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Time seemed to loop and leap, making it feel impossible to measure or track. Each day was packed. Each week and month and year we spent in the White House was packed. I’d get to Friday and need to work to remember how Monday and Tuesday had gone. I’d sit down to dinner sometimes and wonder where and how lunch had happened. Even now, I still find it hard to process. The velocity was too great, the time for reflection too limited. A single afternoon could hold a couple of official events, several meetings, and a photo shoot. I might visit several states in a day, or speak to twelve thousand people, or have four hundred kids over to do jumping jacks with me on the South Lawn, all before putting on a fancy dress for an evening reception. I used my down days, those free from official business, to tend to Sasha and Malia and their lives, before going back “up” again—back into hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Back into the vortex of the public eye.
As we moved toward Barack’s reelection year in 2012, I felt that I couldn’t and shouldn’t rest. I was still earning my grace. I thought often of what I owed and to whom. I carried a history with me, and it wasn’t that of presidents or First Ladies. I’d never related to the story of John Quincy Adams the way I did to that of Sojourner Truth, or been moved by Woodrow Wilson the way I was by Harriet Tubman. The struggles of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King were more familiar to me than those of Eleanor Roosevelt or Mamie Eisenhower. I carried their histories, along with those of my mother and grandmothers. None of these women could ever have imagined a life like the one I now had, but they’d trusted that their perseverance would yield something better, eventually, for someone like me. I wanted to show up in the world in a way that honored who they were.
I put this on myself as pressure, a driving need not to screw anything up. Though I was thought of as a popular First Lady, I couldn’t help but feel haunted by the ways I’d been criticized, by the people who’d made assumptions about me based on the color of my skin. To this end, I rehearsed my speeches again and again using a teleprompter set up in one corner of my office. I pushed hard on my schedulers and advance teams to make sure every one of our events ran smoothly and on time. I pushed even harder on my policy advisers to continue growing the reach of Let’s Move! and Joining Forces. I was focused on not wasting any of the opportunities I now had, but sometimes I had to remind myself just to breathe.
Barack and I both knew that the months of campaigning ahead would involve extra travel, extra strategizing, and extra worry. It was impossible not to worry about reelection. The cost was huge. (Barack and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who would eventually become the Republican nominee, would each raise over a billion dollars in the end to keep their campaigns competitive.) And the responsibility was also huge. The election would determine everything from the fate of the new health-care law to whether America would be part of the global effort to combat climate change. Everyone working in the White House lived in the limbo of not knowing whether we’d get a second term. I tried not to even consider the possibility that Barack might lose the election, but it was there—a kernel of fear he and I carried privately, neither of us daring to give it voice.
The summer of 2011 turned out to be especially bruising for Barack. A group of obstinate congressional Republicans refused to authorize the issuing of new government bonds—a relatively routine process known as raising the debt ceiling—unless he made a series of painful cuts to government programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, which he opposed because they would hurt the people who were struggling the most. Meanwhile, the monthly jobs reports published by the Labor Department were showing consistent but sluggish growth, suggesting that when it came to recovering from the 2008 crisis, the nation still wasn’t where it needed to be. Many people blamed Barack. In the relief following the death of Osama bin Laden, his approval ratings had spiked, hitting a two-year high, but then, just a few months later, following the debt-ceiling brawl and worries about a new recession, they’d plunged to the lowest they’d been.
As this tumult was beginning, I flew to South Africa for a goodwill visit that had been planned months in advance. Sasha and Malia’s school year had just ended, so they were able to join me, along with my mother and Craig’s kids Leslie and Avery, who were now teenagers. I was headed there to give a keynote address at a U.S.-sponsored forum for young African women leaders from around the continent, but we’d also filled my schedule with community events connected to wellness and education, as well as visits with local leaders and U.S. consulate workers. We’d finish with a short visit to Botswana, meeting with its president and stopping at a community HIV clinic, and then enjoy a quick safari before heading home.
It had taken no time at all for us to get swept up in South Africa’s energy. In Johannesburg, we toured the Apartheid Museum and danced and read books with young children at a community center in one of the black townships north of the city. At a soccer stadium in Cape Town, we met community organizers and health workers who were using youth sports programs to help educate children about HIV/AIDS, and were introduced to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary theologian and activist who’d helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa. Tutu was seventy-nine years old, a barrel-chested man with bright eyes and an irrepressible laugh. Hearing that I was at the stadium to promote fitness, he insisted on doing push-ups with me in front of a cheering pack of kids.
Over the course of those few days in South Africa, I felt myself floating. This visit was a long way from my first trip to Kenya in 1991, when I’d ridden around with Barack in matatus and pushed Auma’s broken-down VW along the side of a dusty road. What I felt was one part jet lag, maybe, but two parts something more profound and elating. It was as if we’d stepped into the larger crosscurrents of culture and history, reminded suddenly of our relative smallness in the wider arc of time. Seeing the faces of the seventy-six young women who’d been chosen to attend the leadership forum because they were doing meaningful work in their communities, I fought back tears. They gave me hope. They made me feel old in the best possible way. A full 60 percent of Africa’s population at the time was under the age of twenty-five. Here were women, all of them under thirty and some as young as sixteen, who were building nonprofits, training other women to be entrepreneurs, and risking imprisonment to report on government corruption. And now they were being connected, trained, and encouraged. I hoped this would only amplify their might.
