How is Michelle Obama planning to navigate the journey from candidate's wife to First Lady? And what agenda will she bring to the East Wing? Mrs. Obama spoke to NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe shortly before the election, in a small equipment room at the side of a high-school gym in Akron, Ohio, just before a campaign rally. She spoke about her future work in the White House and the kind of father she wants the 44th president to be.
NEWSWEEK: Settling in with the family in Washington … do you have any idea of how you'll do that?
Michelle Obama: We'll be using every second of the transition time to work out timetables and timelines and all that good stuff. But the hope is that everybody settles in at the same time. So that we won't be transitioning portions of the family at different periods of time. But how, when and where—we don't know enough. At this stage, it's difficult to really have good conversations about schools and all that stuff because you don't want to measure the drapes.
This is the first transition for the family — the first move to a different place.
So is that daunting?
It's just unknown. And like any new thing, it feels a bit daunting until you have your plan. What I do know is that once the pieces start coming together, I think that's when the excitement can begin. When the girls know what school they're going to be in, they'll have a sense of how that's going to feel, and they'll know what their rooms look like. All my anticipation is really around the girls, making sure that they're OK. Barack and I … it's going to be a hard job. He likes hard jobs [laughs]. We know we have a lot of work to do. That's just a natural part of it. But as soon as I know that the kids are where they need to be, the other stuff is just hard work, which we are used to.
You want to continue what you did with Public Allies [which trains young people to become leaders of community groups and nonprofits] as First Lady. What's your thinking on how to go about that?
Barack is talking about a deeper investment in national service; that's been part of his platform. He's been meeting with some of the leadership of the AmeriCorps national-service movements—the Public Allies, the Teach for Americas, the City Years of the World—and figuring out how do we use that model, expand upon it, and help use that as a more creative way to defray the costs of college for young people and get all Americans really engaged. What AmeriCorps showed me, during the time that I worked on it, is that all these resources of young people, and not-so-young people, as I call them—because AmeriCorps is not just for young adults but people of all ages—you can fill a lot of gaps with the help of community-service hours. The young people in my program worked as program directors. They worked with kids and they worked in parks and they worked with nonprofit organizations that didn't have the resources to bring people in full time. So this is one of those clear win-wins. You can help kids pay for school, you can get needed man-hours into really critical things like the environment, senior care, Head Start—a whole range of things. And you get the country more focused on giving back.
There are elements of this already in place at the national level. Is it just a lack of resources, or insufficient focus and organization?
Fortunately, [President] Bush kept AmeriCorps, but it was significantly defunded. I haven't worked on AmeriCorps in a while, so I don't know how the funding cuts have really affected them ... When I was with Public Allies, and AmeriCorps was at its height, there were resources for expansion. So you had the new program in Chicago that I started. Then there was something going on in Milwaukee, and they were looking at West Coast offices. But I think with those funds reduced, people had to stop that kind of growth. So you're just limited in the number of slots that you can have for young people or seniors or what-have-you.
Public Allies is a diverse organization and you've talked before about your desire to give back to your community. How much is it geared toward people like yourself, who have maybe come out of the inner city and are giving back?
We tried to maintain a balance across the board on not just race but socioeconomic and educational backgrounds ... The notion of AmeriCorps is that service doesn't have a degree or race or an age on it. With training and opportunity, everyone is a potential community leader. The program that I ran, we tried very deliberately to make sure that the class reflected that kind of diversity. Also, there's the notion that there's learning and growth from everyone ... You're constantly pulling these people together for reflection and additional training, and sort of revisiting the notion that the Harvard Law student is going to learn from the 18-year-old with the GED. And if you're on a team together and you have to sit together and work on a project, then that's going to hammer that home.
People expect this to be a pretty tough economic situation. Do you have to scale back the ambition for this kind of public service?
That fortunately isn't my job [laughs]. Those are going to be some of the first major decisions that Barack will have to make in terms of laying out his platform. How much do you invest in what? What do you scale back on and how? We'll have to look to the president for those answers.
You've obviously become engaged with military families and their plight during this campaign. How would you continue with that?
