Leading by Example: First Lady Michelle Obama
photographed by Annie Leibovitz
At the start of a second term, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talk to Jonathan Van Meter about their life as parents, their marriage, and their vision for America’s families.
One morning in late January, I am standing at one end of the grand red-carpeted corridor that runs through the center of the White House, when suddenly the First Lady appears at the other. “Heeeee’s comin’,” she says of her husband’s imminent arrival. “He’s coming down the stairs now.” The president is on his way from the residence above, and just a split second before he appears, the First Lady, in a midnight-blue Reed Krakoff sleeveless dress and a black kitten heel, slips into the tiniest bit of a surprisingly good soft-shoe, and then the two of them walk arm in arm into the Red Room to sit for a portrait by Annie Leibovitz. The photographer has her iPod playing the Black Eyed Peas song “Where Is the Love?” It is a mid-tempo hip-hop lament about the problematic state of the world. As the First Lady and an aide laugh together over some inside joke, the president starts nodding his head to the beat: “Who picked the music? I love this song.”
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder
As I’m gettin’ older, y’all, people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin’
Selfishness got us followin’ the wrong direction
A few minutes later, Leibovitz has the president sit in a comfortable chair and then directs the First Lady to perch on the arm. At one point, the First Lady puts her hand on top of his and, instinctively, he wraps his fingers around her thumb. “There’s a lot of huggin’ going on,” says Leibovitz, and everyone laughs. “You’re a very different kind of president and First Lady.”
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That they are. Put aside for a moment that they are the first African-Americans to preside in the White House, or that it feels perfectly normal to see the president enjoying a hip-hop song in the Red Room before lunch, or that the First Lady has bucked convention by routinely mixing Thom Browne and Alexander McQueen with J.Crew and Target, or that Malia and Sasha’s grandma lives with them upstairs, or that the whole family texts and takes pictures of one another with their smart phones. What is truly unusual about the Obamas is that, in their own quietly determined way, they have insisted on living their lives on their terms: not as the First Family but as a family, first.
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“He is a dad,” says the president’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, “and a husband, and he enjoys being with his children and his wife. He doesn’t have a father. He’s trying really hard to be a good dad.” Says former senior adviser David Axelrod, “This is conjecture on my part, but I have to believe that because of the rather tumultuous childhood that he had, family is even more important to him. It’s central to who he is. That’s why he’s home every night at 6:30 for dinner.”
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The president and First Lady both seem to be in ebullient moods, and deservedly so. His surprisingly decisive reelection is now history; the tonally precise inauguration is ten days behind them. The First Lady, it must be said, is funny, and it soon becomes clear that she can’t resist an opportunity to tease her husband. The first real question I ask them is about the persistent notion among the Washington press corps that they—unlike, say, the Reagans or the Clintons—are somehow antisocial, that they don’t privately entertain enough at the White House, that they don’t break bread and smoke cigars and play poker with their enemies. When I joke that they might want to “put that idea to rest” once and for all, the president starts to answer, but his wife, whose back has gone up ever so slightly, cuts him off. “I don’t think it’s our job to put an idea to rest. Our job is, first and foremost, to make sure our family is whole. You know, we have small kids; they’re growing every day. But I think we were both pretty straightforward when we said, ‘Our number-one priority is making sure that our family is whole.’ ”
They are quick to point out that most of their friends have kids themselves, and that when they go on vacation, usually with longtime family friends and relatives, they end up with a houseful of children. “The stresses and the pressures of this job are so real that when you get a minute,” the First Lady says, “you want to give that extra energy to your fourteen- and eleven-year-old. . . .” “Although,” her husband says, a big grin spreading across his face, “as I joked at a press conference, now that they want less time with us, who knows? Maybe you’ll see us out in the clubs.”
“Saturday night!” says the First Lady. “The kids are out with their friends. Let’s go party!”
“ ‘The Obamas are out in the club again?’ ” says the president, laughing. “What is true,” he says, more seriously, “is that we probably—even before we came to Washington—had already settled in a little bit to parenthood. And. . . .” Here he pauses in the way that only President Obama can. “Let’s put it this way: I did an awful lot of socializing in my teens and 20s.
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“But what is also true,” he says, “is that the culture in Washington has changed in ways that probably haven’t been great for the way this place runs. . . . When you talk to the folks who were in the Senate or the House back in the sixties, seventies, eighties, there was much less pressure to go back and forth to your home state. . . . Campaigns weren’t as expensive. So a lot of members of Congress bought homes here in the area; their kids went to school here; they ended up socializing in part because their families were here. By the time I got to the Senate, that had changed. Michelle and the girls, for example, stayed in Chicago, and I had this little bachelor apartment that Michelle refused to stay in because she thought it was a little, uh. . . .”
