Bedtime stories, a Netflix show and rallying messages of hope — Michelle and Barack are good in a crisis. Susannah Butter salutes the real first couple of America
SUSANNAH BUTTER/Evening Standard/May 5, 2020
“In moments of crisis, we look out for one another. And we need leaders with empathy who will bring people together rather than drive them apart… We have to create something better on the other side of this.”
These are the rallying words of a leader but not one, unfortunately, who is currently in office. Barack Obama tweeted this Covid-19 crisis commentary to a country desperate for guidance. By glaring contrast, Obama’s successor in the White House has been suggesting people drink disinfectant and explaining that the reason the United States has reported one million cases of coronavirus is “because our testing is sooo much better than any other country”. It’s hardly the reassuring rhetoric we need. Obama is too dignified to comment on Donald Trump directly; instead, the former president’s tweets read like a sane strategy for how this could be managed differently.
“There’s no doubt the majority of Americans are yearning for Obama’s leadership right now,” Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to then vice-president Joe Biden at the White House, has said. People around the world still remember how Obama was at the helm amid the fallout ot the 2007/08 financial crisis, and when Ebola hit in 2014.
He has tweeted more frequently than usual, with 33 posts last month, identifying how the pandemic has “magnified the financial insecurity of too many American families and deep and real racial disparities — and the imbalanced burden on working moms”; and calling for a more comprehensive testing programme as the way to save lives and jobs. My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the non-profit organisation to support boys and young men of colour he set up in 2017, has online resources on how to access food, internet connection and advice for those who are struggling.
Working by his side is Michelle Obama. They are America’s parents, the people to whom the country still looks for leadership. Michelle was voted the world’s most admired woman in 2018 and 2019 in a Gallup poll, and her memoir Becoming has sold more than 10 million copies. That’s set to rise when a Netflix documentary of the same name lands on Wednesday. It is made by Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle’s production company, and follows Michelle on tour around the world promoting her memoir, including her talk at the Royal Festival Hall, where she had a secret first meeting with Meghan Markle.
Even if they are not in the White House, they still want to make a difference, says Pat Cunnane, who was an aide to Barack in the White House. “Mr and Mrs Obama are always looking for the best way to do as much good for as many people as possible. Their legacy will be told over a long period of time, but at the White House President Obama always said to his staff: ‘You’ll never have a better opportunity to do more good for more people than you do right now.’ Of course, that was true, but I think that’s still his attitude even now that he’s no longer president.”
Sarah Hurwitz, a speechwriter for the President and then head speechwriter for The First Lady, adds: “The Obamas’ greatest strengths are their fundamental decency, humanity, authenticity, and appreciation of nuance and complexity”. It’s unsurprising that there is demand for them to return to politics. Joe Biden, who has been endorsed by Barack, says he’d have Michelle as his running mate “in a heartbeat”. “She’s brilliant. She knows the way around. However I don’t think she has any desire to live in the White House again.”
Instead of getting involved in West Wing matters, she’s cheering up the world by reading stories on PBS Kids’s YouTube channel every Monday. Her debut was The Gruffalo. As her husband said, “she’s one of the best”, “it makes me nostalgic”. There’s nothing ostentatious in the background as she reads on screen, just books and pictures. Like many of us in lockdown, she’s shared old photos on Instagram – of her daughters. Sadly archive photos of the family dogs Bo and Sunny are yet to appear.
The Obamas are spreading ideas they’ve always believed in. Hurwitz, whose book Here All Along is out now, talks about how the Obamas were “big believers in the White House being ‘the People’s House’”. “Every time they hosted a cultural programme in the White House they would insist the performers came early and conducted a workshop for kids, particularly those who never imagined they would see the inside of the White House. You’d see kids in tutus dashing up the stairs to the East Room for a workshop with a renowned dancer. The Obamas wanted these kids, many of whom were from struggling communities, to walk around the White House like they owned the place, because they do.”
Jo Dibb, executive head at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, which Michelle has visited twice, sums up her power: “What makes Michelle Obama so special is her genuine interest in the lives of others and her ability to connect to everyone she meets.”
Michelle has thanked all the healthcare workers, including those in the NHS, and at the One World Together at Home concert she gave a stirring speech paying tribute to “everyone carrying us through this crisis”. “The coming days will not be easy but we will get through this crisis together,” she said, to global applause on Twitter
Michelle has pop cultural kudos. She has been doing the plank challenge on The Ellen Show and teamed up with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson to encourage people to register to vote. America’s two favourite couples have worked together before. Last year Hanks thanked Michelle for supporting military veterans and their carers.
The Obamas show how much can be achieved even if you are not in political office. “For most of us, Obama represents the king over the water, a beacon of sanity, decency and, yes, hope in a dystopian world,” says Mark Flanagan, chief executive of Portland Communications. “We know, as the Jacobites must have, that there is no going back, but yet we still savour every precious Obama utterance and contrast it with the bovine insanity of Trump. He jumps up and down like a toddler blaming everyone but himself. God help America. Meanwhile Obama captures the mood of togetherness perfectly.”