Michelle Obama The First Lady chats with Editor in Chief Rosemary Ellis about the challenges of White House life, the cause she'll never abandon, and the prayer that pulls her family closer.
GOOD HOUSEKEEPING: One thing I wonder about is how you keep a sense of play in your incredibly busy life - there are viral videos of you playing double Dutch with jump ropes! How do you do that?
FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: I think Barack and I have built a life together that is full of play. Over the course of our relationship, he's really helped me not to worry so much. That is more his spirit than mine, though people think he's the stuffy one.
GH: I wasn't going to say "stuffy," but he does seem like Mr. Serious, while you seem like you can go off script more easily.
MO: It's true, but he also has the harder job. So there's Barack Obama the President, who's out in the Rose Garden at a press conference, and then there's my guy, who always reminds me life is interesting and that it's about the perspective you bring to the situation. So I've learned to lighten up. Now I love having fun. I am silly. I come from a family of laughter, game playing, tricks, jokes - all that. I love to laugh! The kids are the same way.
GH: You rib each other a little bit....
MO: You can't survive here if you don't. My view of life is that it has to be fun, and you have to choose the fun in it. We keep things light in the East Wing.
And we have the coolest events. I mean, I'm going to be playing soccer with SpongeBob soon! There's an e-mail chain in Presidential records about whether or not SpongeBob could actually hold a [tennis] racket in his arms; because he cannot, we will play soccer. Those are my e-mails. (Laughter)
GH: That makes me think of your mission to get kids to eat healthy and exercise. If you're in the White House for another four years, is there another big issue you have your eye on?
MO: Health is still going to be a big issue, everything from nutrition to AIDS education to wellness issues for women around the world. You know, it's endless. But on the topic of nutrition and on the well-being of our children - we women often don't react out of our own self-interest; we react on our children's behalf. We need to give women the space and the resources to be able to feel good about taking care of themselves. That's a forever conversation that we need to have in this country.
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GH: Is that the campaign issue that's closest to your heart?
MO: There are so many: economic empowerment and security are key. One of the first bills Barack signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but we have more work to do, with a woman still earning 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Women are often the breadwinners. Our success as women is the key to our families' successes and our communities' successes.
GH: How have you handled the scrutiny of being in the spotlight over the past several years?
MO: I'd say I've learned from past First Ladies, and my husband continues to be a really solid compass for me. Barack is an optimist, and that optimism keeps you steady because he always has faith in the American people. He knows that sometimes things get confusing, but folks want to do the right thing and figure it out. When you operate from that vantage point, it's easy to not take [criticism] personally. You can hunker down and get the work done. He helps me keep focused when I'm feeling off-center. A good chat with him on the balcony - it always puts me in the right place.Michelle Obama with Rosemary Ellis
GH: Well, he's been dubbed "No Drama Obama," right? He's the guy who always keeps his cool.
MO: I think that's translated throughout the entire administration. I mean, I will say this (he will not): You don't have a lot of nonsense issues happening in this administration. This administration has been dealing with real problems - stabilizing an economy, trying to get health care passed, looking at immigration. Huge issues. There's nothing you can point to in terms of character flaws or missteps or staff members - this has been a very no-drama administration, and that's because it starts at the top.
GH: So what would cause him to lose his cool? What does cause him to lose his cool?
MO: You know, I can get him to lose his cool. (Laughter)
GH: Tell us more, Mrs. Obama!
MO: You know, he is very protective of the girls and me. I will tell you that there are some areas where he will go out of his way to inconvenience himself and his life to make sure the girls and I experience as few bumps as possible. So, you know, he doesn't want anybody to really mess with us. He'll take the heat in a second.
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GH: And how have the four years in the White House changed your relationship with him?
MO: No matter what you do in the administration, there's nothing that prepares you for this life. And we're the only two people who really understand it. So he's my most important confidant when it comes to just knowing how the day was. And Barack expects me to be completely real with him; he's not [overly] sensitive, he's not touchy. He's somebody who can hear the truth. He's a good listener. But he expects the same thing from me. That's brought us closer. We always look out for each other in this process.
GH: Day to day, how do you two stay connected?