The most surreal moment of all, though, had come early, on just the second day of our trip. My family and I had been at the Nelson Mandela Foundation headquarters in Johannesburg, visiting with Graça Machel, a well-known humanitarian and Mandela’s wife, when we received word that Mandela himself would be happy to greet us at his home nearby.
We went immediately, of course. Nelson Mandela was ninety-two at the time. He’d been hospitalized with lung issues earlier in the year. I was told he seldom received guests. Barack had met him six years earlier, as a senator, when Mandela had visited Washington. He’d kept a framed photo of their meeting on the wall of his office ever since. Even my kids—Sasha, ten, and Malia, about to turn thirteen—understood what a big deal this was. Even my eternally unfazed mother looked a little stunned.
There was no one alive who’d had a more meaningful impact on the world than Nelson Mandela had, at least by my measure. He’d been a young man in the 1940s when he first joined the African National Congress and began boldly challenging the all-white South African government and its entrenched racist policies. He’d been forty-four years old when he was put in shackles and sent to prison for his activism, and seventy-one when he was finally released in 1990. Surviving twenty-seven years of deprivation and isolation as a prisoner, having had many of his friends tortured and killed under the apartheid regime, Mandela managed to negotiate—rather than fight—with government leaders, brokering a miraculously peaceful transition to a true democracy in South Africa and ultimately becoming its first president.
Mandela lived on a leafy suburban street in a Mediterranean-style home set behind butter-colored concrete walls. Graça Machel ushered us through a courtyard shaded by trees and into the house, where in a wide, sunlit room her husband sat in an armchair. He had sparse, snowy hair and wore a brown batik shirt. Someone had laid a white blanket across his lap. He was surrounded by several generations of relatives, all of whom welcomed us enthusiastically. Something in the brightness of the room, the volubility of the family, and the squinty smile of the patriarch reminded me of going to my grandfather Southside’s house when I was a kid. I’d been nervous to come, but now I relaxed.
The truth is I’m not sure that the patriarch himself completely grasped who we were or why we’d stopped in. He was an old man at this point, his attention seeming to drift, his hearing a little weak. “This is Michelle Obama!” Graça Machel said, leaning close to his ear. “The wife of the U.S. president!”
“Oh, lovely,” murmured Nelson Mandela. “Lovely.”
He looked at me with genuine interest, though in truth I could have been anyone. It seemed clear that he bestowed this same degree of warmth upon every person who crossed his path. My interaction with Mandela was both quiet and profound—maybe more profound, even, for its quietness. His life’s words had mostly been spoken now, his speeches and letters, his books and protest chants, already etched not just into his story but into humanity’s as a whole. I could feel all of it in the brief moment I had with him—the dignity and spirit that had coaxed equality from a place where none had existed.
I was still thinking about Mandela five days later as we flew back to the United States, traveling north and west over Africa and then across the Atlantic over the course of a long dark night. Sasha and Malia lay sprawled beneath blankets next to their cousins; my mother dozed in a seat nearby. Farther back in the plane, staff and Secret Service members were watching movies and catching up on sleep. The engines hummed. I felt alone and not alone. We were headed home—home being the strange-familiar city of Washington, D.C., with its white marble and clashing ideologies, with everything that still needed to be fought and won. I thought about the young African women I’d met at the leadership forum, all of them now headed back to their own communities to pick up their work again, persevering through whatever tumult they faced.
Mandela had gone to jail for his principles. He’d missed seeing his kids grow up, and then he’d missed seeing many of his grandkids grow up, too. All this without bitterness. All this still believing that the better nature of his country would at some point prevail. He’d worked and waited, tolerant and undiscouraged, to see it happen.
I flew home propelled by that spirit. Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.
Three times over the course of the fall of 2011, Barack proposed bills that would create thousands of jobs for Americans, in part by giving states money to hire more teachers and first responders. Three times the Republicans blocked them, never even allowing a vote.
“The single most important thing we want to achieve,” the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, had declared to a reporter a year earlier, laying out his party’s goals, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” It was that simple. The Republican Congress was devoted to Barack’s failure above all else. It seemed they weren’t prioritizing the governance of the country or the fact that people needed jobs. Their own power came first.
I found it demoralizing, infuriating, sometimes crushing. This was politics, yes, but in its most fractious and cynical form, seemingly disconnected from any larger sense of purpose. I felt emotions that perhaps Barack couldn’t afford to feel. He stayed locked in his work, for the most part undaunted, riding out the bumps and compromising where he could, clinging to the sober-minded, someone’s-gotta-take-this-on brand of optimism that had always guided him. He’d been in politics for fifteen years now. I continued to think of him as being like an old copper pot—seasoned by fire, dinged up but still shiny.