“Yikes,” she says.
“You know, pizza boxes everywhere,” he says. “When she came, I had to get a hotel room.” The First Lady leans in toward me. “That place caught on fire.”
“It did end up catching on fire,” says the president sheepishly.
“And I was like, I told you it was a dump,” she says. Her husband continues, “As a consequence, I think, when the Washington press writes about this, part of what they’re longing for has less to do with us; it has to do with an atmosphere here where there was more of a community in Washington, which did result, I think, in less polarization. Because if your kids went to school together and you’re seeing each other at ball games and church, then Democrats and Republicans had a sense that this is not just perpetual campaigning and political warfare.”
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While the First Lady may not be a Tiger Mom, and the Obamas may not be helicopter parents (despite their access to Marine One), they are, in fact, exemplars of a new paradigm—the super-involved parenting team for whom being equally engaged in the minutiae of their children’s lives is paramount. Perhaps this is what has been misconstrued by old-school Washington. After all, it is so unlike the way that the White House has traditionally functioned, as a paragon of American family life, complete with a staff that all but invented the idea of standing on ceremony.
Later I bring this up to Anita Dunn, former White House communications director and a consultant on the reelection campaign who has a teenager of her own. “You know,” she says, “they are of a different generation. Most of [the Obamas’] friends have both parents in the workforce, and there is a degree of involvement from both parents in raising the children that simply wasn’t the case earlier. But they also both know what it’s like to be raising kids in this very challenging time—whether it’s video games or Facebook or smart phones. That they are experiencing these things along with so many other American parents gives them a unique perspective on the challenges families face.”
I mention the wintry tableau on Inauguration Day, all four Obamas texting and taking pictures of one another. “Sasha plays basketball with her little team at a community center in my neighborhood,” says Dunn. “My son played there and, you know, there are no bleachers or anything—parents are just standing on the sidelines. And that’s an experience that the president has, just like all those other parents. If I was in a school play, my father would show up. But, you know, he wasn’t at the rehearsals. It is a different model. But I think it has been a valuable thing, to help them break out of the bubble.”
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A friend of mine with two kids who are just heading off to college pointed out to me recently that Malia and Sasha are on the cusp of that stage in life when parenting requires, as she put it, “elasticity”—and life in the White House seems anything but elastic. “Well, the environment becomes more elastic,” the First Lady says. “The Secret Service has to change the way they do things; they have to become more flexible. And they do. Because they want to make sure that these girls are happy and that they have a normal life. . . . There’s a lot of energy that goes into working with staff, working with agents, working with friends’ parents to figure out how do we, you know, let these kids go to the party and have a sleepover and walk through the city on their own, go to the game. Any parent knows that these are the times when you’re just a scheduler and chauffeur for your kids. And that doesn’t change for us. Ninety percent of our conversation is about these girls: What are they doing? And who’s got what practice? And what birthday party is coming up? And did we get a gift for this person? You know, I mean, it is endless and it gets to be pretty exhausting, and if you take your eye off the ball, that’s when their lives become inelastic,” she says emphatically. “So it requires us to be there and be present so that we can respond and have the system respond to their needs. . . . And he’s doing it while still dealing with Syria and health care. He’s as up on every friend, every party, every relationship. . . . And if you’re out at dinner every night, you miss those moments where you can check in and just figure them out when they’re ready to share with you.”
The Obamas’ unusually close partnership and decision-making process started long before they had children. It is now part of legend that when Michelle Robinson decided to leave her cushy office at a corporate Chicago law firm to go work at City Hall for Valerie Jarrett, then deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, she asked Jarrett to have dinner with her then-fiancé before making the leap. When I ask Jarrett if she could offer any insight into how life in the White House has affected the Obamas’ relationship, she says, “They had a very good marriage going in, but it strengthened it because, well, it’s tested it. He has had some really, really tough moments in the White House, and the fact that his partner in this journey has been so steadfastly in his corner and never wavered, it teaches you every day to appreciate what you have. When you’ve had a really tough day and had to make the kinds of literally life-and-death decisions that he’s had to make in the Oval Office, to come home and know you’re safe and that your children are being well taken care of and you feel totally nurtured. . . . We joke about this: He goes home for dinner and no one’s interested in his day. They want to talk about their day. And that is such a relief. And she manages that for him.”
