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In the spring of 2015, Malia announced that she’d been invited to the prom by a boy she kind of liked. She was sixteen then, finishing her junior year at Sidwell. To us, she was still our kid, long-legged and enthusiastic as she’d always been, though every day she seemed to become a little more adult. She was now nearly as tall as I was and starting to think about applying to college. She was a good student, curious and self-possessed, a collector of details much like her dad. She’d become fascinated by films and filmmaking and the previous summer had taken it upon herself to seek out Steven Spielberg one evening when he’d come to the White House for a dinner party, asking him so many questions that he followed up with an offer to let her intern on a TV series he was producing. Our girl was finding her way.
Normally, for security reasons, Malia and Sasha weren’t allowed to ride in anyone else’s car. Malia had a provisional license by then and was able to drive herself around town, though always with agents following in their own vehicle. But still, since moving to Washington at the age of ten, she’d never once ridden a bus or the Metro or been driven by someone who didn’t work for the Secret Service. For prom night, though, we were making an exception.
On the appointed evening, her date arrived in his car, clearing security at the southeast gate of the White House, following the path up and around the South Lawn by which heads of state and other visiting dignitaries normally arrived, and then gamely—bravely—walking into the Dip Room dressed in a black suit.
“Just be cool please, okay?” Malia had said to me and Barack, her embarrassment already beginning to smolder as we rode the elevator downstairs. I was barefoot, and Barack was in flip-flops. Malia wore a long black skirt and an elegant bare-shouldered top. She looked beautiful and about twenty-three years old.
By my reckoning, we did manage to play it cool, though Malia still laughs, remembering it all as a bit excruciating. Barack and I shook the young man’s hand, snapped a few pictures, and gave our daughter a hug before sending them on their way. We took what was perhaps unfair comfort in the knowledge that Malia’s security detail would basically ride the boy’s bumper all the way to the restaurant where they were going for dinner before the dance and would remain on quiet duty throughout the night.
From a parent’s point of view, it wasn’t a bad way to raise teenagers—knowing that a set of watchful adults was trailing them at all times, tasked with extricating them from any sort of emergency. From a teenager’s standpoint, though, this was understandably a complete and total drag. As with many aspects of life in the White House, we were left to sort out what it meant for our family—where and how to draw the lines, how to balance the requirements of the presidency against the needs of two kids learning how to mature on their own.
Once they got to high school, we gave the girls curfews—first 11:00 and eventually midnight—and enforced them, according to Malia and Sasha, with more vigor than many of their friends’ parents did. If I was concerned about their safety or whereabouts, I could always check in with the agents, but I tried not to. It was important to me that the kids trusted their security team. Instead, I did what I think a lot of parents do and relied on a network of other parents for information, all of us pooling what we knew about where the flock of them was going and whether there’d be an adult in charge. Of course, our girls carried extra responsibility by virtue of who their father was, knowing that their screwups could make headlines. Barack and I both recognized how unfair this was. Both of us had pushed boundaries and done dumb things as teenagers, and we’d been fortunate to do it all without the eyes of a nation on us.
Malia had been eight when Barack sat on the edge of her bed in Chicago and asked if she thought it was okay for him to run for president. I think now of how little she’d known at the time, how little any of us could have known. It meant one thing to be a child in the White House. It meant something different to try to emerge from it as an adult. How could Malia have guessed that she’d have men with guns following her to prom someday? Or that people would take photos of her sneaking a cigarette and sell them to gossipy websites?
Our kids were coming of age during what felt like a unique time. Apple had begun selling the iPhone in June 2007, about four months after Barack announced his candidacy for president. A million of them sold in less than three months. A billion of them sold before his second term was over. His was the first presidency of a new era, one involving the disruption and dismantling of all norms around privacy—involving selfies, data hacks, Snapchats, and Kardashians. Our daughters lived more deeply inside it than we did, in part because social media governed teen life and in part because their routines put them in closer contact with the public than ours did. As Malia and Sasha moved around Washington with their friends after school or on weekends, they’d catch sight of strangers pointing their phones in their direction, or contend with grown men and women asking—even demanding—to take a selfie with them. “You do know that I’m a child, right?” Malia would sometimes say when turning someone down.
Barack and I did what we could to protect our kids from too much exposure, declining all media requests for them and working to keep their everyday lives largely out of sight. Their Secret Service escorts supported us by trying to be less conspicuous when following the girls around in public, wearing board shorts and T-shirts instead of suits and swapping their earpieces and wrist microphones for earbud headsets, in order to better blend in at the teenage hangouts they now frequented. We strongly disapproved of the publication of any photos of our children that weren’t connected to an official event, and the White House press office made this clear to the media. Melissa and others on my team became my enforcers anytime an image of one of the girls surfaced on a gossip site, making haranguing phone calls to get it taken down.
Guarding the girls’ privacy meant finding other ways to satiate the public’s curiosity about our family. Early in Barack’s second term, we’d added a new puppy to the household—Sunny—a free-spirited rambler who seemed to see no point in being house-trained, given how big her new house was. The dogs added a lightness to everything. They were living, loafing proof that the White House was a home. Knowing that Malia and Sasha were basically off-limits, the White House communications teams began requesting the dogs for official appearances. In the evenings, I’d find memos in my briefing book asking me to approve a “Bo and Sunny Drop-By,” allowing the dogs to mingle with members of the media or children coming for a tour. The dogs would get deployed when reporters came to learn about the importance of American trade and exports or, later, to hear Barack speak in favor of Merrick Garland, his pick for the Supreme Court. Bo starred in a promotional video for the Easter Egg Roll. He and Sunny posed with me for photos in an online campaign to urge people to sign up for health-care coverage. They made excellent ambassadors, impervious to criticism and unaware of their own fame.
