When she moved into the nation’s most prestigious address, Michelle Obama’s husband told her that rough times were ahead. The country was in recession, people were out of work, the political parties were in open warfare — and the man who was going to be blamed for it all was President Barack Obama.
But you won’t hear the first lady utter a peep of complaint.
“The truth is, there are a lot of folks who are hurting. And there's no way I'm going to sit here and complain; I'm sitting in the White House,” Michelle Obama told TODAY’s Matt Lauer during an exclusive, far-ranging White House interview that aired Wednesday.
It’s just over a year since Michelle Obama set up housekeeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And while she’s been much in the spotlight during that time, she maintains that she’s still the same person she always was.
“I still see myself as Michelle Obama, the girl who grew up in the south side of Chicago — Marian and Fraser's daughter. I've got this husband who does these interesting things — and I'm Malia and Sasha's mother,” she said.
“I approach this position like I approach my life,” the first lady went on. “I try to be as authentically me as I can be, because it's easier to maintain it. So what people have seen over the course of the year is really Michelle. And I find a level of comfort in that role.”
Mrs. Obama has already taken on the cause of addressing the special problems and concerns of military families. Now, she’s launching an initiative that could define her term as first lady. She’s taking on childhood obesity.
“There are the shocking statistics that are there,” Mrs. Obama said. “One in three kids are obese in this nation. And the numbers go up when you're talking about the African-American and Hispanic communities. The most shocking sort of reality that really hits you, is that because the young generation is on track for the first time in this nation's history of being less healthy, having a shorter life span than their parents.”
If it seems like a lot for one woman to do, Mrs. Obama said she really has a very manageable schedule that’s built around her daughters.
“Just like many working parents, it's balance. People may have said I've taken on too many issues or what have you, but I usually work two or three days a week, and we try to pack everything into a day,” she explained. “I don't work on the weekends. I don't travel on the days that I'm not there.”
She doesn’t start work until the girls leave for school, and she returns to the White House living quarters when her daughters come home in the afternoon. The President joins them for dinner and doesn’t bring his job with him.
Roses and thorns
At the dinner table, the family plays a game called “roses and thorns,” which means each person reports the day’s good events — the roses — and the bad — thorns.
Lauer asked Mrs. Obama what her roses and thorns for the day would be.
“Well, the best thing is always dinnertime, so it hasn't happened yet,” Mrs. Obama said. “Haven’t had a thorn yet.”
In fact, the first lady’s public perception is rosier than her husband’s. While President Obama’s approval numbers have dropped below 50 percent, Mrs. Obama’s have remained sky high — around 70 percent.
“You were named to Forbes magazine's most powerful women list, People magazine's most beautiful list, Time Magazine's most influential list, and you made Maxim magazine's list of hottest women,” Lauer told a bemused first lady.
“I didn’t hear that,” she said, laughing at the Maxim pick.
Shades of gray
The year has treated the first lady well, even as it has seemed to age her husband, whose hair is noticeably grayer than it was a year ago. Although Mrs. Obama said she hasn’t noticed that the president has aged, she does remind him about his hair.
“I tease Barack all the time,” she said. “The gray issue is interesting, because his mother, his grandfather, they were all completely gray. So he was going that direction anyway.”
If he’s gotten there a bit quicker, it’s just a reflection of how hard the job is — and the Obamas knew that coming in.
“Hope and change are hard-fought things,” Mrs. Obama said. “Barack warned us about this over the course of the campaign. He talked a lot about hope, but he said that with that comes compromise and sacrifice. And it's painful, and it takes time. It's true, and we're sort of feeling the pain of that.”
She said the president is handling the pressure.
“He’s doing well,” Mrs. Obama said of her husband. “He is focused and clear-headed. He works very hard. And I think he's handled the pressure with that same level of grace that he came here with.”
It may not have been an easy year, but Mrs. Obama wasn’t complaining.
“My goal overall is just to be helpful. I mean, fundamentally, I want to look back on this time and feel like I affected somebody's life because I was here,” she said. “And if that's kids, it's wonderful. If I've shined the light on our military families, and they feel more appreciated, and the country is more focused on the care that we need to give to them, if people feel more sane in their work and family lives, if we have more kids teaching in schools, and doing national service, and people say that it's because of me, that's great.”
“I feel blessed and privileged,” she told Lauer. “Our job is to work to ensure that more families feel the security that everyone wants living here in America.”