Returning to the campaign trail—as Barack and I began to do in the fall of 2011—became something of a salve. It took us out of Washington and returned us to communities all around the country again, places like Richmond and Reno, where we could hug and shake hands with supporters, listening to their ideas and concerns. It was a chance to feel the grassroots energy that has always been so central to Barack’s vision of democracy, and to be reminded that American citizens are for the most part far less cynical than their elected leaders. We just needed them to get out and vote. I’d been disappointed that millions of people had sat out during the 2010 midterm elections, effectively handing Barack a divided Congress that could barely manage to make a law.
Despite the challenges, there was plenty to feel hopeful about, too. By the end of 2011, the last American soldiers had left Iraq; a gradual drawdown of troops was under way in Afghanistan. Major provisions of the Affordable Care Act had also gone into effect, with young people allowed to remain longer on their parents’ insurance policies and companies prevented from capping a patient’s lifetime coverage. All this was forward motion, I reminded myself, steps taken along the broader path.
Even with an entire political party conspiring to see Barack fail, we had no choice but to stay positive and carry on. It was similar to when the Sidwell mom had asked Malia if she feared for her life at tennis practice. What can you do, really, but go out and hit another ball?
So we worked. Both of us worked. I threw myself into my initiatives. Under the banner of Let’s Move! we continued to rack up results. My team and I persuaded Darden Restaurants, the parent company behind chains like Olive Garden and Red Lobster, to make changes to the kinds of food it offered and how it was prepared. They pledged to revamp their menus, cutting calories, reducing sodium, and offering healthier options for kids’ meals. We’d appealed to the company’s executives—to their conscience as well as their bottom line—convincing them that the culture of eating in America was shifting and it made good business sense to get out ahead of the curve. Darden served 400 million meals to Americans each year. At that scale, even a small shift—like removing tantalizing photos of cool, icy glasses of soda from the kids’ menus—could have a real impact.
A First Lady’s power is a curious thing—as soft and undefined as the role itself. And yet I was learning to harness it. I had no executive authority. I didn’t command troops or engage in formal diplomacy. Tradition called for me to provide a kind of gentle light, flattering the president with my devotion, flattering the nation primarily by not challenging it. I was beginning to see, though, that wielded carefully the light was more powerful than that. I had influence in the form of being something of a curiosity—a black First Lady, a professional woman, a mother of young kids. People seemed to want to dial into my clothes, my shoes, and my hairstyles, but they also had to see me in the context of where I was and why. I was learning how to connect my message to my image, and in this way I could direct the American gaze. I could put on an interesting outfit, crack a joke, and talk about sodium content in kids’ meals without being totally boring. I could publicly applaud a company that was actively hiring members of the military community, or drop to the floor for an on-air push-up contest with Ellen DeGeneres (and win it, earning gloating rights forever) in the name of Let’s Move!
I was a child of the mainstream, and this was an asset. Barack sometimes referred to me as “Joe Public,” asking me to weigh in on campaign slogans and strategies, knowing that I kept myself happily steeped in popular culture. Though I’d moved through rarefied places like Princeton and Sidley & Austin, and though I now occasionally found myself wearing diamonds and a ball gown, I’d never stopped reading People magazine or let go of my love of a good sitcom. I watched Oprah and Ellen far more often than I’d ever tuned in to Meet the Press or Face the Nation, and to this day nothing pleases me more than the tidy triumph delivered by a home-makeover show.
All of this is to say that I saw ways to connect with Americans that Barack and his West Wing advisers didn’t fully recognize, at least initially. Rather than doing interviews with big newspapers or cable news outlets, I began sitting down with influential “mommy bloggers” who reached an enormous and dialed-in audience of women. Watching my young staffers interact with their phones, seeing Malia and Sasha start to take in news and chat with their high school friends via social media, I realized there was opportunity to be tapped there as well. I crafted my first tweet in the fall of 2011 to promote Joining Forces and then watched it zing through the strange, boundless ether where people increasingly spent their time.
It was a revelation. All of it was a revelation. With my soft power, I was finding I could be strong.
If reporters and television cameras wanted to follow me, then I was going to take them places. They could come watch me and Jill Biden paint a wall, for example, at a nondescript row house in the Northwest part of Washington. There was nothing inherently interesting about two ladies with paint rollers, but it baited a certain hook.
It brought everyone to the doorstep of Sergeant Johnny Agbi, who’d been twenty-five years old and a medic in Afghanistan when his transport helicopter was attacked, shattering his spine, injuring his brain, and requiring a long rehabilitation at Walter Reed. His first floor was now being retrofitted to accommodate his wheelchair—its doorways widened, its kitchen sink lowered—part of a joint effort between a nonprofit called Rebuilding Together and the company that owned Sears and Kmart. This was the thousandth such home they’d renovated on behalf of veterans in need. The cameras caught all of it—the soldier, his house, the goodwill and energy being poured in. The reporters interviewed not just me and Jill but Sergeant Agbi and the folks who’d done the real work. For me, this was how it should be. The gaze belonged here.