I don't know yet, but when I was having these conversations, I would always have military officials along with me. I know a lot about the issues that families face, but I didn't know as much about the military structure. One former senior official there talked about the past and how the military, because of its flexibility, was often the place that provided the platform for trying new things with regard to family life and family leave. That's not the case any more ... I want to figure out how we explore ways to be creative in terms of support and then use some of those models in the broader society. These conversations with military families—they were an outgrowth of the conversations we were having with women in working families. I periodically would come across the spouse who was living alone out there, the wife or the husband of a reservist living in the regular community, struggling with the same economic, childcare, education issues that everybody else was. But on top of that, they were living alone with a loved one that was shipped away for years on end, with no one around to really support them. Their bosses didn't understand, so they didn't get any extra support time when their loved one was being deployed. There were no support systems. The first thing I'd like to do is to continue those conversations, because it was a shock to me, just as a civilian, to know that these support systems weren't there … I think there are many other families out there who would be shocked and outraged to know that our troops' families are not being taken care of while they are fighting and dying for us … How you take these conversations and come up with real, concrete recommendations that can be turned into change?
They say you're the one who keeps it real. So how do you keep it real in the White House? Have you talked to other people about the experience yet?
Not yet. I've talked to Hillary Clinton, who has been a wonderful resource. But again, I've tried not to even come close to being presumptuous. It just seems rude to even begin to have those conversations in the midst of a campaign. Some of the work that I have to do during this transition period is really sit down with people who have been through it and get an understanding of what happens in this bubble. How does it work? And what are the parameters that I have to work in. Our hope is that we do some of what we've been doing for the last year and a half. That we really treat our family life as separate as you can, that we keep the girls' lives very set apart from this whole experience. Which means we have to just pretend like this isn't happening [laughs]. And we've gotten sort of good at it. It'll be a little bit more challenging, but I think that staying connected to friends and family who know you … I'm hoping that my mother will come with me. I'm begging her.
She said there wasn't enough space or didn't want to intrude.
Yeah, whatever [laughs]. But just continuing to make sure that our first priority is getting them into schools that make sense for them, making sure that they have activities that they care about, that we're there for them to help them with their homework, that we go to their parent-teacher conferences, that we go to all their events. It's important to continue to do that, no matter what their father's job is. And he has to continue to make them a priority even as he's the leader of the free world. I think that's an important thing for him to model for others. It's this notion that if he can do it, then we all have to really fight for it. Because what we're going to be fighting for, for our kids, is what we have to fight for, for all of our kids. They have to be center in this society and this nation. We have to put their education, their needs, their well-being first and foremost. As adults, we can balance the other stuff. We're the grown-ups [laughs].
Looking back, you've been a lightning rod at times. Has the bad stuff, the personal stuff, been worth it?
It's all been worth it, because the truth is that 99 percent of my experience is what you're seeing today. Regardless of how they feel about Barack or the candidates, people are decent and they're kind. They are willing to give you a chance to prove yourself to them. There is nothing but personal gain on that note, and the sidebar stuff is like noise. It just really isn't a reflection of how the country thinks or feels all the time. And it's been fortunate that I have been on the road so much because this has been the primary stimulus, the feedback that I get, and it's been a complete joy.
So you think you can get your mother out?
Yeah. She can live wherever she wants to live. I think she might have felt like she didn't have as many options. But the girls are going to need her, as part of their sense of stability. And what is true for my mom is that she does anything for us and her grandkids. All they have to do is look at her with sad eyes and she's done for [laughs]. It's like, "You're going to say no? You're going to tell your grandkids, 'No, I'm going to stay in Chicago where there are no grandchildren and I'm not going to come and help you get adjusted'.'' No, I think she's going to come [laughs].
The conversations with Hillary Clinton: didn't they also involve the subject of raising kids in the White House?
Oh, absolutely. I've always admired what she has been able to do with Chelsea. You can tell from one conversation with Chelsea that she's a mature, decent, well-balanced young lady. And they [the parents] did something right. [Hillary] talked about how they were very protective of her personal space, and how they created some real clear hard boundaries that were never crossed. That went a long way to retaining some normalcy for her. But I also hope to talk to Laura Bush and Tipper Gore and Rosalynn Carter. I'm going to be reaching out to everyone who has ever had any experience who is willing to talk to me. Caroline Kennedy, who probably doesn't remember a lot … but she has also been someone who has been forthcoming. Maria Shriver—even First Ladies of our states have a perspective. I'm an information gatherer. I want to talk to, and get as many perspectives from people, Republicans and Democrats alike, because there are just so few families who have experienced this. If I can talk to all of them, I will.
Where did you have the conversations with Hillary?
We've have had most of our conversations by phone, because she's been campaigning, I've been campaigning. So periodically I try to check in with her. She has been completely forthcoming. She will spend as much time as I need on the phone. She's been completely gracious with her time and her advice, and I am grateful to her for that.