With the president's bid for reelection at full throttle, Barack and Michelle Obama tell Oprah about the highs and lows of the past four years and the simple pleasures that keep them strong.
Although we have seen each other on several occasions since, the last time I interviewed the president for O was all the way back in 2004. Back then, Barack Obama was just a state senator from Illinois, but he'd lit up that year's Democratic National Convention with a brilliant, galvanizing speech that really put him on the political map. Suddenly, the hot topic was whether he might be presidential material.
Cut to July 2012 and I'm walking into the stately Green Room at the White House for a sit-down interview with the president and First Lady of the United States. You could almost see the weight of the job resting on his shoulders as he strolled past the silk-covered walls and gilt-framed oil paintings, yet he still had that easy positivity and casual flair, with his suit jacket hooked on his index finger, over his shoulder. (He may be the leader of the free world, but Barack Obama was down-to-earth enough to help move a White House coffee table for the photographer.) Michelle Obama, meanwhile, had a poise and a bearing that emanated "First Lady"—until the president jokingly told her she had a little something stuck in her teeth.
Before the interview, we got caught up; I told the president about the wonderful book I was reading (Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers) and he told me about the best movie he'd seen in three years (Beasts of the Southern Wild). There was a plate of chocolate chip cookies between us, but with healthy eating never far from her mind, Michelle suggested to an aide that it be replaced with a bowl of apples. That accomplished, we dove in.
Barack Obama: I don't think I'm all that different, actually. The things that led me to run for office—trying to figure out how we create an economy where everybody's got a fair shot and if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams—I'm still passionate about. That's still what drives me every single day. My abiding faith in the American people is undiminished. I think that being in this office has made me even more appreciative of my family in ways that I didn't think I could be. I already loved them so much, but when you're under all these pressures, to come home every single night—at least when I'm in town—and have Michelle and the girls there, and draw joy from them... They are my balance and they keep me grounded, and that's truer now than it's ever been.
O: The moment you see them, does everything change and lift?
BO: They just give me perspective. We have dinner at 6:30 every night, especially during the school year, although they're getting old enough now where during the summers they're, like, "See ya." They give me the long view, and whatever fussing I've been dealing with with Congress, suddenly Malia's breaking it down, telling me kids are thinking about this issue or that issue....
Michelle Obama: Sometimes I don't even know what he's gone through over the course of the day until after dinner, after Bo's been walked and we sit down and I listen and I think, "Man, he's been dealing with all that." Because when he walks in the door every night, it's like the light goes on in him and he is all focused on us.
O: So you can compartmentalize?
MO: Oh, he's very good at that.
O: Other changes since four years ago?
BO: There's no doubt that I'm a better president now than when I first took office. This is not a job where there's a manual, and over time you get a better sense of what's important, what's not, how to see around corners and anticipate problems, as opposed to just managing problems once they've arrived.
O: So what have the past four years taught you about yourself that you didn't know?
BO: They reinforced my belief that when the stakes are very high, I can clear my mind and make hard decisions. And that I'm resilient. That I tend to not get too high or too low but to stay steady, and that's helpful in this job.
O: Was the decision to go after Osama bin Laden one of those high-stakes moments?
BO: That's an example of being able to maintain clarity and push aside the noise and anxieties that come with a big decision so you're looking at it pretty squarely.
O: What was the defining moment, when there were so many people around you saying, "Perhaps we shouldn't go for it"?
BO: I had so much confidence in the Navy SEALs who were carrying out the operation that I knew they could get in and get out. There might have been a huge political cost if bin Laden wasn't there, but once I felt confident that they could get in and get out safely, then it was an easier decision to say, "Go."
O: Does that decision come from within?
BO: It comes from within, but it also reflects the growing familiarity and the incredible appreciation I have for our military. One of the great things about being commander in chief is getting to know our men and women in uniform in a very intimate way, whether it's visiting Walter Reed and seeing our wounded soldiers, or being on a base and talking to families, or interacting with them on missions. They're the best of the best: always thinking about the mission, not thinking about credit, not thinking about who's up front. There's a culture we've built in our military that I think the country as a whole would benefit from.
O:[To Michelle] How does being married to the president of the United States change the nature of your marriage?
MO: I don't, as my mom would say, sweat the small stuff in our relationship. Because when I think of day-to-day irritations that you might have with the one you love, they're nothing compared to the bigger task at hand. We get along better because every interaction is important—because we just never know when things are going to get busy. I never know what he's dealing with on any given day until after we've had the conversation.