On Election Day—November 6, 2012—my fears sat with me quietly. Barack and the girls and I were back in Chicago, at home on Greenwood Avenue, caught in the purgatory of waiting for an entire nation to accept or reject us. This vote, for me, was more fraught than any other we’d gone through. It felt like a referendum not only on Barack’s political performance and the state of the country but also on his character, on our very presence in the White House. Our girls had established a strong community for themselves, and a sense of normalcy that I didn’t want to upend yet again. I was so invested now, having given over four years of our family’s life, that it was impossible not to feel everything a bit personally.
The campaign had worn us out, maybe even more than I’d anticipated. While working on my initiatives and keeping up with things like parent-teacher conferences and monitoring the girls’ homework, I’d been speaking at campaign events at an average of three cities a day, three days a week. And Barack’s pace had been even more grueling. Polls consistently showed him with only a tenuous lead over Mitt Romney. Making matters worse, he’d bombed during their first debate in October, triggering a wave of eleventh-hour anxiety among donors and advisers. We could read the exhaustion on the faces of our hardworking staffers. Though they aimed never to show it, they were surely unsettled by the possibility that Barack could be forced out of office in a matter of months.
Throughout it, Barack stayed calm, though I could see what the pressure did to him. During the final weeks, he began to look a little wan and even skinnier than usual, chewing his Nicorette with unusual vigor. I’d watched with wifely concern as he tried to do everything—soothe the worriers, finish out the campaign, and govern the nation all at once, including responding to a terrorist attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and managing a massive federal response to Hurricane Sandy, which tore up the Eastern Seaboard just a week before the election.
As polls on the East Coast began to close that evening, I headed up to the third floor of our house, where we’d set up a kind of de facto hair and makeup salon to prepare for the public part of the night ahead. Meredith had steamed and readied clothes for me, my mom, and the girls. Johnny and Carl were doing my hair and makeup. In keeping with tradition, Barack had gone out to play basketball earlier in the day and had since settled into his office to put finishing touches on his remarks.
We had a TV on the third floor, but I deliberately kept it off. If there was news, good or bad, I wanted to hear it directly from Barack or Melissa, or someone else close to me. The babble of news anchors with their interactive electoral maps always jangled my nerves. I didn’t want the details: I just wanted to know how to feel.
It was after 8:00 p.m. in the East now, which meant there had to be some early results coming in. I picked up my BlackBerry and sent emails to Valerie, Melissa, and Tina Tchen, who in 2011 had become my new chief of staff, asking them what they knew.
I waited fifteen minutes, then thirty, but nobody responded. The room around me began to feel strangely silent. My mother sat in the kitchen downstairs, reading a magazine. Meredith was getting the girls ready for the evening. Johnny ran a flat iron over my hair. Was I being paranoid, or were people not looking me in the eye? Did they somehow know something I didn’t?
As more time passed, my head started to throb. I felt my equilibrium beginning to slip. I didn’t dare turn on the news, assuming suddenly that it was bad. I was accustomed at this point to fighting off negative thoughts, sticking to the good until I was absolutely forced to contend with something unpleasant. I kept my confidence in a little citadel, high on a hill inside my own heart. But for every minute my BlackBerry lay dormant in my lap, I felt the walls starting to breach, the doubts beginning to rampage. Maybe we hadn’t worked hard enough. Maybe we didn’t deserve another term. My hands had started to shake.
I was just about ready to pass out from the anxiety when Barack came trotting up the stairs, wearing his big old confident grin. His worries were well behind him already. “We’re kicking butt,” he said, looking surprised that I didn’t know it already. “It’s basically done.”
It turned out that downstairs, the mood had been jubilant all along, the basement TV pumping out a consistent stream of good news. The problem for me was that the cell service on my BlackBerry had somehow disconnected, never sending out my messages or downloading updates from others. I’d allowed myself to get trapped in my own head. Nobody had known I was worrying, not even the people in the room with me.
Barack would win all but one of the battleground states that night. He’d win among young people, minorities, and women, just as he had in 2008. Despite everything the Republicans had done to try to thwart him, despite the many attempts to obstruct his presidency, his vision had prevailed. We’d asked Americans for permission to keep working—to finish strong—and now we’d gotten it. The relief was immediate. Are we good enough? Yes we are.
At some late hour, Mitt Romney called to concede. Once again, we found ourselves dressed up and waving from a stage, four Obamas and a lot of confetti, glad to have another four years.
The certainty that came with reelection held me steady. We had more time to further our aims. We could be more patient with our push for progress. We had a sense of the future now, which made me happy. We could keep Sasha and Malia enrolled at school; our staff could stay in their jobs; our ideas still mattered. And when these next four years were over, we’d be truly done, which made me happiest of all. No more campaigning, no more sweating out strategy sessions or polls or debates or approval ratings, ever again. The end of our political life was finally in sight.
The truth is that the future would arrive with its own surprises—some joyous, some unspeakably tragic. Four more years in the White House meant four more years of being out front as symbols, absorbing and responding to whatever came our country’s way. Barack and I had campaigned on the idea that we still had the energy and discipline for this sort of work, that we had the heart to take it in. And now the future was coming in our direction, maybe faster than we knew.
Five weeks later, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and started killing children.
