When Michelle Robinson first heard her fellow lawyers swooning over a new summer associate named Barack Hussein Obama, she was dubious. “In my experience, you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers,” she writes. Other than registering his “rich, even sexy baritone” on the phone, she wasn’t all that impressed, especially when he showed up for his first day at work irritatingly late. The “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder” would come later. But she would always find it hard to adjust to his tardiness, his constant belief that things would simply work themselves out, and the way his ambitions often dictated the course of their lives.
“Becoming” divulges some details that the Obamas haven’t discussed publicly before: the fertility treatments they used to conceive Malia and Sasha; the miscarriage that left her with a “pang of longing followed by a bruising wallop of inadequacy” whenever she saw women walking with their children in the street; the couples counseling that saved their marriage when she felt as if his political career “would end up steam-rolling our every need.” She talks about the wardrobe that attracted so much scrutiny, explaining the great pressure she felt as the only African-American first lady so far in a culture addicted to image and double standards. She also includes some requisite ticking off of her achievements from inside the White House, including her initiatives against childhood obesity and in favor of veteran support.
But it’s the moments when Obama tries to make sense of what she’s seeing now, in the country, that are among the most moving — if only because she’s so clearly struggling to reconcile the cleareyed realism of her upbringing, brought about by necessity, with the glamorous, previously unthinkable life she has today. During her entire time in the White House, she says, “I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.” She unequivocally calls the new president a “bully” and a “misogynist,” watching him do everything he can to roll back her husband’s legacy and replace “carefully built, compassionate policies” with what seems to be brazen cruelty. “I sometimes wonder,” she writes, “where the bottom might be.”
“My grandfather lived with the bitter residue of his own dashed dreams,” she recalls; like many African-American men of his generation, she says, his stymied aspirations left him with “a basic level of resentment and mistrust.” Her life has been different, filled with possibility, wealth and achievement. She insists on enumerating the gains the country made in the eight years before 2016, however incremental, because it would be too easy, she suggests, to succumb to despair. “Progress is slow,” she tells young people nowadays; they need to rely on “their persistence, self-reliance and ability to overcome.”
For all the attempts by conservatives a decade ago to paint her as a radical, Obama seems to be a measured, methodical centrist at heart. But hers isn’t a wan faith in expanding the pie and crossing the aisle. Her pragmatism is tougher than that, even if it will come across as especially frustrating to those who believe that centrism and civility are no longer enough. As she writes in “Becoming,” she long ago learned to recognize the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.”