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When I paraphrase Jarrett’s observation for the president and First Lady, he shifts in his seat and leans forward. “Well, what is true is that, first and foremost, Michelle thinks about the girls. And pretty much everything else from Michelle’s perspective right now is secondary. And rightly so. She is a great mom. What is also true is Michelle’s had to accommodate”—he pauses for a long while—“a life that”—another pause—“it’s fair to say was not necessarily what she envisioned for herself. She has to put up with me. And my schedule and my stresses. And she’s done a great job on that. But I think it would be a mistake to think that my wife, when I walk in the door, is, Hey, honey, how was your day? Let me give you a neck rub. It’s not as if Michelle is thinking in terms of, How do I cater to my husband? I think it’s much more, We’re a team, and how do I make sure that this guy is together enough that he’s paying attention to his girls and not forgetting the basketball game that he’s supposed to be going to on Sunday? So she’s basically managing me quite effectively—that’s what it comes down to. I’m sure Valerie might have made it sound more romantic.” The First Lady, who has been staring at her lap through this entire answer, finally looks up and laughs.
It almost comes as a relief to see the president, so famous for his cool, get a little defensive. I bring up what someone described as his “Hawaiian mellowness” and ask the First Lady to describe this aspect of her husband. “I’ve tried to explain this guy to people over the years, but there is a calmness to him that is just . . . it has been a consistent part of his character. Which is why I think he is uniquely suited for this challenge—because there is a steadiness. And maybe it’s because of his Hawaiian upbringing—you go to Hawaii and it’s Chillsville; maybe it was because his life growing up was a little less steady, so he had to create that steadiness for himself . . . but he is that person, in all situations, over the course of these last four years, from watching the highs and lows of health-care reform to dealing with two very contentious, challenging elections. . . . The most you get from him is ‘You know, that is gonna be tough. . . .’ There are a lot of times I can’t tell how his day went. Unless I really dig down. Because when he walks through that door, he can let go of it all. And it just doesn’t penetrate his soul. And that’s the beautiful thing for me to see as his wife. That was one of the things I was worried about: How would politics affect this very decent, genuine, noble individual? And there is just something about his spirit that allows all that stuff to stay on the outside.”
Someone recently introduced me to the concept of “borrowed functioning,” something that successful couples do without even realizing it. When I describe the concept to the Obamas and confess that my partner of fifteen years is an unflappable, hard-to-read Midwesterner and that I am an emotional hothead from Jersey, they both laugh and gamely play along.
“Well, patience and calm I’m borrowing,” says the First Lady. “Or trying to mirror. I’ve learned that from my husband, that sort of, you know, ability to not get too high or too low with changes and bumps in the road . . . to do more breathing in and just going with it. I’m learning that every day. And to the extent that I’ve made changes in my life, it’s just sort of stepping back and seeing a change not as something to guard against but as a wonderful addition . . . that can make life fun and unexpected. Oftentimes, it’s the way we react to change that is the thing that determines the overall experience. So I’ve learned to let go and enjoy it and take it in and not take things too personally.”
Without missing a beat, the president says, “And what Michelle has done is to remind me every day of the virtues of order.” The First Lady lets out a big laugh. “Being on time. Hanging up your clothes. Being intentional about planning time with your kids. In some ways I think . . . we’re very different people, and some of that’s temperamental, some of it is how we grew up. Michelle grew up in a model nuclear family: mom, dad, brother. . . . She just has these deep, wonderful roots. When you go back to Chicago, she’s got family everywhere. . . . There’s just a warmth and a sense of belonging. And you know, that’s not how I grew up. I had this far-flung family, father left at a very young age, a stepfather who ended up passing away as well. My mother was this wonderful spirit, and she was adventurous but not always very well organized. And, so, what that means is that I’m more comfortable with change and adventure and trying new things, but the downside of it is, sometimes—particularly when we were early on in our marriage—I wasn’t always thinking about the fact that my free-spirited ways might be having an impact on the person I’m with. And conversely, early in our marriage, Michelle provided this sense of stability and clarity and certainty about things, but sometimes she resisted trying something new just because it might seem a little scary or push her out of her comfort zone. I think what we’ve learned from each other is that sense of. . . .”
“Balance,” she says.
“There’s no doubt I’m a better man having spent time with Michelle. I would never say that Michelle’s a better woman, but I will say she’s a little more patient.”
“I would say I’m a better woman. You couldn’t say it.”