O: He doesn't tell you everything?
MO: No, and I don't want to know everything, frankly. I think he can handle the stress, thank goodness, but in order for me to focus on our kids and to serve in my role, a lot of times I don't need to get into the details.
O: So you find yourself holding back because of the stress he's under?
MO: You know, the small stuff just isn't as important. I might start thinking that I want to talk to him about an issue I have with what he said the other day. But you know what, it's not really that important.
O: Are you stockpiling a list of issues you'd like to discuss in 2016? [All laugh.]
BO: That's gonna be bad.
O: In 2016...
BO: As we're flying off out of D.C....
O: Yes. "Here's my list, honey."
BO: "I have some scrolls...."
O: "Let's see, in February 2014..."
BO: "I gave you a break then, but now..." No, hopefully not.
BO: The single most important thing I did was avert a depression, which is one of those things that you don't put on a bumper sticker when so many folks are still having a tough time and we're nowhere near where we need to be. But sometimes people forget how severe the crisis was back in March 2009 and how we were in a whole new territory when it came to the financial system collapsing. Being able to guide us through that was important because if that doesn't work, nothing else works. Legislatively, the thing I'm most proud of is healthcare, and I will continue to be most proud of it because not only do we have 30 million people who are going to get healthcare, we've got six million young people who are able to stay on their parents' plan until they're 26. I constantly get letters from young people who say, "If it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have gone to get a checkup. The doctor found a tumor, it got caught early, I'm getting treated, I'm gonna have a full life." And look, it exacted a big political cost, it was tough and controversial, but I very much believe it was the right thing to do. And when you meet families who have been impacted by this, it's gratifying because that's something that outlives you—that goes beyond the presidency and hopefully my own life.
O: Even if the political cost were that you lose this election, would healthcare still have been worth it?
BO: Yes. But I actually think that if I were to lose the election, it would not be because of healthcare; it would be because the economy is still at a place with a lot of folks out of work and the housing market just beginning barely to come back, and people feeling pretty worn out over what they had to go through, not only over the past four years but the decade before that, where their incomes and their wages weren't going up. They were working harder but not seeing much of a benefit.
O: Okay, so you passed landmark healthcare legislation, you averted a depression, and yet there are many people in your base who are not as excited now as they were in 2008 when you were just a senator from Illinois. Why do you think that is? What could you or should you have done differently?
BO: Well, I think it's important to know that the vast majority of people who were excited in 2008 are still really enthusiastic. We've got more volunteers now than ever, and they're engaged, they're motivated, they're not paying attention to the ups and downs of polls or Washington. I think that where we have seen slippage would be among voters who were always voting primarily with their pocketbook. A lot of them are still struggling. And if you're still struggling and your house is $100,000 underwater, and you lost your job or have to take a pay cut—those folks are still frustrated. One thing you learn in this job is that even if something's not your fault, you're still responsible. And that's how it should be. So I've got this campaign to persuade those voters that yes, we're not where we need to be, but I'm fighting every single day on your behalf to make your lives better. I'm on your side, and I've got a concrete plan and a vision for how, over time, we can solve these problems that weren't created overnight and won't be solved overnight. I guess the last thing I would say is that I do think there were a lot of people who hoped I could change Washington culture and the polarization.
O: I was just going to ask about that.
BO: I regret that the response of the Republican Party after my election was not "We're in a big crisis, let's all get together and move forward," but rather "Let's obstruct and make a tough economy entirely the president's albatross." I would like to have seen more cooperation. Are there things I could have done at the margins that might have changed some attitudes among Republicans? It's hard sometimes to know whether they were amenable to change. A great example is, right after I came into office and we knew we were going to have to pass some sort of stimulus package to stop the free fall in job losses, I scheduled a meeting with the House Republican caucus to present my ideas and to hear from them. And as I was driving up to Capitol Hill, a news release was sent out saying they were opposed. But they hadn't heard yet what, exactly, we were planning to do—we hadn't had that conversation.
BO: Well, look, politics in this country is always tough. It's always contentious, because this is a big country and a diverse country, and people have strong points of view, and we've got a great diversity of interests.
O: But are you surprised at how bad it's gotten?
MO: The truth is, there's a difference between what you see on the news and in this bubble and what you see when you go out there, and I just wish more people had the opportunity that we had to go to Iowa or Florida. People are fired up. They are feeling hopeful. They are, as Barack said, as engaged as they were three and a half years ago, even though times are tough.