MO: We work out together every day. I usually get up to the gym a little before he does, because I start my day a bit earlier - [I have] hair, makeup, things that he doesn't have to do. I continue to remind him of that. He usually gets up there when I'm halfway through, so we spend the morning checking in, watching SportsCenter. And on the weekends we'll catch a movie together, have a quiet dinner.
GH: What has been the toughest personal challenge of the last four years?
MO: Setting up our family in the White House in front of the world, for all to see - that has been a challenge. And trying to do it in a way that keeps our kids grounded and feeling like they're first in our life - that, too. Figuring out how to take on issues that will be impactful to the country and how to do so with integrity. So with Let's Move [the program for kids' health and nutrition] and Joining Forces [the program that supports military families], for example, it was important to lay a foundation of credibility personally, as First Lady, before we entered those arenas.
That's why with planting a garden, understanding the policy and beginning to have conversations with the spouses of military leaders, setting up an agenda so that we could actually get something done...[I was involved, because] it was important to make sure that we weren't making promises we couldn't keep.
For military families, I've told my staff time and time again, "I don't want to be another disappointment in the lives of families where people have said, 'I'm going to help you' and 'I'm going to do this' or 'I'm going to do that.' If we say we're going to do something, let's make sure we do it."
That's something I've learned from Barack. He has basically done everything in his power to accomplish what he said he would accomplish. We both operate with the value that you do what you say you are going to do - or else you just don't say it. Once you lay out goals that you want people to embrace, you've got to follow through.
GH: And what has been your proudest moment as First Lady?
MO: (Sighs) There are many. Some of them - I don't want to say, "proud moments," but times when Barack and I feel most relevant - are instances when we can give people comfort just by our presence. So we have had a number of unfortunate tragedies since our time here began, and you always try to look at the positive. But being there for a family who's just lost a loved one, a family member; being able to give a hug to a woman who's just lost her husband; spending time with the family of a soldier who's just lost all of his limbs and is 22 years old and has three kids...being able to symbolically, emotionally, and physically be there for people, and knowing that it matters, is something kind of neat about this job.
GH: How do you think your four years in the White House have affected your relationship with your girls?
MO: This experience has brought us closer together as a family. One of the things Barack has just been ferocious about is protecting his time with us. Dinner is at 6:30 P.M. If it means he has to go back and work meetings afterward, he'll do it. You know, he's coached Sasha's basketball team for the last two years. Now, obviously he's an assistant, because there are some Saturdays he's not there.
GH: I'm glad. He shouldn't be in charge of the country and the basketball team.... (Laughing)
MO: You know, basketball is his thing, and when he saw that Sasha was getting the bug, he was ready to jump in there and just be a part of encouraging that. Plus, he loves the girls on the team. He's like, "Those are my girls. I'm so proud."
I'm happy to have a husband who in the midst of this storm is willing to make sacrifices for his family. That's why I'm such a ferocious supporter of him - not just because I'm his wife, but because he's somebody who cares about his kids and his family, and he's fighting for the same thing for everyone else.
GH: One last question: Do you pray? And if so, do you have a favorite prayer?
MO: We pray at every meal. Our prayer - the kids usually say it - is, "Thank you, Lord, for the delicious food. Thank you for our friends and family and everything we have. Hope we all live long and strong. Amen." That's our family prayer, and then we clink glasses. We've done that since the kids were little.
But prayer is a daily part of our lives, because when things don't make sense - and in many instances in this role, a lot of stuff just doesn't, and you're looking for your way and you're wondering, Am I going down the right path? - the only one who can direct you is God. The only thing is your faith - just to say, Stay the course. These times are rocky, but you're doing the right thing. So, yeah, we draw on prayer on a daily basis.
And I'm not public about it, because I think religion is a very personal thing, but you couldn't do this [job] without a higher power keeping you going. I think that's why so many people who inhabit this house have deep religious values, because you don't even try to get here without that. You need something to keep you lifted up. And we have hundreds, thousands, of people who are praying for us every day. I meet them as they stand on lines, and I just tell them, "Don't stop. Send the prayers, because that's what's keeping us tall."
GH: I bet they will. Thank you so much for talking to us.
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