I had just finished giving a short speech across the street from the White House and was scheduled to then go visit a children’s hospital when Tina pulled me aside to tell me what had happened. While I’d been speaking, she and several others had seen the headlines start to come up on their phones. They’d sat there trying to hide their emotions as I wrapped up my remarks.
The news Tina gave me was so horrifying and sad I could barely process what she was saying.
She mentioned she’d been in touch with the West Wing. Barack was in the Oval Office by himself. “He’s asking for you to come,” she said. “Right away.”
My husband needed me. This would be the only time in eight years that he’d request my presence in the middle of a workday, the two of us rearranging our schedules to be alone together for a moment of dim comfort. Usually, work was work and home was home, but for us, as for many people, the tragedy in Newtown shattered every window and blew down every fence. When I walked into the Oval Office, Barack and I embraced silently. There was nothing to say. No words.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the president sees almost everything, or is at least privy to basically any available information related to the country’s well-being. Being a fact guy, Barack always asked for more rather than less. He tried to gather both the widest and the most close-up view of every situation, even when it was bad, so that he could offer a truly informed response. As he saw it, it was part of his responsibility, what he’d been elected to do—to look rather than look away, to stay upright when the rest of us felt ready to fall down.
Which is to say that by the time I found him, he’d been briefed in detail on the graphic, horrid crime scene at Sandy Hook. He’d heard about blood pooled on the floors of classrooms and the bodies of twenty first graders and six educators torn apart by a semiautomatic rifle. His shock and grief would never compare with that of the first responders who’d rushed in to secure the building and evacuate survivors from the carnage. It was nothing next to that of the parents who endured an interminable wait in the chilly air outside the building, praying that they’d see their child’s face again. And it was nothing at all next to those whose wait would be in vain.
But still, those images were seared permanently into his psyche. I could see in his eyes how broken they’d left him, what this had done already to his faith. He started to describe it to me but then stopped, realizing it was better to spare me the extra pain.
Like me, Barack loved children in a deep and genuine way. Beyond being a doting father, he regularly brought kids into the Oval Office to show them around. He asked to hold babies. He lit up anytime he got to visit a school science fair or a youth sporting event. The previous winter, he’d added a whole new level of delight to his existence when he started volunteering as an assistant coach for the Vipers, Sasha’s middle school basketball team.
The proximity of children made everything lighter for him. He knew as well as anyone the promise lost with those twenty young lives.
Staying upright after Newtown was probably the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. When Malia and Sasha came home from school later that day, Barack and I met them in the residence and hugged them tight, trying to mask the urgency of our need just to touch them. It was hard to know what to say or not say to our girls about the shooting. Parents all around the country, we knew, were grappling with the same thing.
Later that day, Barack held a press conference downstairs, trying to put together words that might add up to something like solace. He wiped away tears as news cameras clicked furiously around him, understanding that truly there was no solace to be had. The best he could do was to offer his resolve—something he assumed would also get taken up by citizens and lawmakers around the country—to prevent more massacres by passing basic, sensible laws concerning how guns were sold.
I watched him step forward, knowing that I myself wasn’t ready. In nearly four years as First Lady, I had consoled often. I’d prayed with people whose homes had been shredded by a tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, huge swaths of the town turned to matchsticks in an instant. I’d put my arms around men, women, and children who’d lost loved ones to war in Afghanistan, to an extremist who’d shot up an Army base in Texas, and to violence on street corners near their own homes. In the previous four months, I’d paid visits to people who’d survived mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado and inside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. It was devastating, every time. I’d tried always to bring the most calm and open part of myself to these meetings, to lend my own strength by being caring and present, sitting quietly on the riverbed of other people’s pain. But two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook, when Barack traveled to Newtown to speak at a prayer vigil being held for the victims, I couldn’t bring myself to join him. I was so shaken by it that I had no strength available to lend. I’d been First Lady for almost four years, and there had been too much killing already—too many senseless preventable deaths and too little action. I wasn’t sure what comfort I could ever give to someone whose six-year-old had been gunned down at school.
Instead, like a lot of parents, I clung to my children, my fear and love intertwined. It was nearly Christmas, and Sasha was among a group of local children selected to join the Moscow Ballet for two performances of The Nutcracker, both happening on the same day as the vigil in Newtown. Barack managed to slip into a back row and watch the dress rehearsal before leaving for Connecticut. I went to the evening show.
The ballet was as beautiful and otherworldly as any recounting of that story ever is, with its prince in a moonlit forest and its swirling pageantry of sweets. Sasha played a mouse, dressed in a black leotard with fuzzy ears and a tail, performing her part while an ornate sleigh drifted through the swelling orchestral music and showers of glittering fake snow. My eyes never left her. My whole being was grateful for her. Sasha stood bright-eyed onstage, looking at first like she couldn’t believe where she was, as if she found the whole scene dazzling and unreal. Which of course it was. But she was young enough still that she could give herself over to it, at least for the moment, allowing herself to move through this heaven where nobody spoke and everyone danced, and a holiday was always just about to arrive.
