Michelle Obama: Balancing Public Life vs. Private Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Becoming" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did the Obamas attempt to live a normal life while in the White House? What steps did Michelle take to ensure that she maintained a personal life?

After they moved into the White House, the Obama family quickly learned that their lives wouldn’t be the same. Michelle and Barack couldn’t even go to dinner and a movie without shutting down the streets of New York and Michelle struggled to balance her public life vs. her private life.

Continue reading to learn more about how Michelle Obama tried to balance her public and private lives after moving into the White House.

Balancing Public and Private Life

These chapters from Becoming focus on how the Obamas learn to navigate their public lives vs. private lives and Michelle’s fears about her family’s safety. Michelle is now firmly entrenched in her role as First Lady—and every day makes her more fully aware of the advantages and disadvantages of that role. 

At this point, Barack had been in office for four months when Malia and Sasha received the present they’d been promised throughout his campaign. Senator Ted Kennedy gave them Bo, a seven-month-old Portuguese water dog. The entire family loved Bo, and he was permitted to wander through most of the White House rooms. 

Date Night for the Obamas

About the same time as the puppy joined the family, Barack and Michelle went on a private date in New York City to have dinner and see a Broadway show. They had given up the customary date night they used to enjoy in Chicago, and the pair wanted to have an evening alone. Of course, the Secret Service had to plan every move, block off streets, and thoroughly  check out every patron who entered the restaurant. Since the couple had to travel in the presidential motorcade, streets were blocked off and traffic was halted. 

When they stood up to leave the restaurant, the other diners applauded them. Michelle felt flattered but uncomfortable, and she wondered whether some of the diners were happy they were leaving. At the theater, the Obamas’ arrival held up the start of the performance because of the necessary security checks. Even though Michelle enjoyed the show, she realized that she and Barack were a nuisance. The presidential couple could not go on a date outside of the White House without causing disruption. 

Michelle felt guilty for having wanted private time with her husband, and wondered how previous presidential couples had dealt with life in the public eye. Now that she was First Lady, it seemed like the press, the Republican Party, and an array of other detractors were judging every move she made.  

Fears About Her Family’s Safety 

Chapter 22 opens with Michelle describing a nightmare in which her daughter is attacked by a cheetah that is brought to the White House—along with a lion, a tiger, and a panther—for the Obama family to pet and mire. 

It was one of many nightmares Michelle had about her family’s safety. She felt uneasy that other people were in control of so many aspects of their lives. Secret Service agents would tell them when it was okay to cross the street; staffers would schedule bathroom breaks for their long drives. Michelle never had to worry about carrying car keys or cash. She found it nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to not be in control, especially since she had been taught self-reliance and self-sufficiency at an earlier age. 

The Halloween Party 

One of Michelle’s smaller but most enjoyable victories was convincing the President’s senior advisors to let her throw a big Halloween party for kids at the White House. At first, the advisors insisted it would be too frivolous and costly during America’s tough economic times. (“The optics are just bad,” they said). But Michelle argued that during tough times, it was important to make sure kids still had fun. On Halloween night in 2009, about 2,000 tiny pirates, princesses, and superheroes—the children of military families and White House staff—walked up the White House lawn to trick-or-treat with the President and First Lady. Michelle had found a way to combine her public and private lives.

Making Time for Girlfriends

Starting in 2011, Michelle made a concerted effort to start spending more time with her girlfriends, especially her old friends from Chicago. She recognized how much they supported her when she was a new mother, when she was on the campaign trail with Barack, and during other tough periods in her life.

Every few months, she’d invite a dozen friends to join her at Camp David, the woodsy presidential retreat in Maryland. Michelle encouraged her old friends to leave their families, careers, and responsibilities behind for a few days and just enjoy themselves. The women would exercise together, drive around in golf carts, and ride bikes. 

Michelle Obama: Balancing Public Life vs. Private Life

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Becoming summary:

  • How Michelle Obama went from the South Side of Chicago to the White House
  • Why much of her success came from her being determined from a young age
  • How Michelle Obama continues to push herself and discover new opportunities

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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