“I couldn’t say it,” he says.
The First Lady looks at me: “It’s good that he learned not to say that.” And then turns and looks at him and smiles. “Don’t say that.”
Being around the Obamas, I am struck by a few things: They are both tall and great-looking, and his hair is not so gray. In fact, neither of them looks like they’re on either side of 50. He has beautiful hands, with long, slender fingers that make his wedding band seem enormous. Her Midwestern accent is pronounced, and his legendary Hawaiian mellowness is in full flower for most of the interview—though he is also capable of more than a little swagger. When I ask the First Lady if her husband’s mellow nature is what gets interpreted as “aloof,” she says, “Absolutely. I mean, I don’t know what people expect to see in a president. Maybe they want him to yell and scream at somebody at some point. Sometimes I’d like him to do that.” She laughs and looks at him. “But that’s just not how he deals with stress. And I think that’s something we want in our leaders.”
“It is true that I don’t get too high or I don’t get too low, day to day,” the president says. “Partly because I try to bring to the job a longer-term time frame. I’m a history buff, and I know that big changes take time. But I also know that, setting politics aside, usually things are never as good as you think they are or as bad as you think they are. And that has served me well temperamentally.”
But as the First Lady observes, “all it takes is watching him spend time on a rope line” for you to see the emotion and the connection. I got to watch the president doing just that two days earlier, in a high school gymnasium in Las Vegas after his speech on immigration, and what was unmistakable was the genuine pleasure he took in hugging and handshaking and saying “I love you back!” to the several hundred people who were screaming and crying as they reached out to touch him. It seems that he loves the attention, sure—but it struck me that he loves it to the right degree. How did the First Lady put it? “It doesn’t penetrate his soul.”
Everyone I spoke with about the Obamas said the same thing: What you see is what you get. “The president, when he goes to an event, that is the same Barack Obama who’s in a meeting,” says Dunn. “There really isn’t a divide between their private and public personas.” The First Lady’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, says, “When people ask me, ‘What’s she really like?’ I say, ‘Well, you’re seeing it. That is exactly who she is and what she’s like.’ ”
As White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reminded me, the Obamas went from relative anonymity to worldwide superfame—potent symbols of once-unimaginable progress—in the blink of an eye. Most couples take the long road to the White House; the Obamas’ zip-line arrival left them no time to develop the public personas presumed to be essential for surviving a life subject to that level of scrutiny. “There is a distance that naturally happens as you rise up the political ladder,” says Jarrett. “And I think because his rise happened so fast there was no time to create that distance.” To illustrate, she tells me a story about the time in 2004 when she was vacationing with the Obamas on Martha’s Vineyard, shortly after state senator Obama gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that launched him onto the national stage. “He went out for a jog,” says Jarrett, “and he came back and he said, ‘Can you believe it? Someone took a photograph of me.’ He was shocked. And we were like, ‘Really?’ He and Michelle went back to southern Illinois and suddenly they were rock stars.”
The president chooses to see their rapid ascent as an advantage. “I think that’s been very helpful . . .” he says. “We were pretty much who we are by the time I hit the national scene. We didn’t grow up or come of age under a spotlight. We were anonymous folks. I was a state senator, but nobody knows who a state senator is. So most of our 30s and 40s were as a typical middle-class family. . . . That really didn’t change until I was 45 years old. And there’s something about having lived a normal life and raised kids.” Here he slips into the syntax of his younger self. “We had to figure out how to make a mortgage, payin’ the bills, goin’ to Target, and freakin’ out when . . . the woman who’s looking after your girls while Michelle’s working suddenly decides she’s quittin’. . . . All those experiences made us who we were, so that by the time this thing hit, it was hard for us to. . . .”
“Be different people,” says the First Lady. “And I think we are accountable to each other for being who we are. There’s no way I could walk in the door and be somebody different from who I’ve been with this man for 20-some-odd years. He would laugh me out of the house!” She goes on, “And we are also blessed with families who hold us accountable.”
“Exactly,” says the president.
This reminds me of something the First Lady’s brother told me. “I played basketball in England for two years,” said Craig Robinson, “and I didn’t realize it, but apparently, I developed somewhat of an accent, and my sister and my father killed me when I came back. They were like, ‘What happened? You go to England and you have an accent?’ It would have been the same thing if Michelle had gotten to be the First Lady and started acting differently. She would have heard it from me and my mom.”
