Politics

The Inadequacy of Hope

Michelle Obama’s optimism can’t account for the unavoidable truths of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Michelle Obama.
Former first lady Michelle Obama attends a roundtable discussion at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago on Nov. 12.
Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images

A funny little magic trick happens when a woman’s husband runs for office: Her CV all but disappears. Even Hillary Clinton, who was promoted as a valuable add-on in the two-for-one deal of Bill’s presidential campaign, had to reassure voters that while she was an accomplished attorney and advocate, she still knew her way around the kitchen.

Michelle Obama, too, had an impressive career trajectory before she joined the ranks of first ladies, women who will forever be defined by their husbands. Many Americans probably know the broad strokes: corporate attorney, mayor’s office liaison, nonprofit head, university administrator, hospital executive director. But the specifics of those roles and the threads that connected them—racial justice, community outreach, equitable access to resources—were inessential to Barack’s political narrative, so they never made it into Michelle’s. “I worried that as my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view,” she writes in her new memoir, Becoming.

Obama’s autobiography is a welcome corrective to the blurring and dimming of her pre-presidential life. Becoming is a loving history of a working-class South Side Chicago family striving for financial stability and educational attainment in the midst of white flight. It’s an account of the self-sustaining communities people of color build within the white-dominated elite institutions Obama entered after high school. It’s the honest testimony of a conscientious woman struggling to meet the competing demands of her work, her children, and her marriage to a man whose intellectual growth and career would always take top priority. And, as the insipid tone of its marketing campaign suggests, it’s a heartwarming tale of personal growth that mostly sidesteps sharp critiques of the political and systemic forces that uphold the inequities it details.

Becoming also serves as a book-length explanation of why Barack’s campaign didn’t try harder to establish Michelle as a leader in her own right. For one thing, she was never quite sold on political life, so portraying her as a Hillary-esque adviser to her husband wasn’t an option. But more importantly, the ferocious racist and sexist harassment that hounded her from the moment she stepped into Barack’s spotlight forced Obama to limit how much of herself she shared with the public. Some of Becoming’s most emotional segments are those that describe Obama’s treatment by the press and Barack’s right-wing political opponents. “It’s remarkable how a stereotype functions as an actual trap,” she writes. “How many ‘angry black women’ have been caught in the circular logic of that phrase? When you aren’t being listened to, why wouldn’t you get louder?” In an uncharacteristically confrontational moment, she calls out a few offenders by name, among them Maureen Dowd, who accused Obama of “emasculating” her husband by ribbing him about his domestic deficiencies, and Christopher Hitchens, who in this very magazine worried about the radical black leaders she admired and wrote that her senior thesis was not only unreadable but not “written in any known language.”

But even in these parts of her memoir, even though she’s no longer in the White House and no one in her family is running for office, even in this era of resurgent white nationalism, Obama displays a frustrating tendency toward conciliation and moderation. Of the controversy surrounding the provocative anti-racist sermons of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor who married the Obamas and baptized their children, Obama writes, “The whole affair was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided—that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.” This “very fine people on both sides” takeaway sidesteps the core truth of racism in America: Only one side has long held a disproportionate share of power and defended it with violence. The other has good reason to be suspicious. In moments like these, Becoming functions as both explanation and evidence of the double binds and exacting standards of restraint a black first lady must accommodate if she hopes to retain her considerable influence, as Obama clearly does.

Still, readers will come away from the memoir admiring Obama’s ability to sketch how privilege works in every corner of American society. She feels uncomfortable when people applaud her for achieving traditional markers of success, “as if there weren’t a strange and cruel randomness” governing which kids from her neighborhood ended up earning an Ivy League degree or getting a fresh-out-of-law-school job that pays six figures, as Obama did, and which ones never went to college or made more than minimum wage. When she worked in city government and built a nonprofit, Obama discovered that most people who made their careers in public service could “afford to be there, their virtue discreetly underwritten” by inherited wealth.