Like all kids, Sasha and Malia outgrew things over time. Since the first year of Barack’s presidency, they had joined him in front of reporters each fall while he performed what had to be the most ridiculous ritual of the office—pardoning a live turkey just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. For the first five years, they’d smiled and giggled as their dad cracked corny jokes. But by the sixth year, at thirteen and sixteen, they were too old to even pretend it was funny. Within hours of the ceremony, photos of the two of them looking aggrieved appeared all over the internet—Sasha stone-faced, Malia with her arms crossed—as they stood next to the president, his lectern, and the oblivious turkey. A USA Today headline summed it up fairly enough: “Malia and Sasha Obama Are So Done with Their Dad’s Turkey Pardon.” Their attendance at the pardon, as well as at virtually every White House event, became entirely optional. These were happy, well-adjusted teens with lives that were accordingly rich with activities and social intrigue having nothing to do with their parents. As a parent, you’re only sort of in control, anyway. Our kids had their own agendas, which left them less impressed with even the more fun parts of ours.
“Don’t you want to come downstairs tonight and hear Paul McCartney play?”
“Mom, please. No.”
There was often music blasting from Malia’s room. Sasha and her friends had taken a shine to cable cooking shows and sometimes commandeered the residence kitchen to decorate cookies or whip up elaborate, multicourse meals for themselves. Both our daughters relished the relative anonymity they enjoyed when going on school trips or joining friends’ families for vacations (their agents always in tow). Sasha loved nothing more than to pick out her own snacks at Dulles International Airport before boarding a packed commercial flight, for the simple fact that it was so different from the presidential rigmarole that went on at Andrews Air Force Base and had become our family’s norm.
Traveling with us did have its advantages. Before Barack’s presidency was over, our girls would enjoy a baseball game in Havana, walk along the Great Wall of China, and visit the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio one evening in magical, misty darkness. But it could also be a pain in the neck, especially when we were trying to tend to things unrelated to the presidency. Earlier in Malia’s junior year, the two of us had gone to spend a day visiting colleges in New York City, for instance, setting up tours at New York University and Columbia. It had worked fine for a while. We’d moved through NYU’s campus at a brisk pace, our efficiency aided by the fact that it was still early and many students were not yet up for the day. We’d checked out classrooms, poked our heads into a dorm room, and chatted with a dean before heading uptown to grab an early lunch and move on to the next tour.
The problem is that there’s no hiding a First Lady–sized motorcade, especially on the island of Manhattan in the middle of a weekday. By the time we finished eating, about a hundred people had gathered on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, the commotion only breeding more commotion. We stepped out to find dozens of cell phones hoisted in our direction as we were engulfed by a chorus of cheers. It was beneficent, this attention—“Come to Columbia, Malia!” people were shouting—but it was not especially useful for a girl who was trying quietly to imagine her own future.
I knew immediately what I needed to do, and that was to bench myself—to let Malia go see the next campus without me, sending Kristin Jones, my personal assistant, as her escort instead. Without me there, Malia’s odds of being recognized went down. She could move faster and with a lot fewer agents. Without me, she could maybe, possibly, look like just another kid walking the quad. I at least owed her a shot at that.
Kristin, in her late twenties and a California native, was like a big sister to both my girls anyway. She’d come to my office as a young intern, and along with Kristen Jarvis, who until recently had been my trip director, was instrumental in our family’s life, filling some of these strange gaps caused by the intensity of our schedules and the hindering nature of our fame. “The Kristins,” as we called them, stood in for us often. They served as liaisons between our family and Sidwell, setting up meetings and interacting with teachers, coaches, and other parents when Barack and I weren’t able. With the girls, they were protective, loving, and far hipper than I’d ever be in the eyes of my kids. Malia and Sasha trusted them implicitly, seeking their counsel on everything from wardrobe and social media to the increasing proximity of boys.
While Malia toured Columbia that afternoon, I was put into a secure holding area designated by the Secret Service—what turned out to be the basement of an academic building on campus—where I sat alone and unnoticed until it was time to leave, wishing I’d at least brought a book to read. It hurt a little to be down there, I’ll admit. I felt a kind of loneliness that probably had less to do with the fact that I was by myself killing time in a windowless room and more to do with the idea that, like it or not, the future was coming, that our first baby was going to grow up and leave.
We weren’t at the end yet, but already I was beginning to take stock. I found myself tallying the gains and losses, what had been sacrificed and what we could count as progress—in our country, in our family. Had we done all we could? Were we going to come out of this intact?
I tried to think back and remember how it was that my life had forked away from the predictable, control-freak fantasy existence I’d envisioned for myself—the one with the steady salary, a house to live in forever, a routine to my days. At what point had I chosen away from that? When had I allowed the chaos inside? Had it been on the summer night when I lowered my ice cream cone and leaned in to kiss Barack for the first time? Was it the day I’d finally walked away from my orderly piles of documents and my partner-track career in law, convinced I’d find something more fulfilling?
My mind sometimes landed back in the church basement in Roseland, on the Far South Side of Chicago, where I’d gone twenty-five years earlier to be with Barack as he spoke to a neighborhood group that was struggling to push back against hopelessness and indifference. Listening to the conversation that evening, I’d heard something familiar articulated in a new way. It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once—to have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. It was what I’d done as a kid on Euclid Avenue, what my family—and marginalized people more generally—had always done. You got somewhere by building that better reality, if at first only in your own mind. Or as Barack had put it that night, you may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.
I’d known the guy for only a couple of months then, but in retrospect I see now that this was my swerve. In that moment, without saying a word, I’d signed on for a lifetime of us, and a lifetime of this.