“My mother doesn’t do interviews,” says the First Lady, “but let me tell you: She is not long on pretense. She’s the first one to remind us who we are. And it’s been very helpful having her living with us. . . . We can check reality against her sensibilities.”
“Now, in fairness,” says the president, “there is one thing that’s changed.” The First Lady looks at him. “What’s that?”
“Which is, I used to only have, like, two suits,” he says.
Now you must have dozens, I say.
“Thank God,” she says. “Now, let me tell you: This is the man who still boasts about, This khaki pair of pants I’ve had since I was 20.” The president throws his head back, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘You don’t want to brag about that.’ ” Jay Carney and the young staffers from the White House press office, who are all sitting on a sofa on the other side of the room, crack up.
“Michelle’s like Beyoncé in that song,” says the president. “ ‘Let me upgrade ya!’ She upgraded me.”
“The girls and I are always rooting when he wears, like, a stripe. They’re like, ‘Dad! Oh, you look so handsome. Oh, stripes! You go!’ ”
Taking fashion advice from the First Lady wouldn’t be the worst thing the president could do. After all, she has inspired a modern definition of effortless American chic. Later she tells me this about her relationship to fashion: “I always say that women should wear whatever makes them feel good about themselves. That’s what I always try to do. . . . I also believe that if you’re comfortable in your clothes it’s easy to connect with people and make them feel comfortable as well. In every interaction that I have with people, I always want to show them my most authentic self.”
The week I am in D.C. happens to be Secretary Hillary Clinton’s last week at the State Department, and just outside Valerie Jarrett’s office, glowing on the computer screen of her longtime assistant, Katherine Branch, is a photograph taken this very day of the president and the secretary: He is signing a presidential memorandum promoting gender equality and women’s issues globally as a priority at the Department of State, a longtime cause of Clinton’s. When I remind Jarrett of the bruising primary and the rancor that colored those days before Obama nominated Clinton to his Cabinet, she laughs and then brings up the recent joint interview the former rivals gave to 60 Minutes. “I saw him yesterday and I said, ‘Did you watch the interview?’ And he goes, ‘No, I lived the interview.’ And I said, ‘You gotta watch it. What you probably aren’t aware of is how the affection that you two have for one another just came through completely.’ And he said, ‘Well, of course it did. I love her.’ ”
As we talk, Jarrett draws my attention to an elaborately framed pair of documents on the wall above the table where we are sitting. It is a birthday gift from the president, given to her just nine days after he won reelection. I get up to study them. On the left is the “petition for universal suffrage,” dated January 29, 1866; on the right, a proposal from the House of Representatives, dated May 19, 1919: “Amendment to the Constitution extending the right of suffrage to women.”
“It’s, like, the real thing!” says Jarrett. “Signed by Susan B. Anthony!” The day she opened the present in the Oval Office, she stared at it for a minute, and as the significance of the gift dawned on her, she said, “Where did you get this?” And he said, “I’m the president. I can get things.” Reminding his best friend of the legacy of those women who have come before is thoughtful, but its underlying message is echt-Obama: Progress takes time. (Fifty-three years in this case.) When I mention this to the president, he lights up. “We talk about this all the time in the White House,” he says. “In some ways the changes that have taken place in this country are amazingly rapid. There are very few examples of countries where you go, basically in one person’s lifetime, from segregation to an African-American president. And yet, we live in a culture that is impatient, and so, if things don’t happen in one month or one year, folks start wondering what’s taking so long.”
David Axelrod no longer works in the White House, but there was no more beleaguered presence on television during the first term, doggedly defending his boss against the ideologues in his own party. “I was struck,” he says, “that there were so many who were unhappy about how long, for example, it took to end the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and there were some who felt that the health-care law was insufficient. And, you know, hanging on the wall in the Oval Office was the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a reminder that there was great disquiet among many in [Lincoln’s] Republican base that he didn’t sign it immediately. And there were those who felt it wasn’t enveloping enough. But it was what he could do, and it was momentous. And you are reminded of that constantly in that building, and it’s comforting to remember that you can only judge these things in the fullness of time.”
What’s astonishing is just how suddenly such liberal-dream issues like gun control, immigration reform, and marriage equality have dominated the outset of Obama’s second term. I point out to Axelrod that these would seem to be perfect lessons in presidential patience: how unseen events can create, out of thin air, political opportunities over once intractable issues. “There’s no question about it,” he says. “We have a chance now to get immigration done, whereas we didn’t have that chance in the last four years. The awareness of the gaping holes in our gun laws is much greater now as a result of the tragedy in Newtown. But you have to grab that moment. That’s how progress is made. And the longer you serve in the presidency, the more you learn that.”