Bear with me here, because this doesn’t necessarily get easier. It would be one thing if America were a simple place with a simple story. If I could narrate my part in it only through the lens of what was orderly and sweet. If there were no steps backward. And if every sadness, when it came, turned out at least to be redemptive in the end.
But that’s not America, and it’s not me, either. I’m not going to try to bend this into any kind of perfect shape.
Barack’s second term would prove to be easier in many ways than his first. We’d learned so much in four years, putting the right people into place around us, building systems that generally worked. We knew enough now to avoid some of the inefficiencies and small mistakes that had been made the first time around, beginning on Inauguration Day in January 2013, when I requested that the viewing stand for the parade be fully heated this time so our feet wouldn’t freeze. In an attempt to conserve our energy, we hosted only two inaugural balls that night, as opposed to the ten we’d gone to in 2009. We had four years still to go, and if I’d learned anything, it was to relax and try to pace myself.
Sitting next to Barack at the parade after he’d renewed his vows to the country, I watched the flow of floats and the marching bands moving in and out of snappy formation, already able to savor more than I had our first time around. From my vantage point, I could barely make out the individual faces of the performers. There were thousands of them, each with his or her own story. Thousands of others had come to D.C. to perform in the many other events being held in the days leading up to the inauguration, and tens of thousands more had come to watch.
Later, I’d wish almost frantically that I’d been able to catch sight of one person in particular, a willowy black girl wearing a sparkling gold headband and a blue majorette’s uniform who’d come with the King College Prep marching band from the South Side of Chicago to perform at some of the side events. I wanted to believe that I somehow would have had the occasion to see her inside the great wash of people flowing through the city over those days—Hadiya Pendleton, a girl in ascent, fifteen years old and having a big moment, having ridden a bus all the way to Washington with her bandmates. At home in Chicago, Hadiya lived with her parents and her little brother, about two miles from our house on Greenwood Avenue. She was an honor student at school who liked to tell people she wanted to go to Harvard someday. She’d begun planning her sweet-sixteen birthday party. She loved Chinese food and cheeseburgers and going for ice cream with friends.
I learned these things several weeks later, at her funeral. Eight days after the inauguration, Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in a public park in Chicago, not far from her school. She and a group of friends had been standing under a metal shelter next to a playground, waiting for a rainstorm to pass. They’d been mistaken for gang members, sprayed with bullets by an eighteen-year-old belonging to a different gang. Hadiya had been hit in the back as she tried to run for cover. Two of her friends were injured. All this at 2:20 on a Tuesday afternoon.
I wish I’d seen her alive, if only to have a memory to share with her mom, now that the memories of her daughter were suddenly finite, things to be collected and hung on to.
I went to Hadiya’s funeral because it felt like the right thing to do. I’d stayed back when Barack went to the Newtown memorial, but now was my time to step up. My hope was that my presence would help turn the gaze toward the many innocent kids being gunned down in city streets almost every day—and that this, coupled with the horror of Newtown, would help prompt Americans to demand reasonable gun laws. Hadiya Pendleton came from a close-knit, working-class South Side family, much like my own. Put simply, I could have known her. I could have been her once, even. And had she taken a different route home from school that day, or even moved six inches left instead of six inches right when the gunfire started, she could have been me.
“I did everything I was supposed to,” her mother told me when we met just before the funeral started, her brown eyes leaking tears. Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton was a warm woman with a soft voice and close-cropped hair who worked in customer service at a credit rating company. On the day of her daughter’s funeral, she wore a giant pink flower pinned to her lapel. She and her husband, Nathaniel, had watched over Hadiya carefully, encouraging her to apply to King, a selective public high school, and making sure she had little time to be out on the streets, signing her up for volleyball, cheerleading, and a dance ministry at church. As my parents had once done for me, they’d made sacrifices so that she could be exposed to things outside her neighborhood. She was to have gone to Europe with the marching band that spring, and she’d apparently loved her visit to Washington.
“It’s so clean there, Mom,” she’d reported to Cleopatra after returning. “I think I’m going to go into politics.”
Instead, Hadiya Pendleton became one of three people who died in separate incidents of gun violence in Chicago on that one January day. She was the thirty-sixth person in Chicago killed in gun violence that year, and the year was at that point just twenty-nine days old. It goes without saying that nearly all those victims were black. For all her hopes and hard work, Hadiya became a symbol of the wrong thing.
Her funeral was filled with people, another broken community jammed into a church, this one working to handle the sight of a teenage girl in a casket lined with purple silk. Cleopatra stood up and spoke about her daughter. Hadiya’s friends stood up and told stories about her, each one punctuated by a larger feeling of outrage and helplessness. These were children, asking not just why but why so often? There were powerful adults in the room that day—not only me, but the mayor of the city, the governor of the state, Jesse Jackson Sr., and Valerie Jarrett, among others—all of us packed into pews, left to reckon privately with our grief and guilt as the choir sang with such force that it shook the floor of the church.