All these years later, I was thankful for the progress I saw. In 2015, I was still making visits to Walter Reed, but each time it seemed there were fewer wounded warriors to visit. The United States had fewer service members at risk overseas, fewer injuries needing care, fewer mothers with their hearts broken. This, to me, was progress.
Progress was the Centers for Disease Control reporting that childhood obesity rates appeared to be leveling off, particularly among children ages two to five. It was two thousand high school students in Detroit showing up to help me celebrate College Signing Day, a holiday we’d helped expand as a part of Reach Higher, to mark the day when young people committed to their colleges. Progress was the Supreme Court’s decision to reject a challenge to a key part of the country’s new health-care law, all but ensuring that Barack’s signature domestic achievement—the security of health insurance for every American—would remain strong and intact once he left office. It was an economy that had been hemorrhaging 800,000 jobs a month when Barack entered the White House having now racked up nearly five straight years of continuous job growth.
I took this all in as evidence that as a country we were capable of building a better reality. But still, we lived in the world as it is.
A year and a half after Newtown, Congress had passed not a single gun-control measure. Bin Laden was gone, but ISIS had arrived. The homicide rate in Chicago was going up rather than down. A black teen named Michael Brown was shot by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri, his body left in the middle of the road for hours. A black teen named Laquan McDonald was shot sixteen times by police in Chicago, including nine times in the back. A black boy named Tamir Rice was shot dead by police in Cleveland while playing with a toy gun. A black man named Freddie Gray died after being neglected in police custody in Baltimore. A black man named Eric Garner was killed by police after being put in a choke hold during his arrest on Staten Island. All this was evidence of something pernicious and unchanging in America. When Barack was first elected, various commentators had naively declared that our country was entering a “postracial” era, in which skin color would no longer matter. Here was proof of how wrong they’d been. As Americans obsessed over the threat of terrorism, many were overlooking the racism and tribalism that were tearing our nation apart.
Late in June 2015, Barack and I flew to Charleston, South Carolina, to sit with another grieving community—this time at the funeral of a pastor named Clementa Pinckney, who had been one of nine people killed in a racially motivated shooting earlier in the month at an African Methodist Episcopal church known simply as Mother Emanuel. The victims, all African Americans, had welcomed an unemployed twenty-one-year-old white man—a stranger to them all—into their Bible study group. He’d sat with them for a while; then, after the group bowed their heads in prayer, he stood up and began shooting. In the middle of it, he was reported to have said, “I have to do this, because you rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” After delivering a moving eulogy for Reverend Pinckney and acknowledging the deep tragedy of the moment, Barack surprised everyone by leading the congregation in a slow and soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It was a simple invocation of hope, a call to persist. Everyone in the room, it seemed, joined in. For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation. As minorities across the country were gradually beginning to take on more significant roles in politics, business, and entertainment, our family had become the most prominent example. Our presence in the White House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and deep and as dangerous as ever.
We lived with it as a family, and we lived with it as a nation. And we carried on, as gracefully as we could.
The same day as the funeral service in Charleston—June 26, 2015—the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark decision, affirming that same-sex couples had the right to marry in all fifty states. This was the culmination of a legal battle that had been fought methodically over decades, state by state, court by court, and as with any civil rights struggle it had required the persistence and courage of many people. On and off over the course of the day, I’d caught reports of Americans overjoyed by the news. A jubilant crowd chanted, “Love has won!” on the steps of the Supreme Court. Couples were flocking to city halls and county courthouses to exercise what was now a constitutional right. Gay bars were opening early. Rainbow flags waved on street corners around the country.
All this had helped buoy us through a sad day in South Carolina. Returning home to the White House, we’d changed out of our funeral clothes, had a quick dinner with the girls, and then Barack had disappeared into the Treaty Room to flip on ESPN and catch up on work. I was heading to my dressing room when I caught sight of a purplish glow through one of the north-facing windows of the residence, at which point I remembered that our staff had planned to illuminate the White House in the rainbow colors of the pride flag.
Looking out the window, I saw that beyond the gates on Pennsylvania Avenue, a big crowd of people had gathered in the summer dusk to see the lights. The north drive was filled with government staff who’d stayed late to see the White House transformed in celebration of marriage equality. The decision had touched so many people. From where I stood, I could see the exuberance, but I could hear nothing. It was an odd part of our reality. The White House was a silent, sealed fortress, almost all sound blocked by the thickness of its windows and walls. The Marine One helicopter could land on one side of the house, its rotor blades kicking up gale-force winds and slamming tree branches, but inside the residence we’d hear nothing. I usually figured out that Barack had arrived home from a trip not by the sound of his helicopter but rather by the smell of its fuel, which somehow managed to permeate.
Oftentimes, I was happy to withdraw into the protected hush of the residence at the end of a long day. But this night felt different, as paradoxical as the country itself. After a day spent grieving in Charleston, I was looking at a giant party starting just outside my window. Hundreds of people were staring up at our house. I wanted to see it the way they did. I found myself suddenly desperate to join the celebration.
I stuck my head into the Treaty Room. “You want to go out and look at the lights?” I asked Barack. “There are tons of people out there.”
He laughed. “You know I can’t do tons of people.”
Sasha was in her room, engrossed in her iPad. “You want to go see the rainbow lights with me?” I asked.
This left Malia, who surprised me a little by immediately signing on. I’d found my wing-woman. We were going on an adventure—outside, where people were gathered—and we weren’t going to ask anyone’s permission.
