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Michelle Obama on Date Nights with Her Husband

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Ask Michelle Obama whether she offers her two cents on her husband’s presidential campaign policies and she sounds a bit like Saturday Night Live self-esteem coach Stuart Smalley. “I guess I could,” she says. “I’m smart enough, I’m trained enough.”

But the wife of the Democratic presidential nominee is also realistic enough. “I can’t do everything,” she told PEOPLE recently. “I am not going to be the policy expert on every opinion and position that Barack has because I don’t have the time to do it, quite frankly.”

As part of PEOPLE’s recent cover story on Sen. Barack Obama’s family life, the candidate’s wife, Michelle, 44, sat down in Pontiac, Mich., to talk about being a mother in the midst of a presidential bid, her role in her husband’s campaign – and the importance of “date night.”

When you think about the future for your children (Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7), what do you worry about?
Michelle: There are the small worries, micro-worries, about whether we’re doing all we can to let them be fully themselves, trying to make sure they have the space to be who they are and that they feel loved and supported. Then, there’s the macro worry about, ‘Okay, if we do our jobs and they turn out well as individuals, what kind of world are they going to be in?’

Did you ever think you’d be in this place?
Michelle: Never. Not until last year when Barack announced he was running. It feels sometimes like you’re on a runaway locomotive. My survival tool is trying to create calm in the storm, because if I’m calm and my girls’ lives have some order to it, that locomotion is running and it’s moving, but they won’t feel the bumps. So part of my composure is a protective mechanism for my girls because if I’m out of control, freakin’ out about everything, that’s the energy they would feed off of.

Do you ever have a “pinch me” feeling about all of this?
Michelle: Oh, yeah. I mean, we’re still Michelle and Barack, so meeting Bill Cosby, it’s like (gasp!), ‘We LOVE you, Bill Cosby! What do you mean you’re honored to meet me? You’ve got to be nuts. You’re Bill Cosby! C’mon, now.’

Michelle Obama with daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7
A friend of yours said you are purposely not engaged in policy because, as an attorney, you so over-prepare that if you can’t master something you won’t dive in at all. Is that true?
Michelle: On some level I view myself – as do many women in my position – as 120-percenters, meaning we feel good about what we’re doing when we’re doing it at 120 percent. So, I could be very competent putting 70 percent in, but I don’t feel good about it. I feel like, if I’m going to master it, I’m going to master it. Where I’ve had to come – not just in this campaign, but in my life of having so much that I’m doing, my career, the role of mom and exercise and all these other things that I have come to believe are just as important – is I’ve had to sort of let go of that 120-percent thing and say, I can’t do everything. I am not going to realistically be the policy expert on every opinion and position that Barack has because I don’t have the time to do it, quite frankly. And I have to be okay with that.

I’m not sure people will buy that. They see you as so strong and smart and assertive, that it’s natural to assume that you’re weighing in on policy.
Michelle: That is the internal struggle that I, and a lot of women, have. You listen to the outside, which says you have an obligation – because you’re smart and well-educated – to do this. And it’s like, ‘Yeah, but I also have these kids.’ And if Barack is fully into the policy – and we want the President of the United States to be completely the master of that universe – then I’m going to take the kids to camp.

Do you even know who’s on the VP list?
Michelle: Uh … (laughs)

Are you plugged in that way?
Michelle: I know what comes from the, ‘So, what’s going on?’ conversations I have with Barack.

Do you read the stuff about you?
Michelle: It depends on where I am emotionally and what it is. Most of the time I don’t because I just don’t have time. [Also], reading your stuff takes you too high and it takes you too low. So for me, I’d rather stay more balanced.

Another friend of yours told me about you and Barack slipping away for date nights on the campaign trail.
Michelle: We were in this stadium and the staffers were like, ‘You guys are going to have a date night.’ They had set up a little room in the stadium with tablecloths and candles, and people came in and served, but we had, like, 10 minutes to eat. That was just squeezing it in, but it was fun, it was cute. You don’t try to have a romantic [time] at the stadium. Our romantic [time] is almost every Saturday night or Friday night, if he’s home. We spend the day with the girls doing girls’ stuff and that’s a family. Then we have date night, and the girls like it. As parents, you realize they do notice this stuff and it matters. You’re worried about taking time away from the kids to be with each other when, in their minds, that’s a good thing. It’s like, ‘Yeah, Mommy and Daddy, go! Go have dinner; it’s so cute!’ and that makes me feel like, ‘Okay, I don’t feel as bad that, after spending a day together, then we went and had a nice dinner while you had hamburgers with Grandma.’