Michelle Obama: ‘I Am Terrified About What Could Possibly Happen’
The former first lady voices her concerns about the 2024 election, technology and shares relationship advice with Jay Shetty
It’s been seven years since Michelle Obama served in the White House and with another contentious presidential campaign season in swing, the former first lady says it is the pending outcome of the 2024 presidential election that she fears.
“I am terrified about what could possibly happen because our leaders matter,” Obama tells Jay Shetty, the host of the popular podcast “On Purpose with Jay Shetty,” in an episode that dropped on Monday. Obama adds that who is selected to speak for the country and who holds bully pulpit matters. “We cannot take this democracy for granted. And, sometimes I worry we do.”
During the one-hour interview promoting her latest book, The Light We Carry, Obama reflects on her time and challenges as first lady; talks about how the presidency impacted the couple's personal lives; shares her concerns about the negative impacts of technology on children; gives her best relationship advice; explains her motto “When they go low, we go high;” and alludes to concerns over the Republican front-runner, former president Donald Trump, without mentioning his name.
People with platforms like that of the first lady need to be mindful of the tone and tenor in their messages, Obama says. “We cannot just say the first thing that comes to our minds. That’s childish.”
Childish leadership is right before us, she continues, adding that vulgar and cynical behavior in a leadership position doesn’t trickle down well. “That begets more of that. I think we are obligated to model for those of us who have a platform because it resonates. I want to resonate good. I want to resonate reason and compassion and empathy,” she says. “That’s more important than my feelings.”
When asked in the last moments of the interview what the White House revealed most about her, Obama responded that the “White House tests you in ways you never anticipate.” But for the former first lady, she says she discovered she is “strategic, smart and resilient.” And what helped during the two-term Obama administration, she says, were the values, compassion, smarts and strategy that were the building blocks of their family.
She also learned, she says, that the bars are different for people in life.
“This is the thing about being an ‘other’ — you learn how to be excellent all the time because you can’t be less than,” she says. “Other people can be indicted a bunch of times and still run for office. A Black man can’t.” — Michelle Obama
“This is the thing about being an ‘other’ — you learn how to be excellent all the time because you can’t be less than,” she says. “Other people can be indicted a bunch of times and still run for office. A Black man can’t.”
Early on in the interview, Obama likened her and husband’s political rise to climbing Mount Everest while admitting that’s something she’s never done. In particular, she explains how her friendships are one of the best aspects about her, but on the road to the White House in the 2000s not all the friends could keep up. “There are people who just emotionally, physically, can’t go the whole way. They run out of oxygen,” she says.
One of the toughest experiences, Obama shares, was when a dear friend of hers wasn’t ready for the climb. It was a pattern she and the president saw again and again.
“In order to keep pressing forward … sometimes you got to leave [friends] there because you can’t carry people when you are trying to get to the top. It slows you down,” she says. “There’s survivor’s remorse that comes with it.”
That lesson also led to others. Obama says the fame that comes with the White House can be isolating and cause mistrust with new people. She insisted, during that time and still to this day, that remaining open to people and new friends carries a broader benefit.
“I never wanted to feel so high [that] I was closed off and suspicious, not wanting to let new people in. That becomes very difficult when you are the president and the first lady,” Obama says. “I don’t want to lose the possibility of someone special coming in.”
Another hardship Obama recounts is transcending from a private life to a global, public life.
“Dude, you can’t live in New York.” — Michelle Obama
“Once you lose anonymity, you lose a lot more,” Obama says, adding at one point, Barack Obama had suggested living in New York City after the presidency. “Dude, you can’t live in New York,” is how she responded, adding they can no longer go to a movie theater or casually walk down the street, let alone get on a subway or walk through Central Park.
Knowing too much
Aside from concerns over the upcoming election, Obama shares her unease about other things that keep her up at night. Like, knowing too much.
“When you’ve been married to the president of the United States who knows everything about everything in the world, sometimes you just want to turn it off,” Obama says. “I don’t want to know what was in that folder that you just got that made you quiet. I don't want to know why the security just pulled you over.”
She admits she knows a lot about what’s going on and worries a lot about what many of us do.
“What keeps me up is: the war in the region — in too many regions. What is AI(artificial intelligence) going to do for us? The environment. Are we moving at all fast enough? Are people going to vote? And, why aren’t people voting? Are we too stuck to our phones?”
Time will tell.
Until then, Obama preaches that it is important to disconnect from smartphones, acknowledging the impact they have on mental health. For instance, she says people feel more unsafe because they are getting fed images of crime from everywhere, skewing its prevalence.
“We are too connected. We are reading too much. We are taking too much in,” she says. To help, she shares that she puts into practice habits and hobbies, such as knitting, that shuts her brain down and allows her hands to take over.
At one point in the conversation, Obama describes her 31-year marriage to the former president as a practice in and of itself. It’s a relationship she says she has gotten better at over the years. More importantly, she believes people should talk more openly about marriage so others can learn.
“Why don’t we share the whole experience? By not knowing, you hit some natural rough patches and you want to quit what’s not quit-worthy,” she says. “You don’t quit on it. You learn from it.”
Then, the former first lady opened up about how she and her husband work through personal conflicts. Early on in their relationship, she describes herself as more explosive with her emotions and then needing time to process. Barack Obama she describes as even keel and a consistent “fixer.”
“He is somebody who is not afraid to put his emotions out,” she says. “He won’t let me pretend there is nothing wrong.”
We go high
The Obamas’ signature phrase in and out of the White House has been: “When they go low, we go high.”
The former first lady explains the mindset.
“Going high is being strategic. If you are really trying to make change you have to think about whether your approach will allow for change to happen,” she says. “Going high means you are thinking about a broader point outside of your own anger, hurt or pain.”
By her explanation, it is also about effective communication and persuasion.
“Going high to me is the mature way to live,” she says. “When you are the president of the United States or first lady, I have a responsibility to set my feelings aside.”
Specifically, she says it is important to learn to hear people out and understand where their hate comes from, which, in turn, ratchets down anger.
Although, going high doesn’t erase some actions that still offend Obama.
For instance, she points to issues surrounding justice, ego and greed. “It’s offensive,” she says. “Racism. Ignorance. It’s offensive. And, I have always been that kid. I don’t like unfairness. I don’t like bullies. But, I have to think about how I deliver messages.”
Ultimately, though, it’s young people as her legacy she cares for most. With young people, Obama says, one word can lift them up or one wrong word can crush them forever. “[Young people] are the building block of our humanity,” she says. “ I hope my legacy is creating a stronger foundation for young people.”
East Wing Magazine is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.