The normal protocol was that we checked in with the Secret Service agents posted by the elevator anytime we wanted to leave the residence, whether it was to go downstairs to watch a movie or to take the dogs out for a walk, but not tonight. Malia and I just busted past the agents on duty, neither one of us making eye contact. We bypassed the elevator, moving quickly down a cramped stairwell. I could hear dress shoes clicking down the stairs behind us, the agents trying to keep up. Malia gave me a devilish smirk. She wasn’t used to my flouting the rules.
Reaching the State Floor, we made our way toward the tall set of doors leading to the North Portico, when we heard a voice.
“Hello, ma’am! Can I help you?” It was Claire Faulkner, the usher on night duty. She was a friendly, soft-spoken brunette who I assumed had been tipped off by the agents whispering into their wrist pieces behind us.
I looked over my shoulder at her without breaking my stride. “Oh, we’re just going outside,” I said, “to see the lights.”
Claire’s eyebrows lifted. We paid her no heed. Arriving at the door, I grabbed its thick golden handle and pulled. But the door wouldn’t budge. Nine months earlier, an intruder wielding a knife had somehow managed to jump a fence and barge through this same door, running through the State Floor before being tackled by a Secret Service officer. In response, security began locking the door.
I turned to the group behind us, which had grown to include a uniformed Secret Service officer in a white shirt and a black tie. “How do you open this thing?” I said, to no one in particular. “There’s got to be a key.”
“Ma’am?” Claire said. “I’m not sure that’s the door you want. Every network news camera is aimed at the north side of the White House right now.”
She did have a point. My hair was a mess and I was in flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt. Not exactly dressed for a public appearance.
“Okay,” I said. “But can’t we get out there without being seen?”
Malia and I were now on a crusade. We weren’t going to relinquish our goal. We were going to get ourselves outside.
Someone then suggested trying one of the out-of-the-way loading doors on the ground floor, where trucks came to deliver food and office supplies. Our band began moving that way. Malia hooked her arm with mine. We were giddy now.
“We’re getting out!” I said.
“Yeah we are!” she said.
We made our way down a marble staircase and over red carpets, around the busts of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and past the kitchen until suddenly we were outdoors. The humid summer air hit our faces. I could see fireflies blinking on the lawn. And there it was, the hum of the public, people whooping and celebrating outside the iron gates. It had taken us ten minutes to get out of our own home, but we’d done it. We were outside, standing on a patch of lawn off to one side, out of sight of the public but with a beautiful, close-up view of the White House, lit up in pride.
Malia and I leaned into each other, happy to have found our way there.
As happens in politics, new winds were already beginning to gather and blow. By the fall of 2015, the next presidential campaign was in full swing. The Republican side was crowded, including governors like John Kasich and Chris Christie and senators like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, plus more than a dozen others. Meanwhile, Democrats were quickly narrowing themselves toward what would become a choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the liberal, longtime independent senator from Vermont.
Donald Trump had announced his candidacy early in the summer, standing inside Trump Tower in Manhattan and railing on Mexican immigrants—“rapists,” he called them—as well as the “losers” he said were running the country. I figured he was just grandstanding, sucking up the media’s attention because he could. Nothing in how he conducted himself suggested that he was serious about wanting to govern.
I was following the campaign, but not as intently as in years past. Instead, I’d been busy working on my fourth initiative as First Lady, called Let Girls Learn, which Barack and I had launched together back in the spring. It was an ambitious, government-wide effort focused on helping adolescent girls around the world obtain better access to education. Over the course of nearly seven years now as First Lady, I’d been struck again and again by both the promise and the vulnerability of young women in our world—from the immigrant girls I’d met at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who’d been brutally attacked by the Taliban and who came to the White House to speak with me, Barack, and Malia about her advocacy on behalf of girls’ education. I was horrified when, about six months after Malala’s visit, 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram, seemingly intent on causing other Nigerian families to fear sending their daughters to school. It had prompted me, for the first and only time during the presidency, to sub for Barack during his weekly address to the nation, speaking emotionally about how we needed to work harder at protecting and encouraging girls worldwide.
I felt it all personally. Education had been the primary instrument of change in my own life, my lever upward in the world. I was appalled that many girls—more than 98 million worldwide, in fact, according to UNESCO statistics—didn’t have access to it. Some girls weren’t able to attend school because their families needed them to work. Sometimes the nearest school was far away or too expensive, or the risk of being assaulted while getting there was too great. In many cases, suffocating gender norms and economic forces combined to keep girls uneducated—effectively locking them out of future opportunities. There seemed to be an idea—astonishingly prevalent in certain parts of the world—that it was simply not worth it to put a girl in school, even as studies consistently showed that educating girls and women and allowing them to enter the workforce did nothing but boost a country’s GDP.
Barack and I were committed to changing the perceptions about what made a young woman valuable to a society. He managed to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in resources from across his administration, through USAID and the Peace Corps, and also through the Departments of State, Labor, and Agriculture. The two of us together lobbied other countries’ governments to help fund programming for girls’ education while encouraging private companies and think tanks to commit to the cause.
At this point, too, I knew how to make a little noise for a cause. It was natural, I understood, for Americans to feel disconnected from the struggles of people in faraway countries, so I tried to bring it home, calling up celebrities like Stephen Colbert to lend their star power at events and on social media. I’d enlist the help of Janelle Monáe, Zendaya, Kelly Clarkson, and other talents to release a catchy pop song written by Diane Warren called “This Is for My Girls,” the proceeds of which would go toward funding girls’ education globally.
