Photo Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP
How nervous was Michelle Obama during her husband’s first debate with Mitt Romney? That’s easy. Just imagine the now infamous reaction of the parents of Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman as they squirmed with each twist their daughter took on the uneven bars during the London Games. “It’s like when I watch the Olympics, you all saw the Olympics with the gymnast’s parents who were watching … that’s how I feel,” the first lady said during a wide-ranging and intimate roundtable with iVillage and six other women’s sites before an early evening rally at a county fairgrounds in Leesburg, Virginia.
Mrs. Obama moved her body forward and back, a la Mr. and Mrs. Raisman, to demonstrate how she feels during debates. “But you can’t make any, you can't gesture,” she said, such as “Go baby! Yes!" The moderator will have none of it! “They intimidate the hell out of you so … I’m there squeezing my hand and trying to make sure that I'm paying attention too.”
“It’s watching your loved one perform on a tight rope … and we have two more,” she said with a smile, indicating each will be another 90 minutes of nervous can’t-move-your-body-to-show-it tension.
No Off Night for the President
The prevailing sentiment on the left and the right may be that President Obama did not do his best in his first exchange with Romney but Mrs. Obama doesn’t see it that way. “There’s sort of the scrum and the punditry and the analysis and then there’s the passion that we see every single day,” noting how the day after the debate the president was greeted by 35,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin. “I don’t and I know he doesn’t really focus on a debate or a conversation or this or that because ... the one thing he did tell me is he has got to keep fighting for these folks, that he doesn’t want to let anybody down because he doesn't want anybody to have to go back.”
Admitting she is biased, she told us, “I don’t feel the horse race of it so we just don’t spend a lot of time talking about it. I’m so proud of him and I make sure that he knows it every single day.”
Forget Campaigning, How About a Doggie Play Date?
On Monday, which was Columbus Day, Mrs. Obama wasn’t in a battleground state. Instead, she was at home with her girls, who were off from school, hosting her first “doggie play date,” sharing the story to demonstrate how Malia and Sasha are "so far removed" from the world of presidential campaigning.
“This has been a goal of Sasha’s for quite some time because she's really feeling, on top of everything else that I have to worry about, that Bo doesn't have enough dog interaction,” the first lady said with a laugh. So instead of being on the stump, she hosted five dogs on the South Lawn. “Every parent was worried about their dog ... so everybody was on edge,” she said. (Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if your dog went wild at the White House?) “The kids all the while were crunched over by the snack table eating and we're like this is your play date, go run with these dogs.” Thankfully, the doggie play date went well, and there was just one poop on the South Lawn!
Malia and Sasha: Focusing on Homecoming, Not the Election
Mrs. Obama said the girls aren't asking about the election and are truly focused on their own lives. "Malia had a dance this weekend, a big science test and Homecoming is coming up. Those are the things that they're really focused on and they're just not, they're just not connected ... Malia is just now asking me about my job when I was a vice president of the hospital," she said, referring to her role as former vice president for community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals. "We had a conversation about that this weekend because now she's old enough to think about why did you do that job and how did you feel about it. Malia's just now starting to care about what we do because now she's getting into that stage where she's thinking about who she wants to be ... So we just had that conversation ... She asked me what did I think about that job versus this job," she said referring to her role as first lady. "They don't ask about the election ... they don't care," she said with a laugh.
Running for Office? Absolutely Not!
Despite stellar reviews after her Democratic National Convention speech and discussion by pundits of her appeal as a candidate in her own right, Mrs. Obama repeated what she has said in previous roundtables with us and other women’s sites. “I would never consider running for office and I never have … the process hasn’t changed me. I know who I am, I know what I am good at, I know what I'd enjoy … I know what I want to do with my life ... It’s not politics, that’s not my gift, that’s not my calling.”
But that doesn’t mean she’d discourage her girls from ever running for office if they chose to pursue an elected career. “I would support my girls in doing anything they want to do. I always encourage them, think about your passions, think about your gifts, don’t think about what dad does or what somebody else wants you to do, and if it’s politics, if it’s serving in the military, if it’s being a stay at home mom, I just want them to have the confidence in whatever choice they make.”
Message from Dad: “Just Look Like You’re Listening”
We were all dazzled by how adorable and how grown up Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, looked during the convention. The first lady revealed they also got a pep talk of sorts from their dad before the first family was introduced. “On convention night, when we were backstage, the one thing he was saying, ‘Just look like you’re listening, that’s all I want,” Mrs. Obama told us as she laughed. “The girls still don’t have that focused, poker face so sometimes they’re at an event and they’re like,” she said, demonstrating a face that any mom of a teenager or tween would instantly recognize. “They don’t know to exude and they’re not thinking about needing to exude so Barack would just (say), ‘Just look like you’re listening.’ ‘They’re like, okay dad, okay, we’ll do that for you.”
