President Obama Opens Up About Michelle, Malia, & Sasha — & The “Burden” They Bore During His Presidency
In his new, instantly best-selling memoir, A Promised Land, former President Barack Obama primarily focuses on his political rather than personal life, offering a chronological narrative of his unlikely path to the White House, his work to turn around the financial crash, and bitter fights with Republicans over healthcare — among many other things.
But it is his recollection of his evolving relationship with the women in his family as he enters the White House — particularly with his wife, Michelle — that are perhaps the most poignant and relatable parts of the memoir, offering insight into the 44th president’s ruminations on and realizations about the many burdens women face, in this country and the world at-large.
In the book (the first of two, with the second volume coming at an as-yet-unannounced date), Obama goes into detail about personal moments on the public stage, describing the tension that existed between him and Michelle before and during every campaign he ran in, and remembering the probing questions she asked when he decided to run for president; “She constantly challenged me and kept me honest,” he recalls. Obama also acknowledges in his book — and in his written interview with Refinery29 — “how much the burden disproportionately and unfairly fell on Michelle” as he was making his political career and how much he owes his family — “how much I relied on Michelle’s fortitude and parenting skills, and how much I depended on my daughters’ preternatural good cheer and maturity, which they seamlessly brought with them to the White House.” He describes with sentimentality and wistfulness not being there for every moment of Sasha and Malia growing up as he was traveling from state to state campaigning: “I’d notice their limbs seemed an inch or two longer than I remembered, their conversations at dinner more sophisticated,” he told Refinery29.
Obama offers further insight when it comes to describing Michelle’s response to taking on more domestic duties than she had expected as he was campaigning, as well as the challenges of being under the press and public’s magnifying glass in the White House as the first Black First Lady. “Look beautiful. Care for your family. Be gracious. Support your man. For most of American history, the First Lady’s job had been defined by these tenets, and Michelle was hitting all the marks,” Obama writes in the book. “What she hid from the outside world, though, was the way her new role initially chafed, how fraught with uncertainty it felt.”
Ahead, President Obama answers our questions about how the women in his life helped shape who he is today, where he believes we’re still failing women in the U.S., his outlook on the next four years, and more.
How have the women in your life — your family, particularly — helped shape who you are today?
“I am who I am because of the women in my life. I was raised by a single mom who spent much of her career focused on empowering women in developing countries. I watched as my grandmother, who helped raise me, worked her way up at a bank only to hit a glass ceiling. And I owe everything to Michelle. She’s a brilliant, incisive woman who, at every step of the way, has been a real partner and challenges me to be a better man.
“I know it hasn’t always been easy on her. The sacrifices she made are what allowed me to pursue my career. Michelle often had to balance the demands and expectations of her own impressive career and raising a family in a way I didn’t. And in America, few people would question my choices the same way they would for a woman. Early in my career, I would be away too much — serving in the state legislature or working as a law professor — and, while I helped out, it was usually on my schedule and on my terms. Even at the time, I realized how much the burden disproportionately and unfairly fell on Michelle.
“When you’re the father of two daughters, you become even more aware of how gender stereotypes pervade our society. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle social cues transmitted through culture. You feel the enormous pressure girls are under to look and behave and even think a certain way.
“Seeing all of this through the eyes of my daughters has left me even more in awe of my grandmother, whom I called Toot. This is a woman who woke up before sunup every day and took the bus to work so she could make a living for our family, back when women like her were told the only place they belonged was in the home.
“She taught me the value of working hard even when the work was unpleasant, and about fulfilling your responsibilities even when doing so was inconvenient. She taught me to marry passion with reason, to not get overly excited when life was going well, and to not get too down when it went badly.
“All this was instilled in me by a plainspoken white woman from Kansas. The fact that a person who loved me so deeply, who would do literally anything for me, also had this view of the world — it taught me the importance of seeking out shared values, even with those who may seem different from you.”
What was the most difficult thing about parenting Sasha and Malia while you and the First Lady were in the White House? Now that they are grown up, what is your biggest hope for their futures?
“You know, the toughest thing was watching them grow up! I remember in our first months in the White House, I’d read a chapter from Life of Pi to Sasha every night before tucking her and Malia into bed. When it came time to choose our next book, though, Sasha decided that she, like Malia, had gotten too old for me to read to her. That wasn’t easy.
“But if I’m being honest, the hardest parenting happened before we got to the White House — and it wasn’t done by me. It was done by Michelle when I was traveling from state to state campaigning. Whenever I’d see the girls, I’d notice their limbs seemed an inch or two longer than I remembered, their conversations at dinner more sophisticated. These changes served as a measure of all that I had missed, the fact that I hadn’t been there to nurse them when they were sick, or hug them when they were scared, or laugh at the jokes they told. As much as I believed in the importance of what I was doing, I knew I wouldn’t ever get that time back, and often found myself wondering if I’d made the right choices.
“It’s hard to overstate the burden I placed on my family during those two years I ran for president — how much I relied on Michelle’s fortitude and parenting skills, and how much I depended on my daughters’ preternatural good cheer and maturity, which they seamlessly brought with them to the White House.
“Of course, there were some bumps in the road — like having to call a parent to explain why Secret Service agents needed to survey their house before Sasha came for a playdate or working with staffers to press a tabloid not to print a picture of Malia hanging out with her friends at the mall. Suddenly, a father-daughter trip to get ice cream or a visit to a bookstore was a major production, involving road closures, tactical teams, and the press.
