More than ‘mom-in-chief’: Michelle Obama bows out as dynamic first lady

Obamas commitment to childrens health and education remained steadfast in the past eight years as she transformed into an impassioned political figure

With tears in her eyes and her voice cracking with emotion, the self-declared mom-in-chief stepped off the public stage on Friday with her final speech as first lady, urging young Americans to believe in the power of hope.

Michelle Obama, who began her White House years pursuing the typically soft subjects that have often limited the wives of presidents, ended with a clarion call for diversity and vowing to make it her lifes work to help disadvantaged children get to college, a personal mission that has its roots in her own Chicago childhood.

In a deeply emotional reflection on what lies ahead for the US in the era of President Donald Trump, she sent a clear message to young people to rise above division, anger and bigotry, no matter what they look like, their background or religion.

My final message to young people as first lady is simple. I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong … Dont be afraid, be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourself with a good education … then build a country worthy of your boundless promise.

The sign-off in the East Room of the White House ended with her being engulfed in hugs from school counsellors from across the US whom she celebrated for the crucial support they give to students in their darkest moments.

It was also a moment to mark the eight-year journey she has made to become an impassioned political figure in her own right. She has never stood for office, but there were times in the final weeks of the US election campaign when it seemed possible that she could run for president and win.

She had taken the fight to Donald Trump, telling a Hillary Clinton rally in New Hampshire that his boasts about sexually assaulting women had shaken her to her core. This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable, she said in a speech which revealed a toughness and an ability to connect with an audience to rival her own husbands gifts.

Speaking in Philadelphia from the same platform as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, she emerged as the true star of the Democratic convention, moving the audience to tears as she spoke about the possibility of the first female president, and her own familys journey from slavery to the White House.

Drawing powerfully on her own family history her great-great-grandfather lived as a slave she spoke of the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

Ever since Martha Washington complained that she felt like a state prisoner, the role of the first lady has traditionally been seen as a confining one, where elegance comes first and controversy is best avoided.

And Michelle Obamas White House years began typically as a self-styled mom-in-chief, with two daughters aged 10 and seven, advocating a healthy-living agenda.

She turned a far corner of the White House grounds into a vegetable garden and brought children from some of Washingtons poorest schools to help her plant broccoli. She also delightful with her irreverent willingness to drop convention joining in with an Evolution of Mom Dancing routine on the talkshow Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, to promote her Lets Move fitness push and later, getting in the passenger seat for Carpool Karaoke with James Corden to promote her Let Girls Learn global education campaign.

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Michelle Obama joined by Washington DC school children as they harvest the White House Kitchen Garden. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

If some felt disappointed by the gentle subjects she adopted initially, it became clear there was a golden thread running through her efforts as she began to focus on more substantial issues that reflected her own childhood growing up in Chicago.

She joined the debate on gun violence after the death in 2013 of Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teenager who was killed by a stray bullet days after she returned home from taking part in the presidents inauguration celebrations with her high school marching band.

Speaking later that year in Chicago, Obama said her mission and her passion lay in ensuring the health and development and success of young people in this city.

Describing her own childhood, she said: Back then, our parents knew that if they loved and encouraged us, if they kept us off the streets and out of trouble, then wed be OK. They knew that if they did everything right, wed have a chance.

But today, for too many families and children in this city, thats simply no longer the case. Today, too many kids in this city are living just a few stops, sometimes even just a few blocks, from shiny skyscrapers and leafy parks and world-class museums and universities, yet all of that might as well be in a different state, even in a different continent.

Because instead of spending their days enjoying the abundance of riches this city has to offer, they are consumed with watching their backs. Theyre afraid to walk alone, because they might get jumped. Theyre afraid to walk in groups, because that might identify them as part of a gang and put them at risk.

She said: Hadiyas family did everything right, but she still didnt have a chance. And that story the story of Hadiyas life and death we read that story day after day, month after month, year after year in this city and around this country.

The Reach Higher initiative she has championed aims to inspire every student to carry on past high school building on the healthy start she promoted, by creating conditions for teenagers to get to college, and then find support on campus to help them succeed.

She was still Michelle Robinson, daughter of a secretary and a pump worker at a Chicago water company, when her teachers told her that she was aiming too high by setting her sights on Princeton, the Ivy League university. But she made it, and went to Harvard Law School too, although as she said decades later: I still hear that doubt ringing in my head.

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Michelle Obama campaigned for Hillary Clinton during her presidential run. Photograph: Chuck Burton/AP

The commencement addresses she has delivered each year at college graduation ceremonies during her time at the White House have seen her turn to her own personal struggles, including the death of her father, to force home the message that education is the single biggest driver of success for young people. She told Virginia Tech students: I came to realize that the best way for me to honor my dads life was by how I lived my own life. I realized that the best way to fill the hole he had left was to do for other young people what he had done for me. So I left that fancy law firm, and I wound up ultimately running a nonprofit organization that trained young people for careers in public service.

She has taken her aspirational message to young girls across the world including pupils from an inner-city school in London, some of whom went with her on a fact-finding mission to Oxford University and were later invited to the White House. We are counting on you, we are counting on every single one of you to be the best that you can be, she told their school assembly.

If Barack Obamas presidential legacy hangs in the balance with the start of the Trump administration, it is possible that as a family, the Obamas have achieved something of lasting significance which cannot be erased. They have shown young African Americans that they too can have ambition and success.

Rictor Craig was a school principal at Friendship Woodbridge elementary and middle school in one of the poorest wards of Washington when some of his scholars were invited to help Michelle Obama plant her White House kitchen garden in 2014.

Now director of academics at the nine schools of Friendship Woodbridge, he said the visit and the simple fact that the Obamas made it to the White House had a transformative effect on pupils.

Ultimately it allowed my kids to see that they have a possibility, that people who look like them, that they are able to relate to, can one day aspire to get into the White House.

Seeing Michelle Obama and the first family in the White House really motivated our scholars because they know that both the parents are college educated, they know that Malia and Sasha are going to college and these are things that they get to see on a daily basis, that they can then equate to their own story. Its huge.

Michelle Obama it seems, never will run for office. If I were interested in it, Id say it, she told Oprah Winfrey in her big exit interview last month. People dont really understand how hard this is. And its not something that you cavalierly just sort of ask a family to do again.

But as she tried in vain to wave away her tears at the end of her last speech, she made clear that the struggle to get children a better start and a great education will remain her lifes work. I will be with you, rooting for you for the rest of my life.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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