On Tuesday, Michelle Obama will celebrate her 53rd birthday by preparing to move out of the White House. She moved in shortly after she turned 45, and in recent months has dropped not-so-subtle hints that she’s ready to leave. (“We’re almost out of there!” she gushed to Stephen Colbert in September.) This week it will finally happen, ending a two-term stretch for a first lady who is widely loved, and who probably wishes you never even learned her name.
It’s less, perhaps, that Michelle never wanted to be a political wife and more that she never wanted to be a famous one. But first ladies are always famous, a condition compounded by the particular facts of her life: her youth and beauty, her photogenic family, her intelligence and ambition, and the historic nature of being the nation’s first black first lady. She surely knew some of this on February 10, 2007, the day her husband announced his candidacy for president while she and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, then just 6 and 9, stood by his side and smiled. A week earlier, the future first lady joked about the road ahead and the bumps of the one behind: “Oh nooo,” she responded sarcastically when asked if politics had put strains on her marriage. “She was the hardest sell,” President Obama conceded in a 60 Minutes segment that aired last week.
“Michelle never fully took to the scrutiny,” Obama told 60 Minutes. “I mean, she’s thrived as a first lady, but it’s not her preference.”
Her diplomatic go-to was that she was glad her husband was president, but she just wished he’d done it when he wasn’t married to her. After he won the election in 2008, she quit her job as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She left behind her home, the city where she was raised. She, Princeton- and Harvard-educated and her husband’s supervisor on the day they met, became a professional hostess — a handshake at the end of a greeting line and, often, a walking photo op.
The office of first lady is a bizarre construct in 2017: unsalaried, all-consuming, high stakes, all the primness of past decades and the requirements of today’s 24-hour news cycle. And at times, she had some fun with it. She did “Carpool Karaoke” with Missy Elliott and James Corden. She recorded a “turnip for what” Vine. She danced with Jimmy Fallon (twice). She participated in a push-up contest with Ellen DeGeneres. She dunked, literally, on LeBron James:
She has been rewarded with the country’s adoration, garnering approval ratings in the mid 60s. But she has also seemed acutely aware of the trappings of fame. At the White House, she fashioned herself into a fearsome protector of what little privacy her family was afforded; that the Obama daughters have only rarely been in the news — and that they have almost entirely avoided the paparazzi treatment given to other famous political children, like Prince William and Kate Middleton’s two young children, or Chelsea Clinton — is a mark of her success.
Over the past eight years, the Obamas, whose date nights became the stuff of legend, have been slotted into the role of America’s sweethearts. Barack’s October Instagram post in honor of the couple’s 24th wedding anniversary has nearly 900,000 likes; that month, they were on the cover of Essence with the caption “Grace & Power.” But the reality is that if politics had strained their relationship prior to 2008, it has surely done so even more in the years since. Obama was in California for the past two Valentine’s Days; the pair has frequently spent time apart. Asked on 60 Minutes what he’ll do on the morning of January 21, the president replied, “I’m going to spend time with Michelle, and you know, we got some catching up to do. We’ve both been busy.”
Michelle Obama is not going to get what she wants. Or at least, not exactly.
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she described her family’s old life in Chicago as “filled with simple joys”: soccer games, visits to her mother’s house, laid-back date nights. Not to mention the even more quotidian aspects of life, ones that have become impossible to replicate since her husband took office: the visits to Target, the ability to roll down a car window and feel the air hit her face. “You know, I haven’t been in a car with the windows open in about seven years, if you can imagine that,” she told Ellen DeGeneres in 2015 of her post–White House hopes. “So I’m going to spend that first year just hanging out the window.”
Once she leaves the White House, she will likely write a memoir, as many outgoing first ladies have done. She will probably work with her husband’s foundation and do some philanthropic work. She will almost certainly not return to her job at the University of Chicago, or to any position like it, even if the Obamas move back to the city after their younger daughter finishes high school in two years. This is less because of her decade-long absence from the workforce than the simple notion that her old life, the one she led until eight or nine years ago, is gone.
At 53, she will never have a normal life again, nor any of the things that it entails: a normal job, a normal schedule, a normal trip to the grocery store. She told Oprah Winfrey in December that she wants her anonymity back, lamenting, “There’s nowhere I can go in the world and just sit at a table and have a cup of coffee and watch the world.” She won’t get that. She will be a celebrity for the rest of her life.
And there are advantages to that. She will be able to rally support — financial, cultural — for things she believes in, political and otherwise. She will be wealthy to a degree that she — Michelle has said that when she and Barack were first married, their combined monthly student loan bills were more than their monthly mortgage payment — could scarcely have thought possible. She will remain a style icon, with all the attendant glories: the designers begging to dress her and perhaps in time to collaborate with her, the fawning magazine tributes, the cool parties. She will go to so many cool parties, and she will be followed around by the Secret Service at each. She will probably not get to roll down the window very often.
But if the fame will endure, the cinch around her life, at least, will finally be gone. While she has repeatedly called her departure from the home where her children were raised bittersweet, and while she said in January that serving as the first lady was the honor of her life, there were many aspects of the role that she seemed to push against, perhaps none quite like the fact that we require our first ladies to have soft edges — to play nice and refrain, by and large, from speaking their minds. But Michelle Obama — who has spoken eloquently about race, among other things, and sometimes been criticized for it — is nobody’s blank canvas. (She is also a first-class thrower of shade.) Although anonymity will never again be hers, there is this: In the coming years, the spotlight she has often tried to escape will illuminate what she has to say.