“But in many ways, Sasha and Malia did get to just be kids. Their weekends were filled with sleepovers and birthday parties and rec basketball. Malia got into tennis. Sasha got into tae kwon do — so, you know, don’t mess with Sasha.
“When I reflect on it, the best part of parenting from the White House was that I was working from home. So unless I was traveling, I was at the dinner table by 6:30, even if it meant that later I needed to go back downstairs to the Oval Office.
“What a joy that was, listening to Malia and Sasha talk about their days, narrating a world of friend drama, quirky teachers, jerky boys, silly jokes, dawning insights, and endless questions. Now, of course, they’re bona fide adults. And even after eight years in the White House, somehow, they ended up normal. Better than normal! I’m incredibly proud of the kind of human beings both of them have become. And while I have no idea what they will end up doing, I know they are going to make enormous contributions.”
In 2016, you wrote an essay in which you described how both your daughters and the presidency have shaped you as a feminist. Is there anything that has happened in the past four years that may have strengthened this view even further?
“Well, look, 244 years after our nation’s founding, and a full century after women finally won the right to vote, for the first time ever, a woman is going to be the Vice President of the United States. No matter your political views, this is an historic moment for America — which should remind us how far women have come on the long journey toward equality.
“But, at least for me, it’s also a reminder of just how messed up it is that this didn’t happen sooner. I mean, we shut half our population out of the most powerful offices in the land for more than two centuries. And it’s not only politics. In every facet of our society, women are still shut out of positions of power. Women are still held to an unfair double standard in just about every aspect of life. That needs to change — not just because that would make life better for women, but because it would make life better for all of us.
“But when it comes to advancing the cause of feminism, it’s not my place to dictate what’s next. I am going to follow the lead of all of the young women around the world marching us toward a future where equality across genders isn’t a lofty goal but a lived reality.”
Looking back at your presidency, what achievements that have helped women are you the most proud of?
“I remember, in my last year in office, we had a summit reflecting on the progress women had made over the last half century. We highlighted women like Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Gloria Steinem, who had led the way. And we talked about how all of us are following in the footsteps of heroes like Pauli Murray and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Wilma Mankiller and Patsy Mink.
“Only because of their work were we able to pass legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which was an important step in closing the gender wage gap; and the Affordable Care Act, which made it so insurers couldn’t charge you more just for being a woman.
“But let’s be clear: We still have a long way to go on the journey toward equality — and this pandemic has made that journey even longer. The last data I saw showed that there are about one and a half times as many women than men who either aren’t working or looking for work as compared to the beginning of the year.
“That’s because, even for all of the progress we have made in recent decades, women are still asked to shoulder far too many responsibilities in our society. That’s on men, too. And it’s long past time for us to change that.
“So let’s continue the fight for equal pay for equal work, but let’s not stop there. Let’s also fight to make paid family and sick leave a right; to make childcare affordable to all; and to guarantee paid maternity and paternity leave. Because no family should struggle with these basic necessities. Women should not have to choose between advancing at their jobs and taking care of their kids. And men need to more equitably share the burden at home — which begins with equal paid parental leave — in order to ensure equity in the workplace.
“These are big goals but we can achieve them. Our leaders just have to decide they care enough to do something about it.”
In the New Yorker excerpt from A Promised Land you describe the long, uphill battle for the Affordable Care Act. What is your outlook on the state of healthcare in America as Republicans work hard to dismantle the ACA?
“It is just outrageous that Republicans are trying to take healthcare away from folks in the middle of a pandemic.
“And it’s not only the 20 million Americans who gained coverage because of the Affordable Care Act who are at risk. It’s also the more than 100 million Americans with preexisting conditions who we made sure wouldn’t have to face skyrocketing premiums and deductibles.
“What’s more, there have been more than thirteen million cases of COVID-19 in America [Ed. note: 16 million as of publish date] — and it’s still too early to know what the long-term effects of that could be. Insurers might consider it a preexisting condition.
“Now, here’s the good news: Joe Biden is going to be the next President of the United States — and instead of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, he has a plan to build on it with a public option. But he’s going to need your help holding Congress’ feet to the fire to get it done.”
What is your outlook on American politics in the next four years?
“What we’ve seen over the past four years is just an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm — and focus — from a huge swath of Americans of every background. And because people got engaged, and because they voted, we are sending Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House. And I have no doubt that they will do everything they can to unify our country. But that’s not going to be easy — so we have to stay involved and support them.
“Because here’s the truth: You don’t just elect a president, then kick back and hope he or she will get it done. You’ve got to stay informed and engaged — and you’ve got to keep voting. Because like we saw during my two terms, even if you start out with big governing majorities in the House and Senate, you might lose them. And if you’re stuck with a Senate that would rather block everything than work together, you’ve got to flip some seats. And the only way to do that is by participating — and continuing to participate and grow your coalition until you get a government that looks like you and reflects your interests.
“It’s true at the federal level, and it’s true at the state and local levels. If we’ve got district attorneys and state attorneys and sheriffs focused on equality and justice, it makes a difference in the communities where folks are living and breathing every day.
“So if you’re not seeing the progress you want to, take a close look at who’s really standing in the way. I know it can be exhausting. But for this democracy to endure, it requires our active citizenship and sustained focus on the issues — not just in an election season, but all the days in-between.
“Ultimately, I have faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their parents and teachers told them were true but perhaps never really believed themselves.”