BO: Michelle's right—when you travel around the country and even talk to folks who don't plan to vote for me, there is not that acrimony you see in Washington. People are courteous and they listen, and if they disagree, they usually present their disagreements in ways that don't imply you're somehow un-American or out to get them. That's not how Americans think. That's unique to a culture in Washington that we have not changed as much as I would have liked. Am I frustrated by that? Absolutely, and we're gonna keep on working at it. My attitude is I'm just gonna stay on it.
O: Could you have reached out more?
BO: You know, we've reached out constantly and will continue to, because most of the ideas I present, at one time or another, have been supported by Republicans. The healthcare bill is the greatest example. There's a reason it's difficult for Governor Romney to talk about the healthcare bill—because it's his bill! He passed it in Massachusetts. And the idea of the Recovery Act—a third of it was tax cuts, and traditionally, Republicans are in favor of tax cuts. So some of this has just been politics, but we are going to keep reaching out and presenting the best ideas possible for how to grow the economy and build a strong middle class. We are going to have to break a stalemate, though, because I do think at the moment the Republican Party has decided to think in very ideological terms about how we should manage this economy, and it involves cutting taxes as much as possible for especially the wealthiest, eliminating as many regulations as possible, and letting the free market do whatever it wants. That's not been historically how we grow. We have to invest in education, in rebuilding broadband lines and roads and runways, and it's important that we bring back American manufacturing and regulations to prevent consumers from being cheated. All those things are important. And a safety net for those most in need.
O: I meant to ask this when we were talking about healthcare: Is Chief Justice John Roberts your new best friend?
BO: [Laughs.] He's a very smart, very capable person. I have to say, I always was optimistic, much more optimistic than everybody else was, that this law would be upheld.
O: Did you think you'd have his vote?
BO: I actually did.
O: You did?
BO: I thought we'd also get Justice Kennedy's vote, so I was surprised that it was only five to four as opposed to six to three. But there's no doubt that Justice Roberts, both in his reading of the Constitution and his recognition of the role of the court, decided that it would be very damaging for the court and the country to overturn this law.
O: Have you spoken to him since?
BO: No; generally we're pretty careful about that, for separation-of-powers reasons.
O: You're not allowed to give him a high five?
BO: I can't call him up and say, "Thank you, my buddy."
O: I just read that 18 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Americans overall still think you are Muslim. That's one in ten people. Can you tell me what it means to you to be a Christian?
BO: What it means is that I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that his example of caring and treating others as you want to be treated, and expressing loving compassion for all of God's children and this beautiful planet, are obligations I now have to take on myself. You asked me how I've changed. One way—I think it was Lincoln who said, If you weren't religious before you became president, this office will make you religious. Because, you know, we pray every day.
O: Do you involve God in your decisions in your presidency and if so, in what way?
BO: I'm in a constant conversation with God and that voice that is true about doing the right thing. And sometimes just giving strength when you're feeling low. There are going to be ups and downs in this job, like any other job. The interesting thing is, the questions I deal with are big and have worldwide impact.
O: Because, as you said to me in a previous interview, the little questions are already answered before they can get to you.
BO: The easy questions don't come to me. Just the tough ones. But the emotions that I go through during a day are probably the emotions a teacher goes through just trying to reach kids, and some days are good and some days are tough. They're the emotions that a mom might be going through when she's trying to work and look after her kids and hold everything together. Where your faith comes in, I think, is helping you get through the bad days, but also giving you some perspective on the good days and making sure that you're focused not just on yourself but on others.
O: All right, tell me something you like about your opponent, other than his love of family or country.
BO: Well, I really like his healthcare bill that he passed in Massachusetts. [All laugh.] It was great.
O: When we talked in 2009, you gave yourself a B+ as president. What would you give yourself now?
BO: You know, right now it's time for the American people to do the grading. But the one thing I always say is, I made a promise in 2008. I said I wasn't a perfect man—Michelle could testify to that—and I promised I wouldn't be a perfect president, but I'd wake up every single day working as hard as I could for the people who elected me, and that promise I've kept.
O: Do you have a personal mantra you live by?
BO: "Thank you for what I've received." This is the little prayer I say every night. "Thanks for all the blessings that I've been given, thank you for the joy of my family, and making me an instrument in your world." So the thing I'm thinking about every day is, how do I align my thoughts and my actions with what's right and what's true? And sometimes I fail, whether it's in personal relationships or my professional work—I'll screw up like everybody else.
O:[To Michelle] What does he do for you that makes you feel loved and appreciated?
