the two of us sitting in the residence dining room. After his election and a little to my surprise, Barack had chosen Hillary as his secretary of state, both of them managing to set aside the battle wounds of the primary campaign and build a productive working relationship. She was candid with me about how she’d misjudged the country’s readiness to have a proactive professional woman in the role of First Lady. As First Lady of Arkansas, Hillary had kept her job as a law partner while also helping with her husband’s efforts to improve health care and education. Arriving in Washington with the same sort of desire and energy to contribute, though, she’d been roundly spurned, pilloried for taking on a policy role in the White House’s work on health-care reform. The message had been delivered with a resounding, brutal frankness: Voters had elected her husband and not her. First Ladies had no place in the West Wing. She’d tried to do too much too quickly, it seemed, and had run straight into a wall.
I myself tried to be mindful of that wall, learning from other First Ladies’ experience, taking care not to directly or overtly insert myself into West Wing business. I relied instead on my staff to communicate daily with Barack’s, exchanging advice, syncing our schedules, and reviewing every plan. The president’s advisers in my opinion could be overly fretful about appearances. At one point several years later, when I decided to get bangs cut into my hair, my staff would feel the need to first run the idea past Barack’s staff, just to make sure there wouldn’t be a problem.
With the economy in rough shape, Barack’s team was constantly guarding against any image coming out of the White House that might be seen as frivolous or light, given the somberness of the times. This didn’t always sit well with me. I knew from experience that even during hard times, maybe especially during hard times, it was still okay to laugh. For the sake of children, in particular, you had to find ways to have fun. On this front, my team had been wrangling with Barack’s communications staff over an idea I’d had to host a Halloween party for kids at the White House. The West Wing—particularly David Axelrod, now a senior adviser in the administration, and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs—thought it would be perceived as too showy, too costly, and could potentially alienate Barack from the public. “The optics are just bad” was how they put it. I disagreed, arguing that a Halloween party for local kids and military families who’d never seen the White House before was a perfectly appropriate use for a tiny slice of the Social Office’s entertaining budget.
Axe and Gibbs never fully consented, but at some point they stopped fighting us on it. At the end of October, to my great delight, a thousand-pound pumpkin sat on the White House lawn. A brass band of skeletons played jazz music, while a giant black spider descended from the North Portico. I stood in front of the White House, dressed as a leopard—in black pants, a spotted top, and a pair of cat ears on a headband—as Barack, who was never much of a costume guy even before optics mattered, stood next to me in a humdrum sweater. (Gibbs, to his credit, showed up dressed as Darth Vader, ready to have fun.) That night, we handed out bags of cookies, dried fruits, and M&M’s in a box emblazoned with the presidential seal as more than two thousand little princesses, grim reapers, pirates, superheroes, ghosts, and football players traipsed up the lawn to meet us. As far as I was concerned, the optics were just right.
The garden churned through the seasons, teaching us all sorts of things. We grew cantaloupes that turned out pale and tasteless. We endured pelting rainstorms that washed away our topsoil. Birds snacked on our blueberries; beetles went after the cucumbers. Each time something went a little awry, with the help of Jim Adams, the National Park Service horticulturist who served as our head gardener, and Dale Haney, the White House grounds superintendent, we made small adjustments and carried on, savoring the overall abundance. Our dinners in the residence now often included broccoli, carrots, and kale grown on the South Lawn. We started donating a portion of every harvest to Miriam’s Kitchen, a local nonprofit that served the homeless. We began, too, to pickle vegetables and present them as gifts to visiting dignitaries, along with jars of honey from our new beehives. Among the staff, the garden became a source of pride. Its early skeptics had quickly become fans. For me, the garden was simple, prosperous, and healthy—a symbol of diligence and faith. It was beautiful while also being powerful. And it made people happy.
Over the previous few months, my East Wing staff and I had spoken with children’s health experts and advocates to help us develop the pillars on which our larger effort would be built. We’d give parents better information to help them make healthy choices for their families. We’d work to create healthier schools. We’d try to improve access to nutritious food. And we’d find more ways for young people to be physically active. Knowing that the way we introduced our work would matter as much as anything, I again enlisted the help of Stephanie Cutter, who came on as a consultant to help Sam and Jocelyn Frye shape the initiative, while my communications team was tasked with building a fun public face for the campaign. All the while, the West Wing was apparently fretting about my plans, worried I’d come off as a finger-wagging embodiment of the nanny state at a time when controversial bank and car-company bailouts had left Americans extra leery of anything that looked like government intervention.
My goal, though, was to make this about more than government. I hoped to learn from what Hillary had shared with me about her own experiences, to leave the politics to Barack and focus my own efforts elsewhere. When it came to dealing with the CEOs of soft drink companies and school-lunch suppliers, I thought it was worth making a human appeal as opposed to a regulatory one, to collaborate rather than pick a fight. And when it came to the way families actually lived, I wanted to speak directly to moms, dads, and especially kids.
I wasn’t interested in following the tenets of the political world or appearing on Sunday morning news shows. Instead, I did interviews with health magazines geared toward parents and kids. I hula-hooped on the South Lawn to show that exercise could be fun and made a guest appearance on Sesame Street, talking about vegetables with Elmo and Big Bird. Anytime I spoke to reporters from the White House garden, I mentioned that many Americans had trouble accessing fresh produce in their communities and tried to remark on the health-care costs connected to rising obesity levels. I wanted to make sure we had buy-in from everyone we’d need to make the initiative a success, to anticipate any objections that might be raised. With this in mind, we spent weeks and weeks quietly holding meetings with business and advocacy groups as well as members of Congress. We conducted focus groups to test-market our branding for the project, enlisting the pro bono help of PR professionals to fine-tune the message.
In February 2010, I was finally ready to share my vision. On a cold Tuesday afternoon and with D.C. still digging out from a historic blizzard, I stood at a lectern in the State Dining Room at the White House, surrounded by kids and cabinet secretaries, sports figures and mayors, along with leaders in medicine, education, and food production, plus a bevy of media, to proudly announce our new initiative, which we’d decided to name Let’s Move! It centered on one goal—ending the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.
What was important to me was that we weren’t just announcing some pie-in-the-sky set of wishes. The effort was real, and the work was well under way. Not only had Barack signed a memorandum earlier that day to create a first-of-its-kind federal task force on childhood obesity, but the three major corporate suppliers of school lunches had announced that they would cut the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in the meals they served. The American Beverage Association had promised to improve the clarity of its ingredient labeling. We’d engaged the American Academy of Pediatrics to encourage doctors to make body mass index measurements a standard of care for children, and we’d persuaded Disney, NBC, and Warner Bros. to air public service announcements and invest in special programming that encouraged kids to make healthy lifestyle choices. Leaders from twelve different professional sports leagues, too, had agreed to promote a 60 Minutes of Play a Day campaign to help get kids moving more.
And that was just the start. We had plans to help bring greengrocers into urban neighborhoods and rural areas known as “food deserts,” to push for more accurate nutritional information on food packaging, and to redesign the aging food pyramid to be more accessible and in line with current research on nutrition. Along the way, we’d work to hold the business community accountable for its decision making around issues impacting children’s health.
It would take commitment and organization to make all this happen, I knew, but that was exactly the kind of work I liked. We were taking on a huge issue, but now I had the benefit of operating from a huge platform. I was beginning to realize that all the things that felt odd to me about my new existence—the strangeness of fame, the hawkeyed attention paid to my image, the vagueness of my job description—could be marshaled in service of real goals. I was energized. Here, finally, was a way to show my full self.
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