Chapters 21 & 22

Summary: Chapter 21

Michelle and Barack get away for dinner and a show in New York, but while the evening is lovely, Michelle is self-conscious about the disruptions they cause everywhere they go. Subsequent public criticism of the trip, over its cost to taxpayers, reinforces Michelle’s sense that she can’t do anything spontaneous. Even stepping onto her balcony requires security measures. Michelle accepts that she and Barack must live with these constraints, but she insists that the Secret Service find a way for the girls to accept invitations from friends on short notice.

Where Michelle’s wardrobe is concerned, an aide helps Michelle showcase American designers, mixing upscale items with affordable ones. A hairdresser and makeup artist complete the “trifecta” of people who help her meet the expectations people have for women in public life. Barack, Michelle can’t help but notice, can put on a dark suit and be ready for work without even combing his hair.

Every choice Michelle makes requires political calculation. Planning for a children’s Halloween party involves debate about the “optics” during an economic recession. Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State, shares with Michelle her experience with stepping beyond the range of activities deemed appropriate for the First Lady. As Michelle decides what causes to champion during her time in the White House, she must be careful to come across as more than just “mom in chief” but not as strident and political. The first cause Michelle settles on is childhood obesity, increasingly recognized as a major public health problem. After careful groundwork to win the support of business and advocacy groups, she and her team launch the Let’s Move! initiative to promote exercise and healthy eating.

Summary: Chapter 22

The Obamas are often called upon to respond to disaster and suffering. After the BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico is contained, the family takes a Florida beach vacation, to reassure people that the ocean is safe to swim in. When an earthquake devastates Haiti, Michelle and Jill Biden go to comfort survivors. Michelle regularly visits with wounded veterans and their families at Walter Reed Medical Center.

The Let’s Move! initiative leads to improvements in school cafeteria diets and a pledge by Walmart to offer healthier food products. Passage of a child nutrition bill promises to further improve what children eat at school. Michelle and Jill Biden launch an effort called Joining Forces to provide more support to military families. For Barack, meanwhile, child nutrition and the needs of military families are just two of many concerns that keep him up late at night.

Safety is a constant worry, especially after real-estate developer Donald J. Trump starts promoting the idea that Barack is not a U.S. citizen. Someone fires several rifle rounds at the White House. Michelle and the girls try to live their lives as normally as possible, which for Sasha and Malia means sports, and for Michelle means an occasional incognito trip to Target, or to PetSmart with their dog, Bo. The agents who protect the Obamas become, over time, good friends.

Michelle stays in touch with her roots by starting a leadership and mentoring program to provide girls in hard circumstances with the kind of adult guidance she was given as a girl. At Camp David, in Maryland, Michelle starts hosting an annual fitness “Boot Camp” for close friends. Meanwhile, one of Barack’s nighttime worries is over: a team sent to kill Osama bin Laden completes the mission with no causalities.

Analysis: Chapters 21 & 22

In these chapters, Michelle grapples with the heaviness of her family’s visibility and struggles to balance their needs with the convenience of others around them. At moments, Michelle longs to drink tea on their balcony, but she knows that the Secret Service will first have to clear the street below of all tourists. When Barack takes her on a date to New York City, she feels guilty that their presence is largely disruptive to the diners and theatergoers around them. Michelle must also learn to make adjustments to protect her daughters from suffering the heaviness she feels. She intervenes with the Secret Service and makes them understand that a happy childhood requires some spontaneity, so they must learn to accommodate while keeping Sasha and Malia safe. She also learns to move quickly and undetected as she attempts to stay active in the events of her daughters’ lives outside of the White House. The Obamas are careful not to transfer their heaviness to others. In their decision to practice religion at home rather than in a public church, they sacrifice the sense of belonging to a spiritual community in an attempt to protect it from scrutiny or harm. Each decision the Obamas make has a wider impact on not only those in their service but also on those whom they serve. 

These chapters also highlight how Michelle’s garden grows from a concept into a mechanism for policy change with a resounding impact. As the vegetables grow and the garden sees its first harvests, Michelle examines the problems surrounding children’s access to nutritional foods and the causes of the childhood obesity epidemic, and she lays plans to collaborate with American agencies, foundations, and corporations to improve children’s health. As a mother with a deep love for all children, Michelle’s tireless labor in these efforts is a natural extension of herself. Her work in the garden and in advocating for healthy youth gives her a sense of purpose that is both meaningful and measurable. Her efforts ultimately result in a new law regulating school lunches to include more fresh produce, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. The law also opens up funding for the creation of more gardens in schools across the country to allow children immediate access to locally grown foods. As Barack works to improve healthcare for all Americans, Michelle uses her platform to grow a network of people who are dedicated to improving children’s health.