Chapters 19 & 20

Summary: Chapter 19

Conscious of being the first Black president and First Lady, the Obamas are extra-careful about appearances during the transition; for example, Barack insists they pay their White House move-in costs out of their own pocket, instead of using allocated federal funds. Departing President Bush ensures that the handoff between administrations is as smooth as possible, while First Lady Laura Bush makes Michelle feel welcome during a tour of the Obamas’ new home. Faced with hundreds of decisions related to the upcoming inaugural celebration, and to White House décor, Michelle delegates what she can and hires help as needed.

Michelle is glad to have the vice president’s family around, because the Biden grandkids have become great friends with Malia and Sasha, and Michelle herself feels close to Jill Biden. Determined to help struggling military families like those she met on the campaign trail, Michelle she knows she will have an ally in Jill, since the Bidens’ son, Beau, is serving in Iraq with the National Guard.

Secret Service protection changes the Obamas’ life drastically. The president always travels with a twenty-car motorcade, and agents accompany Malia and Sasha to their new schools. Only Michelle’s mother, persuaded to move to Washington for the sake of the girls, will live somewhat like an ordinary citizen for the next eight years. Declining Secret Service protection, she will slip in and out of the White House alone, as she pleases.

On Inauguration Day, after the swearing-in ceremony and a two-hour parade in sub-freezing temperatures, Michelle and Barack make the rounds of ten different inaugural balls. At the end of the evening, just as a private White House party for a couple of hundred friends is getting started, an exhausted Michelle has reached her limit. When Barack tells her, “It’s okay,” she flees upstairs and into her strange new bed.

Summary: Chapter 20

The goal of the White House operation is to make life easy for the president. Barack has aides for everything from briefing books to shoe shining, and because he now lives within walking distance of his office, he starts being on time for dinner. However, White House life is expensive, because while the First Family does not pay rent or staff salaries, it does pay for all food and consumable supplies. The residence staff are kind and discreetly efficient. Many of them like to visit with Michelle’s mother, in her quarters on the floor above the main residence. Michelle and Barack make sure that the girls feel at home while remembering to be respectful to everyone. Arranging get-togethers with school friends involves complicated logistics, but the visiting kids quickly learn to forget about where they are.

There are frustrations. Michelle finds Republicans needlessly hostile during Barack’s first speech before Congress. A short while later, during an official visit to Great Britain, Michelle causes a minor scandal by hugging the Queen—who, however, appears not to have minded at all. The next day, at a London girls’ school where nearly all the students are working-class and dark-skinned, Michelle is filled with emotion and hugs every girl she can.

Michelle decides that as First Lady, she wants to promote healthy eating. Sam Kass, now on the White House staff, secures a plot on the South Lawn for planting herbs and vegetables. Michelle finds peace in digging in the dirt alongside local schoolchildren. After the seeds are planted, she and Sam must wait and trust that something good will come up.

Analysis: Chapters 19 & 20

Chapter 19 opens the final section of the book, “Becoming More,” in which Michelle moves beyond becoming part of a family unit to becoming an important figure for the whole country. In the previous sections, Michelle has worked to define herself as a woman, wife, and mother, and now she must find the confidence to occupy her new role as First Lady of the United States. As the first Black FLOTUS, Michelle realizes that expectations for her will be different than they were for those of her white predecessors. Michelle calls up the old maxim that Black people have to be twice as good to get half as far as the white people do, and she and Barack attempt to step into their roles with civility and grace. Barack decides that the family will use their own money to fund their move into the White House, and Michelle is careful to instruct her daughters to treat the staff politely and to make their own beds. Michelle’s mother even insists on doing her own laundry. Though they are surrounded by formality and regulation, Michelle attempts to infuse the White House with a more casual air and create a comfortable environment for everyone within its walls.

In her first large initiative as First Lady, Michelle’s vegetable garden becomes a symbol of the lasting positive change she hopes to enact in her new position. Though she is unsure how her efforts will be received and how food and beverage corporations will respond to her messages about healthy eating, she sees the garden as a way to teach children and their families about the value of fresh-food diets and healthy living. Though she is not a gardener, with Sam Kass’s help, she becomes both a student and a teacher. As she plants the vegetable seedlings with a group of local children, she is delighted to answer their questions and feels at ease amidst a group that has no interest in judging her. The garden becomes a metaphor for her success as First Lady as she ponders whether or not the plants will grow and realizes that the garden’s visibility mirrors her family’s new space in the public eye. Michelle must trust in the process and have faith that the things she has planted will grow to fruition.