MO: It's time—time and attention. Even when the waters are rough, he can just settle into our life together as a family. He can put as much attention into what I need on any given day or what I'm feeling. He knows who the girls' friends are and has the right questions to ask. He's keeping up with their assignments and their games and their worlds. Our lives are equally important. For him to be able to do that in the midst of all that he has to confront as president, particularly in these times, is something I cherish.
O: Do you do anything to embarrass your kids?
BO: You know, for my 50th birthday, we had a bunch of friends up at Camp David and they decided to do a little roast. So the girls came up, and they had a list, each of them, of "why I love my Daddy." And one of Malia's was "You're just the right amount of embarrassing. You know the line between embarrassing and funny, and you're always right on the line."
O: Wow, that's good.
BO: But the one that actually touched me most was when she said, "When I smile, you smile, and when I cry, you cry, and when I'm happy, you're happy."
MO: Everything around here is handmade by everybody.
O: Can you order out here?
MO: We haven't tried to.
O: No need.
MO: We don't bring home doggie bags, either.
O: Okay, next—the song that makes you turn up your radio or iPod.
MO: There are so many; right now it's "So Fly," by Elle Varner.
O: Get out.
MO: I'm sorry. Malia turned me on to her. I love that song. [To the president] What about you?
BO: Anything by Stevie Wonder—"Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," because I can sing the whole thing verbatim.
O: All right. What's your other hidden talent?
BO: The problem is, our talents are no longer hidden. Like Michelle's hula-hooping...
O: Or double Dutch...
BO: I'm a pretty good pool player now. We have a pool table here, so I've been honing my skills. I may enter some contests after the presidency.
O: I know this doesn't apply to you now, but perhaps you can remember: a household chore that you know you're good at.
MO: For me, it's cleaning the bathrooms. That was my chore when I was younger. We had one bathroom for four people, and I could make it sparkle.
O: For the record, mine is stain removal, but anyway...
BO: Stain removal.
O: It excites me, to this day. Yup.
MO:[To the president] Now, what chore are you good at?
BO: Well, according to you, none. [All laugh.] But what I lack in skill I make up for in enthusiasm.
O: You never have to do a chore again once you come in here, though.
MO: Yeah, I'm thinking back.... You shoveled. You would shovel out the cars.
O: Shovel, okay.
MO: You'd always clean the snow off the cars.
BO: That was big. You try chipping some ice off some windshields when it's five below at 6 in the morning.
O: In Chicago, shoveling's big.
BO: Doing her car first.
O: All right, finish this sentence: "To my critics, I say..."
BO: To my critics I say, I'm not done yet.
O:[To Michelle] Do you have any critics, Miss Most Popular?
MO: You know, I don't think in those terms, I really don't. I'm always trying to give it 110 percent, and I'm always putting it all on the table.
O: Finish this sentence: "My vision for the world is..."
BO: We are going through historic times, and my vision is a world, first of all, in which America continues to be that one indispensable nation. Because we're taking care of our own people, because our economy is strong and our middle class is growing, and people feel like hard work is rewarded, and we are continuing to expand opportunity and diversity and tolerance and respect. If we do all those things, then I think we can continue to export those values around the world. And I do think that for all the pain and the heartache and tragedy that has happened, the human race continues to evolve. We're actually probably less violent now than at any time in history. Women are seeing their roles expand. There is less tolerance of racism or homophobia or child abuse than there was, even though obviously it still occurs. Michelle accuses me of being a congenital optimist, but it's true. I think people are capable of great evil but are fundamentally good. And I want America to continue to be on the side of expanding justice and freedom and opportunity so that Malia and Sasha, when they're raising their kids, will be able to look back and say this was one more turn in a better direction for humanity.
O: Final question: "What I know for sure is..."
BO: The thing I know for sure is that at the end of my life, what I'm going to remember is the love I felt for my family and my friends, and whatever good I did for other people. And it is interesting being in this office, because you see people from every walk of life. For us, who came from pretty modest backgrounds, we've seen highs and we've seen lows, rich people and poor people; we know what it's like to be famous and powerful and not so famous and powerful. And the one constant is hugging your kids, or sharing a laugh with your spouse, or knowing that you helped somebody at a time of need. Those are the things I'll remember. It'll be Michelle's laugh and Malia's smile, or some woman I met who said, "You helped me get through a tough time." It won't be the pomp and circumstance and titles and Air Force One.
MO: What I know for sure is that all the sacrifice and challenges we face are worth it if we're creating a better future for our kids. I just think if the adults are always thinking about the world we want to leave for our kids, we're going to make the right choices every single time.