It was important to me to be more than a consoler. In my life, I’d heard plenty of empty words coming from important people, lip service paid during times of crisis with no action to follow. I was determined to be someone who told the truth, using my voice to lift up the voiceless when I could, and to not disappear on people in need. I understood that when I showed up somewhere, it appeared dramatic from the outside—a sudden and swift-descending storm kicked up by the motorcade, the agents, the aides, and the media, with me at the center. We were there and then gone. I didn’t like what this did to my interactions, the way my presence sometimes caused people to stammer or go silent, unsure of how to be themselves. It’s why I often tried to introduce myself with a hug, to slow down the moment and shuck some of the pretense, landing us all in the flesh.
I tried to build relationships with the people I met, especially those who didn’t normally have access to the world I now inhabited. I wanted to share the brightness as I could. I invited Hadiya Pendleton’s parents to sit next to me at Barack’s State of the Union speech a few days after the funeral and then hosted the family at the White House for the Easter Egg Roll. Cleopatra, who became a vocal advocate for violence prevention, also returned a couple of times to attend different meetings on the issue. I made a point of writing letters to the girls from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London who had so profoundly moved me, encouraging them to stay hopeful and keep working, despite their lack of privilege. In 2011, I’d taken a group of thirty-seven girls from the school to visit the University of Oxford, bringing not the high achievers but students whose teachers thought they weren’t yet reaching their potential. The idea was to give them a glimpse of what was possible, to show them what a reach could yield. In 2012, I’d hosted students from the school at the White House during the British prime minister’s state visit. I felt it was important to reach out to kids multiple times and in multiple ways in order for them to feel that it was all real.
My early successes in life were, I knew, a product of the consistent love and high expectations with which I was surrounded as a child, both at home and at school. It was this insight that drove my White House mentoring program, and it lay at the center of a new education initiative my staff and I were now preparing to launch, called Reach Higher. I wanted to encourage kids to strive to get to college and, once there, to stick with it. I knew that in the coming years, a college education would only become more essential for young people entering a global job market. Reach Higher would seek to help them along the way, providing more support for school counselors and easier access to federal financial aid.
I’d been lucky to have parents, teachers, and mentors who’d fed me with a consistent, simple message: You matter. As an adult, I wanted to pass those words to a new generation. It was the message I gave my own daughters, who were fortunate to have it reinforced daily by their school and their privileged circumstances, and I was determined to express some version of it to every young person I encountered. I wanted to be the opposite of the guidance counselor I’d had in high school, who’d blithely told me I wasn’t Princeton material.
“All of us believe you belong here,” I’d said to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson girls as they sat, many of them looking a little awestruck, in the Gothic old-world dining hall at Oxford, surrounded by university professors and students who’d come out for the day to mentor them. I said something similar anytime we had kids visit the White House—teens we invited from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation; children from local schools who showed up to work in the garden; high schoolers who came for our career days and workshops in fashion, music, and poetry; even kids I only got to give a quick but emphatic hug to in a rope line. The message was always the same. You belong. You matter. I think highly of you.
An economist from a British university would later put out a study that looked at the test performances of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson students, finding that their overall scores jumped significantly after I’d started connecting with them—the equivalent of moving from a C average to an A. Any credit for improvement really belonged to the girls, their teachers, and the daily work they did together, but it also affirmed the idea that kids will invest more when they feel they’re being invested in. I understood that there was power in showing children my regard.
Two months after Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral, I returned to Chicago. I’d directed Tina, my chief of staff and an attorney who herself had spent many years in the city, to throw her energy into rallying support for violence prevention there. Tina was a bighearted policy wonk with an infectious laugh and more hustle than just about anyone I knew. She understood which levers to pull inside and outside government to make an impact at the scale I envisioned. Moreover, her nature and experience wouldn’t allow her voice to go unheard, especially at tables dominated by men, where she often found herself. Throughout Barack’s second term, she would wrestle with the Pentagon and various state governors to clear away red tape so that veterans and military spouses could more efficiently build their careers, and she’d also help engineer a mammoth new administration-wide effort centered on girls’ education worldwide.
In the wake of Hadiya’s death, Tina had leveraged her local contacts, encouraging Chicago business leaders and philanthropists to work with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to expand community programs for at-risk youth across the city. Her efforts had helped yield $33 million in pledges in just a matter of weeks. On a cool day in April, Tina and I flew out to attend a meeting of community leaders discussing youth empowerment, and also to meet a new group of kids.
Earlier that winter, the public radio program This American Life had devoted two hours to telling the stories of students and staff from William R. Harper Senior High School in Englewood, a neighborhood on the South Side. In the previous year, twenty-nine of the school’s current and recent students had been shot, eight of them fatally. These numbers were astonishing to me and my staff, but the sad fact is that urban schools around the country were contending with epidemic levels of gun violence. Amid all the talk of youth empowerment, it seemed important to actually sit down and hear from the youth.
When I was young, Englewood had been a rough neighborhood but not necessarily as deadly as it was now. In junior high, I’d traveled to Englewood for weekly biology labs at a community college there. Now, years later, as my motorcade made its way past strips of neglected bungalows and shuttered storefronts, past vacant lots and burned-out buildings, it looked to me as if the only thriving businesses left were the liquor stores.
