In an hourlong interview with Oprah Winfrey on Monday night, Michelle Obama told Americans what to expect from the outgoing first family in the weeks to come: more unshakable equanimity.
The special—filmed in the White House, where Obama and Winfrey sat on either side of a wreath-bedecked fireplace—took a tone of restrained celebration, and the first lady spoke with measured optimism. This, she made clear, was entirely intentional. Asked about her famous motto, “When they go low, we go high,” Obama described it as a matter of “modeling to the next generation. So if we want maturity, we have to be mature. If we want a nation that feels hopeful, then we have to speak in hopeful terms. … We have to model what we want.”
“And that’s what you’re saying you’re doing?” Winfrey asked.
“Yes,” Obama replied.
But Obama also seemed to be modeling an almost magical belief that strength of mind can shape our reality, and that thinking well of people—her successor, her fellow citizens—could make them worthy of her good opinion. Asked about the Trumps’ visit, she called it “very pleasant,” emphasizing, “we are going to be there for the next president and do whatever we have to do to make sure that he is successful, because if he succeeds, we all succeed.” When Winfrey steered the interview toward the bigoted language and imagery so often employed by the Obamas’ detractors, FLOTUS described race and class—the forces that decided this election, and, arguably, all American elections—as ultimately “things that don’t matter,” even though they “still play too much of a role in how we see one another.” As always, she seemed in perfect sync with her husband, who, in his final press conference as president on Friday, exuded a calm that some observers found infuriating, urging Americans not to “abandon our values,” as if he harbored no fear that we may have already done so.
The Oprah special broke a bit of news: Michelle Obama is really, truly not going to run for office. (“No … no, no,” and if the Democratic Party is talking about it, “I’m not talking back.”) But, mostly, it gave us the comfort of one more hour in the Obama White House. Montages of photos—a troop of Girl Scouts on the South Lawn; Barack and Michelle, smiling, forehead to forehead—invited us to luxuriate in nostalgia. As a young woman squarely in Michelle’s next-generation target audience, I laughed over the lump in my throat when FLOTUS described her response to Sasha and Malia’s first-daughterly frustrations: “These aren’t problems.” I emitted an “aw” when POTUS, in a brief cameo, called FLOTUS “cute.” Maybe this was just what the doctor ordered: the chance to watch Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, together in the White House one last time, before they’re replaced by the blank mien of Melania Trump.
Still, when Winfrey played a clip from Obama’s New Hampshire stump speech, the contrast was jarring. Donald Trump’s misogyny “has shaken me to my core,” Obama said in October, with a passion that might have derailed a lesser orator. “So while I’d love nothing more than to pretend like this isn’t happening … it would be dishonest and disingenuous of me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream.”
She added: “This is not normal. This is not politics as usual.” As he’s assumed the president-elect role, Trump’s behavior has diverged farther from politics as usual, or politics as usually practiced in a democracy, with every passing day—but the Obamas are no longer talking about the transgressions that make this transition nearly unthinkable.
At one point in the interview, FLOTUS describes America as “like the toddler that bumps his head on the table, and they look up at you to figure out whether it hurts. … I feel that Barack has been that for the nation in ways that people will come to appreciate.” He has been “a grown-up in the White House,” she says. It’s an appealing idea: that the Obamas could model good citizenship and human decency as effectively for the rest of us as they have for their own children. But if examples matter, as they surely do, then we should be all the more concerned about the one rising to take the Obamas’ place, and all the more committed to resisting the idea that it could ever seem normal or acceptable, even for a moment.
No one has spoken to that conundrum better than Michelle Obama did in October. Maybe, after Jan. 21, she and the president will once again see that grimmer message as a form of “going high.” No matter what, Democrats will need to find some new leaders—preferably ones who are willing to fight down in the muck.
In one of the interview’s loveliest moments, Obama described herself and her husband as “joy masters” who brought style and levity to the heavy work of governing. That stance suited the world they were building. For many Americans looking ahead to the post-Obama White House, the worry is that there may soon be far less to celebrate.