‘A Promised Land’, How Michelle rules the roost at Obamas

Monday, November 23rd, 2020 00:00 |
Michelle Obama and her daughters Malia and Sasha. Photo/AFP

One woman and two young girls occupy pride of place in Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land, which sold a staggering 887,000 copies on the first day of release on Tuesday last week.

Although Obama fondly talks about his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and his grandmother Madelyn, and how they shaped his world view and moral outlook, it his wife Michelle Lavaughn Robison and their two daughters – Sasha and Malia – who are most talked about in the 750-page book.

Obama is careful to record how every major political decision he made affected his wife and daughters, be it a major victory on the campaign trail or a resounding defeat in the hands of a rival.

For instance, he says, when he won the presidency in 2008, he not only had to move with his family to the White House, thus becoming the first black family to do so, his daughters also had to get used to the idea of being followed by burly Secret Service officers wherever they went, including to school.

Obama says that though the girls took it in their stride and never missed a beat, he at one point considered pulling the press off his private engagements to protect them.

Serious difference

Making history as the first black First Family was not to say that they lived a charmed life.

If anything, there were one too many moments when the relationship between Obama and Michelle was far from rosy.

He says that even when they were dating, they often had serious difference in opinion.

“In those early years of our courting, our arguments could be fierce. As cocksure as I could, she never gave ground,” Obama recalls.

Indeed, there was a running commentary in Michelle’s family that she would never get a man to marry her because everyone found her too tough.

However, she did wed Obama on October 3, 1992. No two people could be more different. Obama’s mother had failed in two marriages, so he did not feel the need to commit to a serious relationship too soon.

Michelle, on the other hand, came from a serious and cohesive family and for her, there was only one way to crown a serious relationship – by tying the knot. 

Ironically, their first encounter gave no indication that they would end up in each other’s loving arms. Michelle was working in a major law firm where Obama was interning.

Among her duties was to show him around the office and make him feel at home. In the end, they became too comfortable with each other and, as Obama says, they started going for movies and long walks together.

In all the years they were courting, none had the slightest premonition that they would be thrust into the public limelight.

All they imagined was what Obama called “a normal life. A productive, happy life.”

The most pressing questions on their minds at the time dwelled on how many children they would have, how they would look like and whether they would keep a dog.

Indeed, some time after they moved in together, they bought a little condo in Chicago where they hoped to tarry, settle as a family and grow their careers, Michelle as a lawyer and Obama as a community mobiliser. 

All was well in their little world until one fateful day when Obama, after watching the drama of local Chicago politics, thought that he, too, would be interested in running for public office.

“May be the principles of organising could be marshaled not just to run a campaign but to govern – to encourage participation and active citizenship among those who’d been left out,” he writes.

When he seriously believed that his chances of clinching a local seat looked “better than good”, and after winning the support of key political players, an ambitious Obama decided to pitch the idea, ahem, with Michelle.

“Think of it as test run,” he said to her after outlining what he wanted to do.

“Hmph,” Michelle replied.

After some coaxing and cajoling, Michelle relented but with conditions. The next other person Obama sought out was his mother.

“Make sure you have Michelle’s blessings,” she told him.

Obama went on to win the seat, which meant that on many a day and night, he was away at Springfield, the state capital, doing political work, while Michelle was left back in Chicago.

Again, their little arrangement worked perfectly until 1997 when their first daughter Malia Ann Obama was born.

Once again, it was time to make adjustments to ensure that both of them were there for Malia.

Months in, parenting started taking its toll on Michelle when both had to go back to their busy schedules and she was often home alone with the baby.

“This isn’t what I signed up for Barack,” Michelle said at one point.

There are no prizes for guessing what she felt when Obama went back to her a few years later and told her that he was interested in the Illinois Senate seat.

“If you lose, we’ll be deeper in the (financial) hole,” she said. “And what happens if you win?

How are we supposed to maintain two households, in Washington and Chicago, when we can barely keep up with one?”

It did not help that the couple was yet to start saving for their daughter’s college education and a stab at the senate seat would require Obama to resign from his day job to avoid conflict of interest.

Obama, always with an ace up his sleeve, promised to write another book since, as the only African America in the Senate, his profile would help to sell it and they would make the money they badly needed.

“In other words,” she said, “you’ve got some magic beans in your pocket. That’s what you are telling me…”

“Something like that,” Obama said, unfazed.

In the end, he ran… and won! And in 2006, he wrote the book he had promised, The Audacity of Hope, and his publisher paid him an advance fee of $1.9 million.

The book went on to sell millions of copies, and for the first time, Obama earned more than Michelle.

When, ahead of the 2008 presidential election, news started filtering in that Obama was considering running, Michelle “simply ignored the fuss”.

“She stopped watching political news,” Obama writes. And when, one evening, he raised the matter with her, she just shrugged.

However, the more people talked about a possible Obama candidacy, the more it strained his relationship at home.

In the end, they had no choice but to confront the elephant in the room. 

“I feel like we have to give the idea a serious look,” he said to her one evening after their daughters, Malia and Sasha, had gone to bed.

“Did you say we?” she said. “You mean you, Barack. Not we.” Clearly, she did not believe that yes, they could.

“I didn’t say I am running, honey. I just said we can’t dismiss the possibility,” he said to her. 

One has to savour the juicy details of how this panned out to appreciate the pressure that Obama was going through until the night he was jolted from his sleep by the stark realisation that he had a real chance of winning and becoming POTUS.

He left Michelle in bed to pour himself a stiff drink as he contemplated the prospects and what a victory would mean for him and his young family.

On the day the election results were being announced in November 2008, Obama was driving with his family to Lake Michigan.

The couple was tense in the front. Their daughters were playing in the back seat. All around them was a heavy security detail. There were no other cars on the road.

“Daddy, did you win?” Malia asked him.

“I think so sweetie,” Obama said.

That meant Michelle was on her way to becoming the first African-American First Lady, but by no means the most reluctant in the history of US politics.

Still and all, Obama has dedicated his book to her, and their two daughters. — The writer is a Partner and Head of Content at House of Romford  [email protected]

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