And lastly, I’d do something that was a little terrifying for me, which was to sing, making an appearance on the late-night host James Corden’s hilarious “Carpool Karaoke” series, the two of us circling the South Lawn in a black SUV. We belted out “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” “Single Ladies,” and finally—the reason I’d signed on to do it in the first place—“This Is for My Girls,” with a guest appearance from Missy Elliott, who slipped into the backseat and rapped along with us. I’d practiced diligently for my karaoke session for weeks, memorizing every beat to every song. The goal was to have it look fun and light, but behind it, as always, was work and a larger purpose—to keep connecting people with the issue. My segment with James had forty-five million views on YouTube within the first three months, making every bit of the effort worth it.
Toward the end of 2015, Barack, the girls, and I flew to Hawaii to spend Christmas as we always did, renting a big house with wide windows that looked out on the beach, joined by our usual group of family friends. As we had for the last six years, we took time on Christmas Day to visit with service members and their families at a nearby Marine Corps base. And as it had been right through, for Barack the vacation was only a partial vacation—a just-barely vacation, really. He fielded phone calls, sat for daily briefings, and was consulting with a skeleton staff of advisers, aides, and speechwriters who were all staying at a hotel close by. It made me wonder whether he’d remember how to fully relax when the time actually came, whether either one of us would find a way to let down when this was all over. What would it feel like, I wondered, when we finally got to go somewhere without the guy carrying the nuclear football?
Though I was allowing myself to dream a little, I still couldn’t picture how any of this would end.
Returning to Washington to begin our final year in the White House, we knew the clock was ticking now in earnest. I began what would become a long series of “lasts.” There was the last Governors’ Ball, the last Easter Egg Roll, the last White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Barack and I also made a last state visit to the United Kingdom together, which included a quick trip to see our friend the Queen.
Barack had always felt a special fondness for Queen Elizabeth, saying that she reminded him of his no-nonsense grandmother, Toot. I personally was awed by her efficiency, a skill clearly forged by necessity over a lifetime in the public eye. One day a few years earlier, Barack and I had stood, hosting a receiving line together with her and Prince Philip. I’d watched, bemused, as the Queen managed to whisk people speedily past with economic, friendly hellos that left no room for follow-up conversation, while Barack projected an amiable looseness, almost inviting chitchat and then ponderously answering people’s questions, thereby messing up the flow of the line. All these years after meeting the guy, I was still trying to get him to hurry up.
One afternoon in April 2016, the two of us took a helicopter from the American ambassador’s residence in London to Windsor Castle in the countryside west of the city. Our advance team instructed us that the Queen and Prince Philip were planning to meet us when we landed and then personally drive us back to the castle for lunch. As was always the case, we were briefed on the protocol ahead of time: We’d greet the royals formally before getting into their vehicle to make the short drive. I’d sit in the front next to ninety-four-year-old Prince Philip, who would drive, and Barack would sit next to the Queen in the backseat.
It would be the first time in more than eight years that the two of us had been driven by anyone other than a Secret Service agent, or ridden in a car together without agents. This seemed to matter to our security teams, the same way the protocol mattered to the advance teams, who fretted endlessly over our movements and interactions, making sure that every last little thing looked right and went smoothly.
After we’d touched down in a field on the palace grounds and said our hellos, however, the Queen abruptly threw a wrench into everything by gesturing for me to join her in the backseat of the Range Rover. I froze, trying to remember if anyone had prepped me for this scenario, whether it was more polite to go along with it or to insist that Barack take his proper seat by her side.
The Queen immediately picked up on my hesitation. And was having none of it.
“Did they give you some rule about this?” she said, dismissing all the fuss with a wave of her hand. “That’s rubbish. Sit wherever you want.”
For me, giving commencement speeches was an important, almost sacred springtime ritual. Each year I delivered several of them, choosing a mix of high school and college ceremonies, focusing on the sorts of schools that normally didn’t land high-profile speakers. (Princeton and Harvard, I’m sorry, but you’re fine without me.) In 2015, I’d gone back to the South Side of Chicago to speak at the graduation at King College Prep, the high school from which Hadiya Pendleton would have graduated had she lived long enough. Her spirit was commemorated at the ceremony by an empty chair, which her classmates had decorated with sunflowers and purple fabric.
For my final round of commencements as First Lady, I spoke at Jackson State University in Mississippi, another historically black school, using the opportunity to talk about striving for excellence. I spoke at the City College of New York, emphasizing the value of diversity and immigration. And on May 26, which happened to be the day Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination for president, I was in New Mexico, speaking to a class of Native American students who were graduating from a small residential high school, nearly all of them headed next to college. The deeper I got into the experience of being First Lady, the more emboldened I felt to speak honestly and directly about what it meant to be marginalized by race and gender. My intention was to give younger people a context for the hate surfacing in the news and in political discourse and to give them a reason to hope.
I tried to communicate the one message about myself and my station in the world that I felt might really mean something. Which was that I knew invisibility. I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility. I liked to mention that I was the great-great-granddaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation. And in standing at a lectern in front of students who were thinking about the future, I offered testament to the idea that it was possible, at least in some ways, to overcome invisibility.
The last commencement I attended that spring was personal—Malia’s graduation from Sidwell Friends, held on a warm day in June. Our close friend Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who’d written a poem for Barack’s first inauguration, spoke to the class, which meant that Barack and I got to sit back and just feel. I was proud of Malia, who was soon to head off to Europe to travel for a few weeks with friends. After taking a gap year, she’d enroll at Harvard. I was proud of Sasha, who turned fifteen that same day and was counting down the hours to the Beyoncé concert she was going to in lieu of a birthday party. She would go on to spend much of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard, living with family friends until Barack and I arrived for vacation. She’d make new friends and land her first job, working at a snack bar. I was proud, too, of my mother, who sat nearby in the sunshine, wearing a black dress and heels, having managed to live in the White House and travel the world with us while staying utterly and completely herself.
I was proud of all of us, for almost being done.
