The Obama family in the White House, December 2011. By Pete Souza via Wikimedia
Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming Michelle Obama, is being widely read. Given the current struggle within the Democratic party over who to nominate to oppose Trump in the next election, it is intended to nudge them in the direction of a choosing a candidate who would carry on Obama’s program and image.
Telling her personal story had been her way of connecting with voters during campaigns, awakening memories of their own families and experiences growing up, and establishing her as someone like them, whom they could trust to have their interests at heart. Her warm, generous and optimistic personality shines through every page.
On the down side, she is clearly up to her neck in identity politics in ways that make her badly out of touch with political reality. For example, a woman who voted against Hillary is, she says “voting against her own voice” — something she finds incomprehensible. Women are to find their voices, it seems, but we must all sing in unison with Hillary. She shows no inclination to listen to the voices of women who voted for Trump, and consequently has no understanding of the deep issues that divide us as women and as a nation.
In this review, I focus first on the positive things one can take away from her story, and then conclude with a few critical remarks.
Combining family and professional life
Her success at combining family and professional life is something that makes her story of interest to many contemporary women who will find some helpful tips in her book. The Obamas put their family first in many ways. Michelle, even during campaigns, always insisted that her schedule be arranged so she could be home with her children for dinner, bath and bed each night. Barak missed an important vote at a special session of the Senate over Christmas break because they were in Hawaii for a family visit with his mother, and his daughter was sick with a high fever.
The idea that marriage is important and something the couple need to work at constantly is another good takeaway from this book. Although Barak, at first, resisted formalizing their love into a marriage, they were very much in love, and once married, they both worked hard to understand and accommodate their differences. She was very outgoing and social while he needed solitude. Michelle, I think, showed an extraordinary ability to understand how Barak’s upbringing had left him with some needs and patterns very different from hers.
Life before marriage
She came from a large, interconnected and generally healthy family from the Southside of Chicago, and saw how their pasts had contributed to what they were now. Many of the older generation had migrated north and been impeded in their career ambitions by the racial discrimination in labor unions and apprenticeship programs. There were still family members in the south and communication and mutual assistance flowed freely among all the family members. As a result, Michelle, had a strong identification with African Americans and tended to anticipate prejudice on the part of white people. Her parents worked hard and sacrificed in order to get her into good educational situations, and she was out to prove she was good enough.
She attended Princeton, but hung out mainly at the Third World Center where she felt at ease, and made few or no white friends. She thus missed an opportunity to move out of her comfort zone and learn how her white peers thought. She also seems to have taken away very little from Princeton in the way of high culture and critical thinking. She has kept herself “happily steeped in popular culture” — sitcoms, Oprah and so on. Barak said she was his “Joe public” for this reason, and he could run slogans and strategies past her and find out how these might fly with the average mainstream American. He did not run important decisions about policy past her, realizing this was not her strong point, and she was sufficiently awed by his brilliant mind that she would not have challenged him in any case.
After law school, she sought to move up the ladder further and got a job with a high powered law firm, only to discover that this was not what she wanted to do the rest of her life. Consequently she shifted into lower paying community service types of jobs, showing extraordinary talent and rising quickly to leadership roles in various organizations. When she met Barak and got married, she thought of children as a natural part of marriage, and after a miscarriage, they succeeded through IVF in having two daughters.
Working on the rough spots
At the rough spots which occur in all marriages, they went to a marriage counsellor. Her experience here was very positive (would that all marriage counsellors were so competent). Hoping the counsellor would take her side on the issues she was upset about, he instead told them to reflect on why they felt the way they did.
A nice example of how therapy helped had to do with her resentment of his habitual tardiness and coming home late Monday nights from a commitment at some distance from home. He would call and say he was almost there and yet be much later. Waiting dinner and keeping the exhausted children up late she became upset. Thinking it through she decided she could not let him, the man of the house, have such a central role. Rather she just set a policy about regular dinner, bath and bed times with the children and told him he needed to fit into their schedule if he wanted to be with them that evening. This empowered her to set her own schedule and eliminated her feelings of resentment.
The Obamas’ willingness to work at understanding and working around their differences provides a good model for marriage. We don’t have a royal family like the British do, but the Obamas served as a kind of role model for many. Their understanding of marriage was not a sacramental one, though they were married in a U.C.C. church with which they maintained loose ties while in the White House.
She also, as First Lady, developed ways of working with what she called “soft power,” making a vegetable garden at the White House and working to combat childhood obesity by pressuring those who make the lunches kids get served at school to make them less fattening and more nutritious, and encouraging healthy eating habits generally. She took a special interest in the problems of military wives and pressed for policies to make things easier to accommodate the needs of their children.
Gender issues: too much ‘optics’, not enough substance
My concluding evaluation is that Michelle was working at a job that optimally utilized her talents, forging a better relationship between the University of Chicago Medical Center, and the surrounding Southside community where she had grown up. Being catapulted into the national limelight through Barak, I don’t think she rose to the occasion in some important ways.
She did model healthy family life. Her focus on health and nutrition for children fit well with her pre-occupation with family life and had some lasting good effects on a national scale. But what I find troubling is the way she allowed herself to be unthinkingly pulled into a form of identity politics that had potential to undermine the very things she valued, and thought too much of “optics” rather than substance. Mushy rhetoric about narratives and finding one’s voice took the place of serious thought about the issues.
On a rare occasion when she and her daughter managed to successfully give the slip to the security guards, they snuck out to see from outside the purple lights of the pride flag projected on the White House in celebration of the same sex marriage decision by the Supreme Court. Always a very feminine woman, she tended to take for granted the traditional heterosexual model of marriage. What lacking a parent of one sex might do to children (say, a girl growing up with no mother) was something she didn’t seem to think about. She just went along with the tide and the people around her. Likewise Barak’s concessions to transsexuals and their likely impact on children and families were not something she ever weighed in on explicitly.
Hostility towards white men
The other troubling thing is the way her emphasis on “optics” leads her into hostility toward white men. When Trump was sworn in as president, the staff seated with him on stage were predominantly white men, and this upset her. The “vibrant diversity” fostered by the Obamas, she said, was replaced by “dispiriting uniformity.” And she “stopped even pretending to smile.” But if she had been free to surround herself with staff who were almost all female or of color, why could Trump not surround himself with people he felt comfortable working with? Although they were all white men, they could bring to their jobs any number of different perspectives and talents.
White men do not all think the same way. We need to confront and discuss the big issues facing us as a nation – abortion, immigration policies, environmental policies and so on. These issues require intelligent discussion and not cookie cutter “optics.” If hostility toward white men and ideological pressure on women to vote for Hillary are the natural results of Michelle’s identity politics, we should not be too quick to jump on her bandwagon.
Obama has been widely regarded as a somewhat lackluster president, long on rhetoric and short on results, and allowing his subordinates to dictate policies too much. One can, of course, blame this on evil Republicans, and many people, including Michelle, do this. But perhaps the roots of his failures lie deeper. People had hoped having a black president could help usher in a post racial society, but the slide into identity politics has had the opposite effect, making race more and more salient in our dealings with each other.
You can’t build a society where the content of your characters matters more than the color of your skin based on identity politics. Michelle is so invested in her racial and sexual identity that she regarded hanging an abstract painting by an African American woman painter hanging on the walls of the White House as a great triumph – a way of leaving their mark on the “White” House.
Finally, as a woman, I find her mushy use of the term “voice” especially troubling. No one speaks with my voice except me.