The Uncommon, Requisite Resolve of Michelle Obama

The former first lady’s new memoir is notable for the revealing glimpses it offers into private moments of fear and frustration.

Joe Raedle / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The life of a political spouse is a grueling parade of thankless labor. There are endless speeches, luncheons, galas, campaign events, and fund-raisers. Amid the flurry, though, one constant emerges: the complete surrendering of one’s private life. To assume such a role is to become a public accessory in the eyes of a constituency, a variable to be calculated and then scrutinized.

In her new memoir, the hyper-surveyed former first lady Michelle Obama takes great care to enumerate the roles she spent her life preparing for: Dutiful daughter. Star high-school student. Dedicated Princeton undergraduate. Studious Harvard Law attendee. Diligent lawyer. Loving wife and mother. Never did first lady—or even political spouse, that more nebulous category—enter her aspirational lexicon.

The book, aptly titled Becoming, offers a sometimes surprisingly intimate look at the life of the former first lady, born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. Beginning with her childhood years and ending with reflections on the current administration, Becoming covers Obama’s transformation from a young overachiever on the South Side of Chicago to one of the most formidable political figures in recent history.

Obama writes with a refreshing candor, as though her keen awareness of her celebrity is matched only by her eagerness to shed the exhausting veneer that helped enable her husband’s political rise. “My husband is making his own adjustments to life after the White House, catching his own breath,” she writes at the end of the preface. “And here I am, in this new place, with a lot I want to say.”

Michelle Obama challenged the archetype of the political spouse in spectacular fashion. The accomplished career woman and mother was reluctant to assume the spotlight—“I had to take off my wife hat and put on my citizen hat,” she recently told Oprah of the decision to support her husband’s campaign—but outspoken and captivating once she did. “I talked about everything—about my brother and the values we were raised with, about this hotshot lawyer I met at work, the guy who’d stolen my heart with his groundedness and his vision for the world,” she writes of the speeches she made during the early parts of her husband’s campaign. She attracted large crowds of supporters. And, of course, there was that small, complicating detail: Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, girl of the South Side, is black.

Her specific burden was such: A black woman campaigning alongside the first black man to secure a major-party nomination for the presidency, she was unwavering in her support—and in her countenance—partly because she had no choice. Barack Obama had to work twice as hard, as the adage goes, and so, too, did Michelle. Where success had once been a quantifiable entity for the high-achieving Michelle Robinson, Michelle Obama had to repeatedly recalibrate her affect to satisfy an electorate whose ideas about black women remain shaped by white supremacy. She had to be articulate but not intimidating, classy but not uppity, warm but not loose, sentimental but not hot-blooded. “I was getting worn out, not physically, but emotionally. The punches hurt, even if I understood that they had little to do with who I really was as a person,” she writes. “It was as if there was some cartoon version of me out there wreaking havoc, a woman I kept hearing about but didn’t know—a too-tall, too-forceful, ready-to-emasculate Godzilla of a political wife named Michelle Obama.”

Becoming is at its most striking when it offers readers a glimpse at the preternaturally composed former first lady’s moments of fear and frustration. In one passage, about the rise of public attention after the Iowa caucus preceding the 2008 election, she contrasts Barack’s thick-skinned optimism with her own tendency toward self-doubt in the face of external criticism:

We are built differently, my husband and I, which is why one of us chose politics and the other did not. He was aware of the rumors and misperceptions that got pumped like toxic vapor into the campaign, but rarely did any of it bother him … He’s just not someone who’s easily rattled or thrown off course by anything as abstract as doubt or hurt.

I, on the other hand, was still learning about public life. I considered myself a confident, successful woman, but I was also the same kid who used to tell people she planned to be a pediatrician and devoted herself to setting perfect attendance at school … Over time, I’d gotten better about not measuring my self-worth strictly in terms of standard, by-the-book achievement, but I did tend to believe that if I worked diligently and honestly, I’d avoid the bullies and always be seen as myself.

This belief, though, was about to come undone.

It’s a notable reflection on her own shifting interiority. The memoir goes on to detail the wave of virulent criticism that met Michelle Obama following Barack Obama’s clinching of Iowa. The former first lady zeroes in on the responses to a comment she made during two February 2008 speeches in Wisconsin. “What we have learned over this year is that hope is making a comeback. It is making a comeback. And let me tell you something: For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” she said then. “And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment. I’ve seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic common issues, and it’s made me proud.”

