In the calm before 2020, FiveThirtyEight is taking a look at the ideas and people who are nudging the country’s rapidly changing political conversation in one direction or the other. We’re calling these people and ideas “nudgers.” (Creative, we know.) Our second nudger? Michelle Obama.
“If you make me miss Michelle, that’s grounds for breaking up,” a young woman said into her phone Wednesday night in Brooklyn. She was crossing the street to get to the Barclays Center, where former first lady Michelle Obama was speaking. While most authors struggle to corral their mother’s friends into a bookstore, Obama is a month into a six-month-long worldwide stadium book tour. The events are political rallies masquerading as pop culture phenomena. The talk brought out vendors selling bootlegged T-shirts with her face on them and “Black Is Beautiful” pins. Women, many of them dressed to the nines, some still in workwear, streamed into the stadium.
To these attendees, Obama’s life story and public image have merited all that enthusiasm, and they aren’t alone in thinking so. Her memoir, “Becoming,” is massively successful, having already sold 3 million copies. It has also provided Obama with a vehicle for her Trump-era cause: appealing to the better angels of the Democratic base. The book itself, meanwhile, digs into her life pre-politics with surprising candor and introspection.
“When they go low, we go high,” Obama said at the 2016 Democratic National Convention during former President Barack Obama’s last year in office. It’s a speech and phrase that have been invoked many times by Democrats during the Trump presidency, sometimes to refute the premise of the quote. Earlier this year, Eric Holder, who served as her husband’s first attorney general, memorably said, “When they go low, we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.” Hillary Clinton said of Republicans, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.”
Michelle Obama is not beyond a Trump dig, of course. (“Bye, Felicia” is what she says she was thinking when she was waving goodbye at the end of President Trump’s inauguration day.) But the former first lady wants things to be more civil from the Democratic side. “We call it empathy — being able to step into someone else’s shoes,” Obama told the Brooklyn crowd, urging them to keep an open mind in the current political climate.
Obama herself embodies a refutation of Trump’s America — she is one of the world’s most famous women, and she is black. She has been savvily using that to her advantage. Her talk in Brooklyn was backlit by photos of her from her time in the White House, in which she hugged children, military veterans and her husband. She spoke about her rise from the black middle class of Chicago to Princeton and Harvard. She talked about empathy and open-mindedness, but also about how “hope is not a passive word — it doesn’t just happen, you have to actively work for hope.” The Brooklyn crowd, many of whom were black women, could hardly miss Obama’s point. Especially when she added that “the people who want something else are going to the polls too.”
One can easily imagine Michelle Obama as a star surrogate for a 2020 presidential candidate (though she likely won’t be a candidate herself). The book talk, moderated by a breathless Sarah Jessica Parker, felt like a stump speech in places, as Obama emphasized her work with military families and her accomplishments in bolstering nutrition awareness in schools. She was funny in person, even while telling jokes I’d seen before in news clips, and it struck me that the tour was a canny way for Obama to continue to demonstrate her influence — and her husband’s influence — on not just the Democratic Party, but on American culture.
If the book tour is unabashedly aimed at empowering women (who are, not coincidentally, the driving force of the Democratic Party base), the book itself is a more nuanced rumination on life than you’d expect given the breathless “girl power” tone that some internet coverage of Obama adopts.
When I sat down to read “Becoming,” I, like so many, already knew the top takeaways: Obama had a miscarriage, used IVF to conceive her daughters, smoked pot in high school and said she would “never forgive” Trump for promoting the conspiracy theory that her husband was born in Kenya.
But the achievement of the first half of the book is her unerring ability to spell out the sacrifices of ego and time she made when she chose to spend her life with “a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing” hers. (In the second half of the book, Obama’s prose is almost imperceptibly smoothed out by the political realities of needing to not to spill too much tea on her White House years.) She’s an acute social observer, particularly when it comes to her husband: “In my experience, you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers. I was doubtful he’d earned the hype.” And she is honest about what marital compromise actually looks like: “Our decision to let Barack’s career proceed as it had — to give him the freedom to shape and pursue his dreams — led me to tamp down my own efforts at work.”
While the circumstances of her compromise might be extraordinary — doing it for a man who would become president — the dynamic is familiar to millions of American women. It resonates with the mommy-tracked and the deferred dreamers, the ones who enthusiastically “like” articles about how Grandma Moses didn’t become a famous artist until her late 70s.
Yet compared to the first half of her book, Obama has been curiously flattened in her public image. She remains all smiles, perfectly toned arms and confident red lipstick in our popular imagination. Not much of the frustration and disappointment she so honestly articulates in her book take center stage.
And perhaps that flattening has something to do with her devotion to her overarching political cause — because Michelle Obama, whether she likes it or not, is a figure of great political import. She knows some Americans are craving a figure of inspiration and positivity in a time of national divisiveness (the irony being that there are probably very few Republicans attending her stadium tour). For so long, Obama was, as she put it, “a missus defined by her mister.” In a Democratic Party that is looking for lodestars to guide its way, Obama’s power is both dynastic and iconoclastic — a reminder of the romanticized past administration and a politician who claims she isn’t one. She knows the potency of that paradox: People trust you more when you don’t seem thirsty for the glory.