Many, perhaps most, prominent U.S. politicians have benefited from such underwriting, their paths to power greased by family connections and financial support. Barack Obama didn’t. But Becoming illustrates a different kind of advantage he enjoyed, without which he never would have become president: a wife who made his home function and his children healthy and happy, an equal intellectual partner who was nonetheless prepared to “tamp down” her life outside the home for the sake of his. “I’d numbed myself somewhat to my ambition,” Michelle writes, plaintively, of the years after Barack entered the Illinois state Senate. Before Becoming, I had never really thought about the timelines of the Obama children’s lives and Barack’s political career, which started out with him living in Springfield four days a week, then living in D.C. for most of the year, then traveling the country for two different presidential campaigns. Michelle Obama was not just Sasha and Malia’s primary parent. For most of their lives, she was their only parent at home, surviving on little sleep while balancing a career and child care.

Barack was mostly in Springfield when Michelle was giving herself daily injections to prepare for the in vitro fertilization procedures that yielded both pregnancies. Before that, she was alone for five weeks after their honeymoon, when Barack took off on a “honeymoon with himself,” hunkering down in a cabin in Bali to write his first memoir. By the time Barack decided to run for president, he’d completed five political campaigns in 11 years. “Each one had put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage,” Obama writes. Barack pushed forward anyway.

It’s hard to read some of Becoming’s anecdotes about Barack—his decision to press advisers and donors about his presidential ambitions before asking his wife, his habit of saying he’s “almost home” to have dinner with the family when he’s actually on his way to the gym—without concluding that he’s a bit of a selfish self-promoter. Michelle takes pains to describe what a great father Barack was when he was home, but he’s still one of the few people she dares to directly criticize.

Becoming would’ve been much stronger had Obama been willing to direct the emotional and analytical energies at work in the book’s family sections toward the political injustices she points out elsewhere. While she is an astute observer of inequity, she avoids laying blame at any individual’s feet, even when it’s well-deserved. The Bush family gets a glowing review for their graciousness in welcoming the Obamas to the White House; when Michelle confronts the macabre consequences of George W.’s dead-end war in her work at Walter Reed, she never stops to examine the deadly conflict’s roots.

Obama’s time in the White House occupies less than one-third of the book, and almost all of it is depoliticized, mainly concerned with the accomplishments of her initiatives around childhood obesity and military families, the difficulties of life under the thumb of the Secret Service, and her efforts to safeguard Sasha and Malia’s childhoods. She gets a bit more forthright toward the end of Becoming, when she embarks on a hasty reckoning with Trump’s ascendance. Michelle falls short, though, when she uses the “HOPE” messaging of her husband’s first presidential campaign to tie America’s future into a neat little bow. No matter how much obstructionist Republicans discourage her, no matter how furious she gets with Trump’s misogynist and xenophobic administration, she writes on the penultimate page, she tries to remain “connected to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leader, or news story—and that’s optimism.” Optimism, she continues, has powered her heroes’ lives: “I saw it in my father, in the way he moved around as if nothing were wrong with his body, as if the disease that would someday take his life just didn’t exist.”

Obama’s father, readers learn in the first half of Becoming, died at age 55, just a year older than Obama is now, after resisting his family’s persistent pleas to seek medical attention for his multiple sclerosis. At the end of his life, his feet were so swollen that he couldn’t walk, and his throat was so engorged that he was almost suffocating. He wouldn’t see a doctor until he was forced to visit an emergency room; he died in the hospital several days later, having never returned home. As Obama tells it, her dad’s refusal to confront his illness wasn’t due to optimism so much as a wariness of doctors—they “had never brought good news and therefore were to be avoided”—and a reluctance to seem “self-indulgent” or burdensome by talking about his problems. In this reasoning, readers might see the well-founded distrust for medical authorities among many black Americans and a tendency among men to neglect health issues so as to avoid the appearance of weakness. It seems doubtful, then, that Obama’s father believed he would recover without medical care. He was more likely dealing with a painful truth the only way he knew how—by ignoring it.

Optimism that refuses to account for an unavoidable truth, whether it be the progression of MS or the sadistic, antidemocratic horrors of the Trump era, isn’t an optimism that will fix America’s ills. Becoming makes it clear, if it were ever in doubt, that Michelle Obama has a reliable moral compass. If her goal is to lead the country in the right direction, she needs to be more willing to point out what’s ailing us.

Michelle Obama memoir cover.

Becoming

By Michelle Obama. Crown.