Michelle Obama on First Ladies

En route to Sheboygan, Wis., last week for a round-table discussion about balancing work and family, Michelle Obama talked with NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe about her joke-telling, Hillary Clinton—and whether she has time for a "normal" relationship with her husband. Excerpts:

Wolffe: Did you have to tone down some of the honest talk about your husband because there was criticism about it?
What I concluded was that people didn't get the joke. It's, like: "This isn't about my humor. I have to be more direct, right? This is what I'm trying to say. This is what I meant." So curbing it? No. It was just sort of making sure people understood.

Here's a joke?
Here's a joke. This is what a joke looks like … Somehow I've been caricatured as this emasculating wife. [Laughs] Barack and I laugh about that. It's just sort of, like, "Do you think anybody could emasculate Barack Obama?" Really now.

You've spoken positively about Hillary Clinton as a role model for First Lady, but then in an ABC interview you said you'd have to think about whether you would—
Yeah, they didn't show the whole piece … It's like I can't think out loud. I can't sort of meander through because then somebody takes a clip of the first part of the thought. What I said in the interview is, like, yeah, you know, I would want her to support [Barack]. I would. So I couldn't see not being enthusiastically supportive of whoever comes out of this … But that part of the interview didn't get played.

A First Lady who took on policy issues—that's something you'd want to emulate?
I never think in terms of her or anybody else, because I don't know Hillary Clinton … I don't think I can honestly emulate somebody else. I think I can only be who I can be in this role. And that's going to come with all the pluses and minuses and baggage and insecurities and all the things that I'll bring into it, plus my hopes and dreams along with it.

You said you wanted to focus on the work-family balance if you're in the White House. But why not focus on the thing that got you into public service in the first place—those kids on the South Side of Chicago, inspiring them to service?
There are a ton of things I'd love to do. I would love to be able to continue this conversation with folks on the ground. How do we keep having these kinds of discussions so that there's a link from the grass roots directly up through the White House, as opposed to going through three different departments and under secretaries and so on and so forth? How do you continue the conversation with people so that Barack and I are still connected to the day-to-day experiences, challenges, struggles of regular people? … I want to bring more kids into the White House of all backgrounds, doing new kinds of internship programs. I mean, come on. I'm an idea person. There are tons of things that I can think about doing. But I'm also a practical person. So what can you really accomplish? How much time do you have? What kind of resources do you have? What kind of staff do you have to do it? Because this stuff isn't just going to happen because you say it. How do you structure it? And what will be my other responsibilities, the things that I'll have to do? And what will the girls need, you know? Are they going to transition easily to the White House and this public life and a new school and a new city? If they're losing their minds, that's one project off Mommy's table because I'm going to be making sure that they have their feet on the ground.

There was some detail in a Wall Street Journal story last week about your advising him to use his heart, not his head so much. Is that a recurring theme?
No, not really. I just think in this race a lot of what Barack had to do was combat the inexperience question. Because that has been the tool of his opponents: "He's not ready." So in his mind it's, like: "I've got to tell you why I'm ready. I've got to give you some details. I've got to let you know I'm really smart, and I know these plans and I can rattle off these policies." That is not the emotional side of the candidate. He'd been doing that, and part of what I was saying was, "Let people know how you feel, too." Because that's really what resonates, after people are convinced you can do this.

At what point do you think he started doing that? Was there a debate?
It was after the summer … You try some things out and you find your voice in many ways. He takes in all that. He takes in my advice as well as the dozens of opinions of many people who are writing and e-mailing him.

You meet up every now and again on the campaign trail.
Who? Me and Barack?

Yes. Your husband.
Oh, yeah. OK. Got it.

Is there time for a normal relationship?
Normal is relative. I feel like our relationship is exactly the same because we talk every night. We talk as long as we need to. So I don't feel like I'm in any way disconnected from him … I'm probably more connected with his work than I've ever been before. I've never participated at this level in any of his campaigns. I have usually chosen to just appear when necessary. So in terms of physical time together, it's more sporadic. But mentally and emotionally, it feels like we're right where we've always been.