Barack sat next to me in a folding chair. I could see the tears brimming behind his sunglasses as he watched Malia cross the stage to pick up her diploma. He was tired, I knew. Three days earlier, he’d given a eulogy for a friend from law school who’d worked for him in the White House. Two days later, an extremist would open fire inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing forty-nine people and wounding fifty-three more. The gravity of his job never let up.
He was a good father, dialed in and consistent in ways his own father had never been, but there were also things he’d sacrificed along the way. He’d entered into parenthood as a politician. His constituents and their needs had been with us all along.
It had to hurt a little bit, realizing he was so close to having more freedom and more time, just as our daughters were beginning to step away.
But we had to let them go. The future was theirs, just as it should be.
In late July, I flew through a violent thunderstorm, the plane dipping and diving on its approach to Philadelphia, where I was going to speak for the last time at a Democratic convention. It was perhaps the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced, and while Caroline Adler Morales, my very pregnant communications director, worried that the stress of it would put her into labor and Melissa—a skittish flier under normal circumstances—sat shrieking in her seat, all I could think was Just get me down in time to practice my speech. Though I’d long grown comfortable on the biggest stages, I still found huge comfort in preparation.
Back in 2008, during Barack’s first run for president, I’d rehearsed and re-rehearsed my convention speech until I could place the commas in my sleep, in part because I’d never given a speech on live television like that, and also because the personal stakes felt so high. I was stepping onto the stage after having been demonized as an angry black woman who didn’t love her country. My speech that night gave me a chance to humanize myself, explaining who I was in my own voice, slaying the caricatures and stereotypes with my own words. Four years later, at the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, I’d spoken earnestly about what I’d seen in Barack during his first term—how he was still the same principled man I’d married, how I’d realized that “being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are.” This time, I was stumping for Hillary Clinton, Barack’s opponent in the brutal 2008 primary who’d gone on to become his loyal and effective secretary of state. I’d never feel as passionately about another candidate as I did about my own husband, which made campaigning for others sometimes difficult for me. I maintained a code for myself, though, when it came to speaking publicly about anything or anyone in the political sphere: I said only what I absolutely believed and what I absolutely felt.
We landed in Philadelphia and I rushed to the convention center, finding just enough time to change clothes and run through my speech twice. Then I stepped out and spoke my truth. I talked about the fears I’d had early on about raising our daughters in the White House and how proud I was of the intelligent young women they’d become. I said that I trusted Hillary because she understood the demands of the presidency and had the temperament to lead, because she was as qualified as any nominee in history. And I acknowledged the stark choice now being put before the country.
Since childhood, I’d believed it was important to speak out against bullies while also not stooping to their level. And to be clear, we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for prisoners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance. I wanted Americans to understand that words matter—that the hateful language they heard coming from their TVs did not reflect the true spirit of our country and that we could vote against it. It was dignity I wanted to make an appeal for—the idea that as a nation we might hold on to the core thing that had sustained my family, going back generations. Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always the easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high.
Two months later, just weeks before the election, a tape would surface of Donald Trump in an unguarded moment, bragging to a TV host in 2005 about sexually assaulting women, using language so lewd and vulgar that it put media outlets in a quandary about how to quote it without violating the established standards of decency. In the end, the standards of decency were simply lowered in order to make room for the candidate’s voice.
When I heard it, I could hardly believe it. And then again, there was something painfully familiar in the menace and male jocularity of that tape. I can hurt you and get away with it. It was an expression of hatred that had generally been kept out of polite company, but still lived in the marrow of our supposedly enlightened society—alive and accepted enough that someone like Donald Trump could afford to be cavalier about it. Every woman I know recognized it. Every person who’s ever been made to feel “other” recognized it. It was precisely what so many of us hoped our own children would never need to experience, and yet probably would. Dominance, even the threat of it, is a form of dehumanization. It’s the ugliest kind of power.
My body buzzed with fury after hearing that tape. I was scheduled to speak at a campaign rally for Hillary the following week, and rather than delivering a straightforward endorsement of her capabilities, I felt compelled to try to address Trump’s words directly—to counter his voice with my own.
I worked on my remarks while sitting in a hospital room at Walter Reed, where my mother was having back surgery, my thoughts flowing fast. I’d been mocked and threatened many times now, cut down for being black, female, and vocal. I’d felt the derision directed at my body, the literal space I occupied in the world. I’d watched Donald Trump stalk Hillary Clinton during a debate, following her around as she spoke, standing too close, trying to diminish her presence with his. I can hurt you and get away with it. Women endure entire lifetimes of these indignities—in the form of catcalls, groping, assault, oppression. These things injure us. They sap our strength. Some of the cuts are so small they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal. Either way, they accumulate. We carry them everywhere, to and from school and work, at home while raising our children, at our places of worship, anytime we try to advance.
For me, Trump’s comments were another blow. I couldn’t let his message stand. Working with Sarah Hurwitz, the deft speechwriter who’d been with me since 2008, I channeled my fury into words, and then—after my mother had recovered from surgery—I delivered them one October day in Manchester, New Hampshire. Speaking to a high-energy crowd, I made my feelings clear. “This is not normal,” I said. “This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable.” I articulated my rage and my fear, along with my faith that with this election Americans understood the true nature of what they were choosing between. I put my whole heart into giving that speech.
I then flew back to Washington, praying I’d been heard.
As fall continued, Barack and I began making plans for our move to a new house in January, having decided to stay in Washington so that Sasha could finish high school at Sidwell. Malia, meanwhile, was in South America on a gap-year adventure, feeling the freedom of being as far away from the political intensity as she could. I implored my staff in the East Wing to finish strong, even as they needed to think about finding new jobs, even as the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump grew more intense and distracting by the day.
