There are few people who are so widely admired, powerful, and capable of effecting worldwide change as Michelle and Barack Obama. To progressives who are looking for a voice of reason and a moral compass during these chaotic times, The Michelle Obama Podcast appears to be a godsend. After tuning into the inaugural episode featuring President Barack Obama, I would have to say that the podcast succeeds—mostly.
At the beginning, Michelle Obama starts by explaining that after eight whirlwind years at the White House, she spent a year reflecting on her entire life arc. This introspection led to the development of this podcast focusing on “relationships that make us who we are.” That objective seems more self-help–Brene Brown than politics–Hillary Clinton—and the tone of the conversation is accordingly warm and cozy. As these two very famous, very sexily (not at all creepily) in-marital-love people bantered, I felt like I was snacking on tea and vegan chocolate chip cookies with them on the couch. At one point, Michelle Obama says, “At the core of what you’ve done politically…and why I fell in love with you…” President Obama cuts in and says, “It wasn’t just my looks?” Michelle O jokes, “Well, you’re cute but, you know.” Here you may find you’re weirdly delighted by two other people flirting, which makes no sense, but nonetheless makes your heart warm.
The reason she fell in love with her husband was that he was “guided by the principle that we are each other’s brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.” And this is the theme that weaves throughout the podcast, which is about our relationship with our community.
“It’s not enough that I succeed on my own.” —Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama talks about growing up in a tiny apartment in the South Side of Chicago and being unable to move to the suburbs because with a mortgage, their family couldn’t afford a vacation or the savings for college. But their urban neighborhood afforded another kind of support system, where everyone looked out for one another and helped raise each other’s children.
“Stuff doesn’t make you happy.” —Michelle Obama
As someone from a modest background who received the benefit of an elite education, Obama was set on “checking off the marks” of success. After law school, she worked for a prestigious law firm and made plenty of income, but working on that 47th floor and looking at her old neighborhood made her feel more alone than ever before. When she transitioned to a nonprofit that helps young adults find a career in public service, she says she got more happiness from serving people than those people received tangible help from her.
“Culturally we’ve become much more focused on stuff and much less focused on relationships, family. Part of being an adult, part of being a citizen is that you give something up.” —Barack Obama
Barack Obama also agrees with her that stuff doesn’t make you happy, and that we have come to place focus on individualism and cutthroat competition.
“If you had it all, you were being greedy. Because you had it all, that meant somebody didn’t have anything. But that’s what we’re teaching young people: You should have a career, you should earn a lot of money, you should be fulfilled, you should have your passion, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice too much.” —Michelle Obama
When Michelle Obama was little, her parents used to scold her if she asked for a different flavor of ice cream than the one she was having. As an adult, she cautions against this “never enough” mentality that plagues our society. “When I talk to young mothers, young families, they always ask ‘how can I have it all?'” Michelle Obama says, then explains why that’s the wrong question to be asking. This is a different, humbling philosophy than the “Lean In” brand of feminism. I don’t think she means “shoot low”—it’s about having realistic expectations and not striving to take as much from the world, as giving back. In other words, she’s checking our sense of entitlement—whew!
If you’re a longtime fan of the former First Lady, there is nothing about this podcast you wouldn’t like. Here is something that gave me pause, though. As the two spoke candidly about poverty and our growing inequality (not just between races, but “now you’ve got separation within race,” as Michelle O says), I couldn’t help but recall flinching at her book tour ticket prices back in 2018. At the time, I was living in New York and happened to come across the event page that was advertising tickets at the Barclay Center in the $1,500 range. The 19,000-seat stadium event was said to have under $100 tickets, although I didn’t see any at the time; and the VIP tickets went for $3,000 a pop. Although the Obamas said they were donating 10% of the ticket sales to charity, I still was turned off that they were making 7-figures from a one-hour Q&A promoting her own book. (Not even to promote some other charity or cause?) It just didn’t seem consistent with their message of reducing income inequality and creating a more just and equitable society. That, and the fact that she wore a $3,900 gold sequin Balenciaga boots to said Barclays event. Explaining her ostentatious footwear choice that surely would have been criticized if she were still at the White House, she said, “Now, I’m free to do whatever.”
I’m not saying that fashion-forward boots are so condemnable (other than the fact that they were made of leather). Women can and should express their creativity through their style, and it shouldn’t weigh on their credibility. On the other hand, it creates a dissonance—if not to say downright hypocrisy—when someone who purports to fight against income inequality, makes a sartorial statement that directly opposes it. It’s just not the level of purity you’d expect from public figures of that stature. (Just imagine Jane Goodall rocking Balenciagas—that would dilute her message of protecting nature quite a bit.) I wish I felt that the Obamas were morally infallible—but I find that they are quite human in that respect.
It’s hard for me to remove this fact while experiencing Michelle Obama’s newest project. Many people might not find it an insurmountable barrier though, and the podcast does feel like a warm hug after such a terrible year. The Obamas are probably still the most authentic politicians we will ever get—plus, you can’t see designer outfits on a podcast.
Do you think you’ll tune into the Michelle Obama Podacast?
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Photo: Michelle Obama via Instagram