Barack and Michelle Obama: The Full Interview
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Barack and Michelle Obama: The Full Interview

We sat down with Senator Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. The couple spoke candidly about navigating tough times in their marriage, their dreams for their daughters, and his crucial message to women voters.

The Power of Women

LHJ: Upstairs at the press conference, you were introduced as a power couple. Ladies' Home Journal's motto is "Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman."

Could you each comment on what that phrase means to you?

Michelle Obama: Well, for me, I think of all the things that women are capable of balancing -- even starting as young children. We have two daughters, and when I think about the complexity and level of detail of their thought and their emotional empathy -- people do note that there is a difference in girls in that respect. And I think that begins to arm us with the tools to be able to juggle all that we have to juggle. Those skills turn out to be pretty amazing resources that can and should be harnessed in society for the benefit of many. So for me, I think about our ability to balance, and to structure, and to move and to coordinate in ways that I don't think men can do. [They both laugh.]

LHJ: Senator, does this call for a rebuttal?

Barack Obama: No, no, no. Being married to Michelle, and having these tall, beautiful, strong-willed girls in my house, never allows me to underestimate women. But also, I was raised by a single mom, and my grandparents. And my grandmother was a remarkable woman. When my grandfather was off in World War II, she worked as a Rosie the Riveter, essentially -- while she was raising my mother. When they moved to Hawaii, she got a job as a secretary, and with never more than a high school education, ended up being the first woman vice president of a bank in Hawaii. She was the primary breadwinner for the family for a pretty long time. And so I've been raised understanding that women are able to do everything that men can do, and some things that men can't do.

Part of it is also my mother's profession. By the time she was 40, her main work was around women's development issues internationally. I remember very early on her explaining that the best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women. If it's educating its girls, if women have equal rights -- that country is going to move forward. But if women are oppressed and abused and illiterate, then they're going to fall behind. I apply that idea when I think about what we need to do here in the United States as well. And that's why it's so important for me to make sure that my policies are speaking to the needs and concerns of women.

LHJ: We've seen women be a powerful voting bloc in this campaign. Do you both feel that the women's vote, per se, is critical? Or is this election now not the male vote or female vote, but more about policy, geography, and party?

The Family Business

Barack Obama: In the last several election cycles, there has been a much stronger tendency for women to vote around bread and butter issues. It has to do with the fact that they're the ones balancing the budgets and trying to figure out how to make enough money -- keep food on the table. One of the things that Michelle and I always talk about is that I have no idea how to buy clothes for my girls. I don't know what they cost. And that's probably not untypical.

So that's something that Michelle has to think about and budget. What that means, then, is that in this election, the issues of the economy are ones that women are going to particularly feel and be concerned about. But I also think the fact that Senator Clinton ran such an outstanding campaign, and inspired so many women to think about that glass ceiling -- not just in politics but in all walks of life -- makes the women's vote particularly important this year.

Michelle Obama: When you can see your action moving something forward, it reminds you that, yes, my voice -- the ability to garner attention and affect policy because of the power and the unity of these voices -- makes a difference. Women have been at the forefront of recognizing that power in a real sense. That will make them a force, not just in this election, but forever. And that's a good thing.

LHJ: You must think about your daughters in relation to this. But when you think about your girls, do you think you might ever recommend to them that they also run for president? And if so, which one do you think even now would have the better temperament for it?

Barack Obama: The answer to the second question's easy. If anybody went into politics, it would be Sasha, because she's such a ham. We don't take them to too many campaign events, but on the occasions where we have, Malia's kind of shy and waving just a little bit. And Sasha's just --

Michelle Obama: Right out there --

Barack Obama: She's shaking it.

Michelle Obama: Giving people high-fives.

Barack Obama: So temperamentally, I think she'd be more suited. You know, look: I want to make sure that they can do anything they want. I want them to be able to do exactly what somebody's boys can do...

Michelle Obama: We want to raise them to think like that every single day.

Barack Obama: Right. That there's nothing they can't do. And whether I actively push them into politics, that's a whole other question. There are obviously ups and downs. I certainly want them to learn a sense of service. But there are an awful lot of ways to serve that don't involve elected office.

LHJ: But for women right now, there's been a lot of discussion about the fact that it would be harder for a woman with young children to run for president, to be in the White House, because the woman herself -- as well as the electorate -- would worry about who is raising the kids. Do you feel, Mrs. Obama, that this is a problem?

Michelle's Role

Michelle Obama: No, because I think it's a unit that raises a child. As far as I'm concerned in this couple, Barack is the person who has the skill, the inclination, the desire, the ability, to be in politics. I have no desire. So that's a good thing, in my view, since someone has to be focusing on the kids -- and that's me. But it could easily be him. There's no reason why the nurturing has to come from Mom -- it just has to be there. In our case, Dad has been on the road since our kids have been born, and we treat that as a normal thing. They understand his schedule. Therefore, they thrive because we're happy about it. And if Mom is president, that's cool, as long as Dad or someone is going to their baseball games, is listening to their stories and their issues. There's got to be someone in a kid's life who makes them feel central.