I thought back to my own childhood and my own neighborhood, and how the word “ghetto” got thrown around like a threat. The mere suggestion of it, I understood now, caused stable, middle-class families to bail preemptively for the suburbs, worried their property values would drop. “Ghetto” signaled that a place was both black and hopeless. It was a label that foretold failure and then hastened its arrival. It closed corner groceries and gas stations and undermined schools and educators trying to instill self-worth in neighborhood kids. It was a word everyone tried to run from, but it could rear up on a community quick.
In the middle of West Englewood sat Harper High School, a large sand-brick building with multiple wings. I met the school’s principal, Leonetta Sanders, a quick-moving African American woman who’d been at the school for six years, and two school social workers who immersed themselves in the lives of the 510 kids enrolled at Harper, most of them from low-income families. One of the social workers, Crystal Smith, could often be found pacing Harper’s hallways between classes, peppering students with positivity, communicating her high regard for them by calling out, “I’m so proud of you!” and “I see you trying hard!” She’d shout, “I appreciate you in advance!” for every good choice she trusted those students would make.
In the school library that day, I joined a circle of twenty-two Harper students—all African American, mostly juniors and seniors—who were seated in chairs and on couches, dressed in khakis and collared shirts. Most were eager to talk. They described a daily, even hourly, fear of gangs and violence. Some explained that they had absent or addicted parents; a couple had spent time in juvenile detention centers. A junior named Thomas had witnessed a good friend—a sixteen-year-old girl—get shot and killed the previous summer. He’d also been there when his older brother, who had been partially paralyzed due to a gunshot injury, was shot and wounded in the same incident while sitting outside in his wheelchair. Nearly every kid there that day had lost someone—a friend, relative, neighbor—to a bullet. Few, meanwhile, had ever been downtown to see the lakefront or visit Navy Pier.
At one point, one of the social workers interjected, saying to the group, “Eighty degrees and sunny!” Everyone in the circle began nodding, ruefully. I wasn’t sure why. “Tell Mrs. Obama,” she said. “What goes through your mind when you wake up in the morning and hear the weather forecast is eighty and sunny?”
She clearly knew the answer, but wanted me to hear it.
A day like that, the Harper students all agreed, was no good. When the weather was nice, the gangs got more active and the shooting got worse.
These kids had adapted to the upside-down logic dictated by their environment, staying indoors when the weather was good, varying the routes they took to and from school each day based on shifting gang territories and allegiances. Sometimes, they told me, taking the safest path home meant walking right down the middle of the street as cars sped past them on both sides. Doing so gave them a better view of any escalating fights or possible shooters. And it gave them more time to run.
America is not a simple place. Its contradictions set me spinning. I’d found myself at Democratic fund-raisers held in vast Manhattan penthouses, sipping wine with wealthy women who would claim to be passionate about education and children’s issues and then lean in conspiratorially to tell me that their Wall Street husbands would never vote for anyone who even thought about raising their taxes.
And now I was at Harper, listening to children talking about how to stay alive. I admired their resilience, and I wished desperately that they didn’t need it so much.
One of them then gave me a candid look. “It’s nice that you’re here and all,” he said with a shrug. “But what’re you actually going to do about any of this?”
To them, I represented Washington, D.C., as much as I did the South Side. And when it came to Washington, I felt I owed them the truth.
“Honestly,” I began, “I know you’re dealing with a lot here, but no one’s going to save you anytime soon. Most people in Washington aren’t even trying. A lot of them don’t even know you exist.” I explained to those students that progress is slow, that they couldn’t afford to simply sit and wait for change to come. Many Americans didn’t want their taxes raised, and Congress couldn’t even pass a budget let alone rise above petty partisan bickering, so there weren’t going to be billion-dollar investments in education or magical turnarounds for their community. Even after the horror of Newtown, Congress appeared determined to block any measure that could help keep guns out of the wrong hands, with legislators more interested in collecting campaign donations from the National Rifle Association than they were in protecting kids. Politics was a mess, I said. On this front, I had nothing terribly uplifting or encouraging to say.
I went on, though, to make a different pitch, one that came directly from my South Side self. Use school, I said.
These kids had just spent an hour telling me stories that were tragic and unsettling, but I reminded them that those same stories also showed their persistence, self-reliance, and ability to overcome. I assured them that they already had what it would take to succeed. Here they were, sitting in a school that was offering them a free education, I said, and there were a whole lot of committed and caring adults inside that school who thought they mattered. About six weeks later, thanks to donations from local businesspeople, a group of Harper students would come to the White House, to visit with me and Barack personally, and also spend time at Howard University, learning what college was about. I hoped that they could see themselves getting there.
I will never pretend that words or hugs from a First Lady alone can turn somebody’s life around or that there’s any easy path for students trying to navigate everything that those kids at Harper were dealing with. No story is that simple. And of course, every one of us sitting in the library that day knew this. But I was there to push back against the old and damning narrative about being a black urban kid in America, the one that foretold failure and then hastened its arrival. If I could point out those students’ strengths and give them some glimpse of a way forward, then I would always do it. It was a small difference I could make.
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