On November 7, 2016, the evening before the election, Barack and I made a quick trip to Philadelphia to join Hillary and her family at a final rally before an enormous crowd on Independence Mall. The mood was positive, expectant. I took heart in the optimism Hillary projected that night, and in the many polls that showed her with a comfortable lead. I took heart in what I thought I understood about the qualities Americans would and wouldn’t tolerate in a leader. I presumed nothing, but I felt good about the odds.
For the first time in many years, Barack and I had no role to play on election night. There was no hotel suite reserved for the wait; there were no trays of canapés laid out, no television blaring from any corner. There was no hair, makeup, or wardrobe to be tended to, no marshaling of our children, no late-night speech being prepped for delivery. We had nothing to do, and it thrilled us. This was the beginning of our stepping back, a first taste of what the future might be like. We were invested, of course, but the moment ahead wasn’t ours. It was merely ours to witness. Knowing it would be a while before results came in, we invited Valerie over to watch a movie in the White House theater.
I can’t remember a thing about the film that night—not its title, not even its genre. Really, we were just passing time in the dark. My mind kept turning over the reality that Barack’s term as president was almost finished. What lay ahead most immediately were good-byes—dozens and dozens of them, all emotional, as the staff we loved and appreciated so much would begin to rotate out of the White House. Our goal was to do what George and Laura Bush had done for us, making the transition of power as smooth as possible. Already, our teams were beginning to prepare briefing books and contact lists for their successors. Before they left, many East Wing staffers would leave handwritten notes on their desks, giving a friendly welcome and a standing offer of help to the next person coming along.
We were still immersed in the business of every day, but we’d also started to plan in earnest for what lay ahead. Barack and I were excited to stay in Washington but would build a legacy on the South Side of Chicago, which would become home to the Obama Presidential Center. We planned to launch a foundation as well, one whose mission would be to encourage and embolden a new generation of leaders. The two of us had many goals for the future, but the biggest involved creating more space and support for young people and their ideas. I also knew that we needed a break: I’d started scouting for a private place where we could go to decompress for a few days in January, immediately after the new president got sworn in.
We just needed the new president.
As the movie wrapped up and the lights came on, Barack’s cell phone buzzed. I saw him glance at it and then look again, his brow furrowing just slightly.
“Huh,” he said. “Results in Florida are looking kind of strange.”
There was no alarm in his voice, just a tiny seed of awareness, a hot ember glowing suddenly in the grass. The phone buzzed again. My heart started to tick faster. I knew the updates were coming from David Simas, Barack’s political adviser, who was monitoring returns from the West Wing and who understood the precise county-by-county algebra of the electoral map. If something cataclysmic was going to happen, Simas would spot it early.
I watched my husband’s face closely, not sure I was ready to hear what he was going to say. Whatever it was, it didn’t look good. I felt something leaden take hold in my stomach just then, my anxiety hardening into dread. As Barack and Valerie started to discuss the early results, I announced that I was going upstairs. I walked to the elevator, hoping to do only one thing, which was to block it all out and go to sleep. I understood what was probably happening, but I wasn’t ready to face it.
As I slept, the news was confirmed: American voters had elected Donald Trump to succeed Barack as the next president of the United States.
I wanted to not know that fact for as long as I possibly could.
The next day, I woke to a wet and dreary morning. A gray sky hung over Washington. I couldn’t help but interpret it as funereal. Time seemed to crawl. Sasha went off to school, quietly working through her disbelief. Malia called from Bolivia, sounding deeply rattled. I told both our girls that I loved them and that things would be okay. I kept trying to tell myself the same thing.
In the end, Hillary Clinton won nearly three million more votes than her opponent, but Trump had captured the Electoral College thanks to fewer than eighty thousand votes spread across Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I am not a political person, so I’m not going to attempt to offer an analysis of the results. I won’t try to speculate about who was responsible or what was unfair. I just wish more people had turned out to vote. And I will always wonder about what led so many women, in particular, to reject an exceptionally qualified female candidate and instead choose a misogynist as their president. But the result was now ours to live with.
Barack had stayed up most of the night tracking the data, and as had happened so many times before, he was called upon to step forward as a symbol of steadiness to help the nation process its shock. I didn’t envy him the task. He gave a morning pep talk to his staff in the Oval Office and then, around noon, delivered a set of sober but reassuring remarks to the nation from the Rose Garden, calling—as he always did—for unity and dignity, asking Americans to respect one another as well as the institutions built by our democracy.
That afternoon, I sat in my East Wing office with my entire staff, all of us crammed into the room on couches and desk chairs that had been pulled in from other rooms. My team was made up largely of women and minorities, including several who came from immigrant families. Many were in tears, feeling that their every vulnerability was now exposed. They’d poured themselves into their jobs because they believed thoroughly in the causes they were furthering. I tried to tell them at every turn that they should be proud of who they are, that their work mattered, and that one election couldn’t wipe away eight years of change.
Everything was not lost. This was the message we needed to carry forward. It’s what I truly believed. It wasn’t ideal, but it was our reality—the world as it is. We needed now to be resolute, to keep our feet pointed in the direction of progress.
We were at the end now, truly. I found myself caught between looking back and looking forward, mulling over one question in particular: What lasts?
We were the forty-fourth First Family and only the eleventh family to spend two full terms in the White House. We were, and would always be, the first black one. I hoped that when future parents brought their children to visit, the way I’d brought Malia and Sasha when their father was a senator, they’d be able to point out some reminder of our family’s time here. I thought it was important to register our presence within the larger history of the place.