Barack Obama: There are a whole lot of models that can work. But that requires, of course, men to understand what's involved. The more we can educate men on the burdens that women have been carrying for a long time, the more prepared they will be to share those burdens.

Michelle Obama: It sort of gets back to the power of the women. Finding balance has been the struggle of my life and my marriage, in being a woman, being a professional, being a mother. And Barack has to find that balance, too, as part of the family. What women have the power to do, through our own experiences, is to push that balance out into the culture. If people are happier, and they're more engaged, and they have jobs they can value that allow them to respect and value their homes, that makes the home life stronger.

LHJ: Senator, could you see yourself giving your wife a policy position in your administration?

Michelle Obama: [whispering] Say no, say no.

Barack Obama: Well, look. Michelle is one of the smartest people I know. She is my chief counsel and advisor. I would never make big decisions without asking her opinion. Certainly about my career and my life. My sense is -- and I'll let her speak for herself here -- that she'd probably be more interested in having a set of projects that were driven by her interests and her desires, as opposed to me handing her some sort of portfolio, and saying, "Here. Do this."

LHJ: So, Mrs. Obama, not hoping for head of Health and Human Services, for instance?

Michelle Obama: Not really, no. No. You know, we just love our kids, like all parents. They break our hearts. And they have been so good about this process, and patient, and understanding. Kids will adjust to anything you throw at them. Our job is to not keep asking so much of them that they crack under the pressure. And if Barack is fortunate enough to serve this country as president, we will be honored. But it will be a hard transition for those little girls. They'll be going on 11 and 8. They'll be leaving the only home that they've known. Someone's got to be the steward of that transition. And it can't be the President of the United States. It will be me.

There are a ton of issues that I care deeply about. But the notion of sitting around the table with a set of policy advisors -- no offense -- makes me yawn. [Laughter] I like creating stuff. I'd love to be working with young people. I'd love to be having more conversations with military spouses. I've learned not to let other people push you into something that fundamentally isn't you. Fortunately, my husband respects that, and would never --

Barack Obama: Please, I can't get her to do something she doesn't want to. [Laughter]

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

LHJ: Let's talk a little bit more about your marriage. One of our signature columns is, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" Senator, you write in The Audacity of Hope that even during your Senate days, your wife was, quote, "pretty fed up with raising our children alone and beginning to question my priorities." Which is fairly serious language. And so I have to ask, did you ever have a "Can this marriage be saved?" moment?

Barack Obama: Sure. I mean, you know, look. We had --

Michelle Obama: We did?

Barack Obama: Oh, I mean -- well, I haven't read the column, so I don't want to characterize the -- no, no. No, no, no, no. But, there's no doubt that there were some strains there. I think most married folks can relate to this. If you've got two working parents, you've got small kids and one of the spouses -- in this case, me -- is gone a bunch of the time. And the other spouse, Michelle, is home, expected to work and look after the girls. And occasionally help me. That's a big burden. That's a big stress. And at that time, we were still paying off student loans and we'd be short at the end of the month sometimes.

I still remember when I was a state legislator and Michelle called close to tears because our wonderful babysitter had quit and decided to go back to nursing. And Michelle's thinking to herself, "What am I going to do?" because she had depended so heavily on this person to kind of hold it all together. And she was, frankly, mad at me. Because she felt as if she was all alone in this process.

LHJ: How did you manage those moments?

Michelle Obama: Part of it was time. Our kids got older, and then they're in school. Their needs are different. Those early years are a whole lot of work. But the truth is that everybody struggles with it -- we just don't talk about it out loud. And then also I had to change. Because there were a lot of things time-wise that he couldn't provide, because he was not there. So, how do I stop being mad at him, and start problem-solving, and cobble together the resources. I also had to admit that I needed space and I needed time. And the more time that I could get to myself, the less stress I felt. So it was a growth process for me individually and for us as a couple, too. [Turning to her husband] Did you grow? Have you grown any? [Laughter]

Barack Obama: Not as much as Michelle did, of course.

LHJ: You've written, Senator, about the fact that the black nuclear family is in crisis in this country. Do you both feel additional pressure that you wish you didn't have, to be the role models of the black two-parent family?

What Makes a Good Father

Barack Obama: You know, I don't feel pressure. I welcome the fact that we can hopefully show some of the joys, as well as the challenges, of being a strong family. As somebody who didn't grow up with a father in the home, I like having men come up to me and saying, "You know, I'm really glad you're a good father." I like that maybe some little boy somewhere who doesn't have a dad in his house sees Michelle and the girls and me out somewhere, and has that image in his head that he's going to carry with him somewhere down the road. It's not a burden. I've got a pretty lovable family. I love them to death. And they know it. And so it's not that hard to hopefully project that to the world.

