The 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions have come and gone and are fading into our shared political history. After all the rhetoric, all the name-calling, all the lines drawn in the sand, we the American people are facing as stark a choice for president as we have ever had. We can only pray that we get it right.
As we look forward with both hope and trepidation, we are also looking backward as Barack Obama’s presidency winds to a close and his public approval polls rise, as do those for many but not all outgoing presidents. Historians will assess his presidency’s effectiveness on many measures — economic, foreign relations, crime, race relations, national security and others, but I am looking more toward the role he and his family have played in our national life.
Illinois may have known Barack and Michelle Obama in 2004 when Barack began the rocket ride from state legislator to U.S. Senator to leader of the free world, but most Americans did not. The family of four we got to know during the presidential campaign of 2008 included two highly-educated professional and focused parents and two young daughters, 7 and 10, when the family moved into the White House. Knowing that the responsibilities of governing would take them away from their children at times, the Obamas brought along Michelle’s mother to ensure stability in the fishbowl lives they knew their young children were going to experience.
The president got right to work, and his family settled in. From the outset, Michelle was both a traditional and untraditional First Lady. She has not worked outside the White House, and she seems to have been both a devoted wife and mother and a woman committed to making America better, notably through childhood obesity prevention, by supporting military personnel, veterans and their families and by promoting education for young people, especially for girls all over the world.
Michelle Obama has not been shy.
She has made her causes fun by planting with children, dancing with students and playing with fashion in ways that thrilled both that industry and fashionistas worldwide. She has spoken her mind on more contentious issues, including long-standing inequalities in American life, particularly in education, and on the gun violence epidemic in our country. Most recently at the last week’s Democratic convention, she addressed our nation’s enduring and devastating racial divide, noting that she and her family, the first African Americans to live in the White House, wake up every morning in a home built by enslaved black people.
Think about that.
Think, too, about the insults, indignities and falsehoods that have been leveled at this family over the last eight years, the most offensive — to me, at least — being a U.S. Congressman shouting, “You lie!” to the president of the United States inside the U.S. Capital.
The Obamas will leave the White House in January a different family than the one that entered it. The president will always be a past president, a leader whose counsel will be sought by both Americans and people from other nations. The children have become young women, with Malia taking a year off before entering college and Sasha just a few years behind. Michelle will be only 53, a Princeton and Harvard- educated attorney whose own credentials can take her places even a former First Lady might not go. Americans will watch as she writes her next chapter, which will surely be one of smart and thoughtful service.
I was in northern Africa the night President Obama was re-elected. It was almost morning there before the results were clear, and my friends and I were surrounded by the cheers of Moroccans as the news spread. No matter what you or I may think of President Obama, his legacy and his family, it is clear that the rest of the world has been entranced by the Obamas and by the fact that the United States elected a man of African heritage not once, but twice.
You and I will never know what Michelle Obama has said to her husband in private about their experience in the White House — how it has affected them, their daughters and the nation they serve. We will never know how the lives of their children might have been different had they not grown up on the world stage. We will never be privy to the hurts any of the Obamas endured as they lived the reality of being “firsts.”
Maybe it is because I, like Michelle Obama, have been a wife and a mother and understand how those experiences mark a woman’s life forever that I admire how she has handled her role as First Lady. She guided and guarded her family and became a force for healthy, educated children and families of all stripes.
Some other woman might have done it better, but I don’t know how.