Though President Obama faces moral quagmires of every imaginable sort in every part of the world, from the Keystone oil pipeline to drone strikes to peace in the Middle East, in the big picture, he will no doubt be remembered for ordering the assassination of Osama bin Laden and ending the war in Iraq and hopefully Afghanistan. But if he accomplishes even part of the agenda he laid out in his inaugural address, he has the chance to go down in history as one of the greatest domestic-policy presidents ever. The issues that he’s prioritized—health care, reviving the economy, education, and now, gun control, immigration reform, and marriage equality—are first and foremost family issues. The First Lady’s initiatives—military families and childhood nutrition and health—likewise are about as domestic as you can get. If you think about it, who better than the man who can’t wait to get home to his wife and kids every night at 6:30—the Dad-in-Chief—to carry the flag on what the future of the American Family should look like?
“Well, I’ll tell you,” says President Obama, his wife looking at him with a beatific smile as our interview winds down, “everything we have done has been viewed through the lens of family. And I mean family broadly conceived. I was raised by a single mom. We have kids in our family who were adopted. We have people from every race, every economic stratum; we have gay and lesbian couples who have been part of our lives for years. And all of them, what’s consistent is that sense that we look out for each other. And that’s the lens through which we’ve always viewed our public service. . . . Broadening this fierce sense that we have of: I’ve got your back. Beyond just the immediate family to the larger American family, and making sure everybody’s included and making sure that everybody’s got a seat at the table. . . .
“The work I did in the first couple of years to make sure we didn’t go into a Great Depression—that was family policy. Both of us, given our upbringings, know what it’s like when money is tight. Both of us know when a parent feels disappointed because they can’t do everything they can for their kids and the stresses and strains and the emotions that arise out of that. So, making sure people have jobs, making sure the economy is working, making sure that people’s savings aren’t dissipating—those have all been family policy as well. But there’s no doubt that as we stabilize the economy, part of what I’ve tried to argue, and certainly a major theme in my inauguration speech, was this idea that we’re all family, that we have obligations to each other, that we don’t just think about ourselves. This is a common enterprise. If I live in a city where I know kids are getting a good education, my life is better, even if they’re not my kids. If I know that women are getting paid the same as men for doing the same work, then when I have daughters, I’m going to feel confident that they’re going to be able to fulfill their dreams and ambitions. If I am looking out for that same-sex couple, making sure that they’ve got the same rights as everybody else does, then I’m confident that they’ll look out for somebody in my family who has some sort of difference, that they’re not going to be discriminated against, because that same principle applies. And that idea really is sort of at the heart of, not just my presidency, but who I am. And Michelle has applied that same idea with her work in Joining Forces and thinking about kids and nutrition. Look, they’re all our kids! They’re all our families.”
The day after my interview with the Obamas, I head back to the White House to attend a presentation ceremony for the National Science & Technology Medals laureates and their families. The Marine Corps band is playing jazz in the Entrance Hall, just inside the North Portico, as the attendees mill around, sipping soda and juice. Trumpets blare, “Ruffles and Flourishes” plays, and the president makes his entrance into the East Room. “If there is one idea that sets this country apart,” he says from his blue podium, “one idea that makes us different from every other nation on Earth, it’s that here in America, success does not depend on where you were born or what your last name is. . . .”
After the presentation, I am taken into the Blue Room, where there will be an opportunity for the medal recipients to pose for photographs with the forty-fourth president of the United States of America. Word comes that it will be another 20 minutes, and so a handful of staffers and I hang in the back of the room, scrolling through our BlackBerrys. Suddenly, a side door opens, and there he is, by himself, unannounced. The president spots me standing in the back of the room and shouts, “JonaTHAN!” It is how I imagine he might say my name on the court right after I sank a three-pointer just before the buzzer to win the game.
All the technology-medal recipients, most of them men in their 70s and 80s, are lined up on either side of the president for a group photo, which the president immediately begins to art-direct himself. You two get on this side. . . . We need one more person over here. . . . You stand next to me. That man is Art Rosenfeld, known in his field as “the godfather of efficient energy.” He is 86 and frail, and as they wait for some of the others to arrive, Rosenfeld struggles a bit. Just as the other men are being hustled into the room and lined up, Obama steadies Rosenfeld and then leans down and sweetly says in his ear, in a tone that every loving father in the world would recognize: “I gotcha.”
– March 14, 2013 12:01a.m.