Michelle Obama: What I think a lot of people have said, particularly African-Americans, is that it's just good to see themselves reflected. Because the truth is, Barack and I aren't unique. You know? Even though there's a state of disrepair in African-American communities, the life that I've lived -- and it hasn't been one full of resources and privilege -- has been full of the stability. A lot of people say, "Michelle and Barack remind me of me. They remind me of my parents, my grandparents." That's the reminder that there is more that unites us than divides us. Our family looks like the families in Iowa and Maine and Utah. It's important for us to know that as a country. In the end, we may disagree about ideas, but we all love our country. We all care about our families. And we're all trying to make this a better place.

LHJ: Speaking, Senator, of family. What advice has your grandmother given you in this race so far?

Barack Obama: My grandmother was not wild about me going into politics. She liked the idea of me being a judge. She thought that was a more sensible pursuit, and not as nasty. So she hasn't given me much advice in this process, other than by example. She is a very steady person. You know, Midwestern sort of stoic, stiff upper lip kind of person. So she never gets too high, and never gets too low. And I think a lot of my temperament came from her. I'll tell you, the only time that I've seen her really touched -- the only time that I've seen her really express it -- was when I locked down the nomination. And I mentioned her in a speech. My sister -- who was there with her -- said she said, "Oh, my." And that's big. "Oh, my."

LHJ: And if your mom were alive today, what advice do you think she'd be giving you?

Barack Obama: Well, now, my mother was the opposite. She would have been weeping through this whole thing. She was the softie. But I think the advice she'd give me is to stay true to my heart. I think she'd caution me about getting so wrapped up in the ambitions and the winning and the -- you know -- the power, that I lost a sense of why I'd gotten into this in the first place.

Handling the Pressure

LHJ: One of the things you talk about in the book is that you learned growing up, "Never let them see you sweat." "Always act confident." Are you more daunted by the prospect of being the leader of the free world than you let on?

Barack Obama: I think if you were not occasionally jolted awake at three in the morning thinking about the magnitude of the work that has to be done, then you probably shouldn't be president. The thing that keeps me awake at night is not the prospect of losing. It's the prospect of winning and governing.

There are a couple of things that allow me, though, to stay steady in that process. One is my faith. God will hopefully keep us -- meaning, this country and this world -- moving in a better direction. And so I pray on that. The second thing is my family. The third thing, though, is a real belief that no one person moves this country forward, and no one person moves this country backwards. It requires a lot of citizens to get behind something, citizens who'll hold me accountable if I make a mistake. That gives me more confidence that this is a team effort, and not just me out there by my lonesome.

LHJ: Mrs. Obama, how can you tell when your husband is really stressed?

Michelle Obama: When he is writing small notes late at night. When he's really sort of brooding about something, it's late at night, and there's a lot of little note-writing going on. That's when I know, "What happened? What's going on?"

LHJ: Mrs. Obama, can you tell us a personal story about your husband that demonstrates to you that he has the grace and grit to do this job?

Michelle Obama: I don't think there's one story. I think it's the man I've seen him be over the course of our life together. He's consistent with his love and his support. And his great desire to be every day a better father. It touches me when our girls touch him. Whether it's with a story or a word. You can see it in his face. That's the leader I want: somebody who is so moved by their own children, that they'll go out there and fight for everyone else's.

LHJ: And what is your daughters' sense of their own race in the world today?

Michelle Obama: They're living in a family where they've got an African-American grandmother, and an Indonesian aunt. They've got a Chinese-American cousin. They've got African-American cousins. They've got a multiracial cousin in Africa who's African and English. The in-laws of our in-laws who are Chinese-Canadian are part of their families. Their world is bigger.

Breaking New Ground

Barack Obama: Michelle had a conversation with Malia during the campaign, when Senator Clinton and I were still in the midst of the primary. You said, "You know, this is a pretty big deal. If Daddy wins, he'd be the first African-American to be a nominee."

Michelle Obama: I said, "Do you realize how important that is, how significant?" Malia says, "Oh, yeah. Because there was slavery, and there were people who couldn't do things because of their race." And she said, "But, it would also be a big deal if a woman had won. Because there was also the time when women couldn't vote. So it would have been a big deal either way." This is her talking.

Barack Obama: But it was the past, it was historical. She wasn't feeling as if somehow this was a victory for her, because she feels like she's already won that one. So this generation is going to have different experiences. But family itself -- that, hopefully, is a constant. The joys, how they connect with you. Having that support. That's the American story of each successive generation working hard, passing on a better life to the next one. And part of the challenges of this election is making sure that that story continues for everybody. The government can't solve every problem, but an enlightened government can make sure that people can work hard for their dreams and achieve them. Government can knock down barriers so that families are in a stronger position. And that's what we're going to be fighting for in this election.

Originally published on LHJ.com, August 2008.

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