Former President Barack Obama recently released his nearly 800-page memoir detailing the time from his first run for the White House nearly 14 years ago until the current day. Many notable excerpts from the memoir spilled into the public conversation as Obama made the perfunctory rounds of book-release interviews. Among those were his trip to the inauguration with his predecessor George W. Bush, his thorny relationship with Senator Mitch McConnell, and the role racial resentment of his presidency played in the rise of Donald Trump.
There was even quite a bit of buzz around the strain his political ambitions put on his marriage. President Obama is quite candid — as former First Lady Michelle Obama was in her own memoir, Becoming — about his and his wife’s differing views on his life in politics. It is not an exaggeration to say that Mrs. Obama — Miche to her family and closest friends — hates politics; the ugliness of it all, the intrusion into one’s family and personal life, the dishonesty and deception.
There was, however, another passage Obama shared in A Promised Land about his “lover and friend” Michelle that was utterly remarkable, both in its insightfulness as well as its sweetness. Barack simply says of Michelle, that being the First Lady of the United States was a job too small for her. Let that sit with you a moment. On the one hand, Obama sized up all the roles, rules, tasks and traditions of being First Lady, all the banquets and balls, the initiatives and invitations, the work of welcoming, hosting and householding. On the other hand he took stock of his bride — her talents and skills, her gifts and her grace, her life of ambition, education, and preparation and judged the job of First Lady as “far too small for her gifts.”
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….Still, this wasn’t enough to insulate Michelle from the wildly unrealistic and often contradictory social pressures that women with children absorb from the media, their peers, their employers, and of course, the men in their lives. My career in politics….had made it even tougher. More than once Michelle had chosen not to pursue an opportunity that excited her, but would have demanded too much time away from the girls…With my election, she had been forced to give up a job with real impact for a role that — in its original design, at least — was far too small for her gifts.
There are a few reasons why this passage is both poignant and profound. First, it demonstrates Obama’s ability to “see” his wife; to see her as separate and distinct from himself. A person — a woman — with her own ambitions, dreams, desires. It is noteworthy that Obama engages in genuine self reflection about what impact his choices have on her life. Beyond that, Obama doesn’t assume — as many often do — that his wife would feel or should feel honored, grateful, fulfilled, or lucky to be the wife of an “important man.”
Obama’s words also demonstrate a deep admiration for the person that Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is. Certainly, many men — likely most men — love their wives. But do they possess — and profess — such reverence and respect for that woman? Let’s face it, being the first lady is a big job; it’s a good job, it is a job of privilege and status and fame. First Ladies are routinely the most admired women in the world. To gauge your wife’s talents, skills, abilities, knowledge, and strengths to be beyond the four corners of that assignment is a compliment of epic proportion.
Finally, in sharing this honest assessment of Michelle Obama with his readers, Obama models the very husband, boyfriend, and partner behavior that helps women to succeed, to excel, to thrive. When women feel this type of support, encouragement, admiration, and love from “the men in their lives” it can provide the motivation they need to take the chance, make the jump, try — and even fail. It can be the very thing that women need to overcome worries, self-doubt, and fear to live their best and most fulfilling lives.
What Barack said about Michelle was a really big deal.