Mrs. Obama admitted she had to help the girls along a bit convention night especially when they started to argue with each other. She would periodically look at them and smile and clap with the hint that they needed to do the same. “So Sasha, throughout was like, ‘Is this good? Is this funny? Was that a good joke? I didn’t really get it but I’ll smile.' I'm like, that's it, that's my girl," said the proud – and relieved – mom.
Malia: Don’t Be A Boxchecker!
The first lady said Malia is a “pretty serious student, she takes her academic work very seriously,” just like her mom although their school experiences are quite different. “When I went to school ... being smart in a public school was dangerous,” adding that kids would say things to her like “you talk like a white girl.” “That's how we grew up, you had to sort of be sneaky smart … because you had to get home from school ... I tell them how fortunate they are to be able to fully celebrate their intellectual beings.”
That means not taking the easy path just because they want the good grades. “I find myself telling Malia do not become a boxchecker. If you are putting your best in, don’t worry about the A, because you might get a C taking a course that you are really going to grow in, so I would hate for you to be that kid that doesn’t take the course they are going to get a C in because they don't want the C as opposed to being interested in learning.”
As for Sasha, who just started middle school, the first lady said she "seems much more academically laid back" than her big sister but said "she's still young enough ... who she will be is still forming."
No Dancing on the Table!
Making sure Malia and Sasha are kind people who treat each other with respect is her biggest concern and that helps put all the ups and downs of the campaign into context. “Like all parents, it’s a constant source of worry and focus, which is one of the reasons why it’s very easy to get out of the campaign mode and the worry about the debate or the polls or this or that because when I go home, I’m still trying to figure out okay, what are they going to do this summer, what did that conversation mean and what lessons are we learning.”
“So we'll see ... we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said the first lady, adding that she tells the girls, "Just don’t dance on the tables, just stay off.” Mrs. Obama was making a joke but then made a serious point about her girls and how vulnerable they can be in a digital age. “I think they are one of the first kids in the White House growing up where everybody’s got a cell phone and everybody’s watching … We just have to have real conversations even now, it's you can’t go off on somebody, you can’t act bratty … you may be having a moment but somebody could use that moment and try to define you forever.” Her message to both girls, “You are not going to have Facebook for a long time.”
Asked if she worries about what will happen to the country and the president’s agenda if he doesn’t win, Mrs. Obama said, “I don’t let myself go to that place because … in this country, we’ve always moved forward … I just don’t believe that women will not fight tooth and nail to make sure that we continue to progress ... I’m not going to let it happen whether I’m here or not.”
“Instead of worrying about what happens if we don’t (win), I just think about, focus on making sure people understand what’s at stake,” she said.
How Does This Election Feel Different?
Mrs. Obama said the rhythm of this campaign is the same this time around as it was four years ago. “When you look at the debates or the scrum, there's still the sort of talk on TV, talk in the press ... sort of the up and down, that was a part of it too, sort of we’ll never make it, or we’re not raising enough money, well yeah, we are actually. Last election there were so many things I’d read in the papers and go no, it's great out there. I still feel that but I think it’s important for us never to take anything for granted, to be hungry.”
Dreams of CVS!
We closed the interview asking the first lady what she'd consider the best part of the past nearly four years and one of the toughest parts. The best? The ability to travel the country and meet people in ways you don’t get to in just about any other job. “This is why I know there is so much that connects us … I get to see that part of America and I think that that’s one of the things that makes me, continues to make me hopeful because we're going to grow beyond some of these superficial divisions, we are going to keep growing as a country."
One of the toughest parts? She prefaced her answer by saying she doesn't want to complain about her job especially in light of “real issues” people have. So with that said at the outset, she pointed to the “loss of privacy” and “loss of anonymity “I can’t walk outside. I can’t take my dog for a walk. We have to have a doggie play date, but there are some times, and I tease, it’s like one day I am going to walk out that gate. I’m just going to walk out. I'm going to walk out. No one's going to know, I’m not going to notify anybody and I’m just going to walk … I’m going to go to CVS. I find myself gazing at CVS. I just want to walk in there, walk in there and walk around, pick up some soap."
She’s jealous of her mom who gets to go to CVS whenever she wants! "It's like, 'You went to CVS? ... What are they doing now at CVS?" she said to laughter. “Because now at CVS you have to get your bag, you have to pay if you want a bag. I heard about that, so it’s like I don’t want to go into CVS all ignorant and be like what’s this … and now I know that you have to pay for a bag which wasn’t the case three and a half years ago so things have changed.”