Not every president commissioned an official china setting, for instance, but I made sure we did. During Barack’s second term, we also chose to redecorate the Old Family Dining Room, situated just off the State Dining Room, freshening it up with a modern look and opening it to the public for the first time. On the room’s north wall, we’d hung a stunning yellow, red, and blue abstract painting by Alma Thomas—Resurrection—which became the first work of art by a black woman to be added to the White House’s permanent collection.
The most enduring mark, however, lay outside the walls. The garden had persisted through seven and a half years now, producing roughly two thousand pounds of food annually. It had survived heavy snows, sheets of rain, and damaging hail. When high winds had toppled the forty-two-foot-high National Christmas Tree a few years earlier, the garden had survived intact. Before I left the White House, I wanted to give it even more permanence. We expanded its footprint to twenty-eight hundred square feet, more than double its original size. We added stone pathways and wooden benches, plus a welcoming arbor made of wood sourced from the estates of Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe and the childhood home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And then, one fall afternoon, I set out across the South Lawn to officially dedicate the garden for posterity.
Joining me that day were supporters and advocates who’d helped with our nutrition and childhood health efforts over the years, as well as a pair of students from the original class of fifth graders at Bancroft Elementary School, who were now practically adults. Most of my staff was there, including Sam Kass, who’d left the White House in 2014 but had returned for the occasion.
Looking out at the crowd in the garden, I was emotional. I felt gratitude for all the people on my team who’d given everything to the work, sorting through handwritten letters, fact-checking my speeches, hopping cross-country flights to prepare for our events. I’d seen many of them take on more responsibility and blossom both professionally and personally, even under the glare of the harshest lights. The burdens of being “the first” didn’t fall only on our family’s shoulders. For eight years, these optimistic young people—and a few seasoned professionals—had had our backs. Melissa, who had been my very first campaign hire nearly a decade ago and someone I will count on as a close friend for life, remained with me in the East Wing through the end of the term, as did Tina, my remarkable chief of staff. Kristen Jarvis had been replaced by Chynna Clayton, a hardworking young woman from Miami who quickly became another big sister to our girls and was central to keeping my life running smoothly.
I considered all these people, current and former staff, to be family. And I was so proud of what we’d done.
For every video that swiftly saturated the internet—I’d mom-danced with Jimmy Fallon, Nerf-dunked on LeBron James, and college-rapped with Jay Pharoah—we’d focused ourselves on doing more than trending for a few hours on Twitter. And we had results. Forty-five million kids were eating healthier breakfasts and lunches; eleven million students were getting sixty minutes of physical activity every day through our Let’s Move! Active Schools program. Children overall were eating more whole grains and produce. The era of supersized fast food was coming to a close.
Through my work with Jill Biden on Joining Forces, we’d helped persuade businesses to hire or train more than 1.5 million veterans and military spouses. Following through on one of the very first concerns I’d heard on the campaign trail, we’d gotten all fifty states to collaborate on professional licensing agreements, which would help keep military spouses’ careers from stalling every time they moved.
On education, Barack and I had leveraged billions of dollars to help girls around the world get the schooling they deserve. More than twenty-eight hundred Peace Corps volunteers were now trained to implement programs for girls internationally. And in the United States, my team and I had helped more young people sign up for federal student aid, supported school counselors, and elevated College Signing Day to a national level.
Barack, meanwhile, had managed to reverse the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. He’d helped to broker the Paris Agreement on climate change, brought tens of thousands of troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and led the effort to effectively shut down Iran’s nuclear program. Twenty million more people had the security of health insurance. And we’d managed two terms in office without a major scandal. We had held ourselves and the people who worked with us to the highest standards of ethics and decency, and we’d made it all the way through.
For us, some changes were harder to measure but felt just as important. Six months before the garden dedication, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the young composer I’d met at one of our first arts events, returned to the White House. His hip-hop riff on Alexander Hamilton had exploded into a Broadway sensation, and with it he’d become a global superstar. Hamilton was a musical celebration of America’s history and diversity, recasting our understanding of the roles minorities play in our national story, highlighting the importance of women who’d long been overshadowed by powerful men. I’d seen it off-Broadway and loved it so much that I went to see it again when it hit the big stage. It was catchy and funny, heart swelling and heartbreaking—the best piece of art in any form that I’d ever encountered.
Lin-Manuel brought most of his cast along with him to Washington, a talented multiracial ensemble. The performers spent their afternoon with young people who’d come from local high schools—budding playwrights, dancers, and rappers kicking around the White House, writing lyrics and dropping beats with their heroes. In the late afternoon, we all came together for a performance in the East Room. Barack and I sat in the front row, surrounded by young people of all different races and backgrounds, the two of us awash in emotion as Christopher Jackson and Lin-Manuel sang the ballad “One Last Time” as their final number. Here were two artists, one black and one Puerto Rican, standing beneath a 115-year-old chandelier, bracketed by towering antique portraits of George and Martha Washington, singing about feeling “at home in this nation we’ve made.” The power and truth of that moment stays with me to this day.
Hamilton touched me because it reflected the kind of history I’d lived myself. It told a story about America that allowed the diversity in. I thought about this afterward: So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American—that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong. That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.
I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.
As we moved toward the end of Barack’s presidency, I thought about America this same way. I loved my country for all the ways its story could be told. For almost a decade, I’d been privileged to move through it, experiencing its bracing contradictions and bitter conflicts, its pain and persistent idealism, and above all else its resilience. My view was unusual, perhaps, but I think what I experienced during those years is what many did—a sense of progress, the comfort of compassion, the joy of watching the unsung and invisible find some light. A glimmer of the world as it could be. This was our bid for permanence: a rising generation that understood what was possible—and that even more was possible for them. Whatever was coming next, this was a story we could own.
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