Her remark about feeling pride in her country’s citizenry was, perhaps unsurprisingly, taken out of context and circulated heavily. She was accused of being un-American, of attacking the country, and of being unpatriotic. She was deemed, in a word, unfit. A “pernicious seed had been planted,” she writes, “a perception of me as disgruntled and vaguely hostile, lacking some expected level of grace.”

This specific manufactured controversy served as a clear microcosm of the public’s suspicion of the half-Kenyan senator with the funny name and his strident African American wife, whom some accused of overshadowing him. These charges predated the “birther” movement, but their subtext was clear. Where Barack Obama had to contend primarily with anti-blackness and xenophobia, Michelle Obama bore the added weight of racialized sexism. “Somehow I’ve been caricatured as this emasculating wife,” she told Newsweek that same February. “Barack and I laugh about that. It’s just sort of, like, do you think anyone could emasculate Barack Obama? Really now.”

It was a deft understatement of the charge’s impact, but the idea that black women with thoughts and feelings of their own somehow dilute their husbands’ masculinity is a widely propagated, pernicious myth. Becoming addresses the suffocating trope of the angry black woman early in the text. “Since stepping reluctantly into public life, I’ve been held up as the most powerful woman in the world and taken down as an ‘angry black woman,’” Obama writes in the book’s preface. “I’ve wanted to ask my detractors which part of that phrase matters to them most—is it ‘angry’ or ‘black’ or ‘woman’?”

These are, of course, concerns that no first lady before Obama had to contend with. No other first lady, or wife of a presidential candidate, has been called “an ape in heels” or parodied as an Afro-rocking terrorist complete with a machine gun. Even so, white political wives, among them Heidi Cruz and even the onetime Barack Obama opponent Hillary Clinton, have admitted that the unyielding rigors of the post can sometimes outweigh the benefits—no matter how deeply a wife believes in her husband’s political vision. Remaining composed in the heat of a standard campaign cycle is never a small feat.

But navigating the jagged terrain of American politics with the added threat of American racism hanging over your family is a punishingly Herculean task. It requires an uncommon resolve. It’s not surprising that Michelle Obama would have felt overwhelmed by the unrelenting negativity hurled at her and her daughters during her husband’s campaigns and presidency. What is startling about Becoming, however, is her willingness to admit to—and detail—these moments of doubt, of fear, of anxiety. After more than a decade of scrutiny, Michelle Obama is now inviting a close read of her life.

It’s worth noting, of course, that perceptions of Obama eventually shifted. By the end of her husband’s tenure as president, the first lady would be hailed as a political darling, as “the closer” on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Obama would be asked repeatedly to run for office herself and likened to the world’s best living performer. “Let’s face it,” Barack Obama said in a video message played at the rapper Jay-Z’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, in June 2017. “We both have wives who are significantly more popular than we are.”

Like much of the couple’s banter, the former president’s joking address to the Brooklyn rapper was a nod to Michelle Obama’s conspicuous excellence. In the time since the two have left Pennsylvania Avenue, the former first lady has given a spate of commencement speeches, spoken regularly on panels and at conferences, and commented on the current administration’s efforts to roll back the health initiatives she launched while her husband was in office. She had not, however, condemned the current administration wholeheartedly prior to Becoming’s release. Her rebukes of Donald Trump’s agenda begin with his suggestion that Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen, which Michelle Obama says in the book put her family at risk.

But it’s her recounting of the inauguration that reveals the most about the former first lady’s relationship to the new president—and to the bloc of voters who elected him because of how openly he spewed propaganda that questioned the Obamas’ Americanness and humanity. “Someone from Barack’s administration might have said that the optics there were bad—that what the public saw didn’t reflect the president’s reality or ideals. But in this case, maybe it did,” she writes of seeing the overwhelmingly white crowd at Trump’s inauguration. “Realizing it, I made my own optic adjustment: I stopped even trying to smile.”

Refusing to smile is a small protest. It is not, in the broader context of American history, the most grandiose rebellion. So much of Michelle Obama’s subversion of the role handed to her exists in a similar space: that of symbolism. To many black women in America, her ascension to the post signified something—even if that something wasn’t always clear or widely agreed upon. Her celebrity, nearly Oprahesque in its inspirational bent, came to exist beyond the universe of her husband’s political decisions.

Becoming is still a political memoir; it functions partly to solidify Barack Obama’s legacy as a complex and multilayered milestone for the country. The book makes the case for the Obama family as definitively American, for Michelle Obama’s concerns as worries that derive from the universal anxieties of marriage and motherhood. Still, Becoming is satisfying for the quiet moments in which Mrs. Obama, the woman who supported a black man named Barack all the way to the presidency, gets to let down her hair and breathe as Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side.