December 29, 2014 12:00 PM

2014 The Obamas Talk to People

Like a lot of parents of teens this time of year, Barack and Michelle Obama are feeling a pang for the bygone days of shopping for little ones. “Kids don’t want toys now. They want iTunes cards,” the President noted with a sigh after he and the First Lady helped sort Toys for Tots donations with the Marines at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. Now that the kids are older (Malia is 16, Sasha, 13) the family has more in-depth dinnertime talks about the news, including post-Ferguson America. “What we have tried to explain is that history doesn’t always move as fast as we’d like,” said the President when he and Mrs. Obama sat down Dec. 10 with PEOPLE editorial director Jess Cagle and national political correspondent Sandra Sobieraj Westfall. The First Couple were alternately earnest and playful as they reflected on the year past and the future.

Mr. President, looking back at 2014, what was your toughest challenge and what was your proudest moment?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We had a series of challenges this summer—Ebola, ISIL [the Islamic extremist group]. But the overall trajectory of this year was actually pretty remarkable. We had the strongest economy in at least 15 years. The unemployment rate dropped. Over 10 million people getting health care that didn’t have it before. Wages are starting to go up, and hopefully we can build on the momentum. But long-term, the challenges we have in Iraq, in Syria with ISIL are formidable. We’re going to have to steadily work with moderate forces in that region to push back extremists. But overall, when you look at what’s happening inside the country, there are a lot of families that are just much better off this year than they were last year. And if we can build on that momentum, then hopefully there will be even more families next Christmas who have something good to celebrate.

You mentioned ISIL. There was a profound sense of helplessness and horror each time we heard about another beheading or the murder of Luke Somers. How do you react?

THE PRESIDENT: It’s heartbreaking. In many cases I’ve met with the parents before it happens. So I know these folks. And they’re parents, just like Michelle and I are parents. And the heartache that they’re going through is unimaginable. The only thing you can do is to pledge to go after those who did this and do everything you can to eradicate this scourge of extremism.

Mrs. Obama, what was your proudest moment this year?

MICHELLE OBAMA: I’m really proud of the progress that [Jill Biden and I] have made in raising the visibility of the challenges of our service members, veterans and their families. The numbers of jobs that have been created, the focus that we’ve had around the country on ending veterans’ homelessness. It’s work that, as we transition out of office, we want to make sure the country continues.

How do you, as parents, talk to your girls about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island?

THE PRESIDENT: This has been an ongoing conversation that we’ve had since they were young.

MRS. OBAMA: When you’re raising black kids you have to talk about these issues, because they’re real.

THE PRESIDENT: But Malia and Sasha have a perspective that is typical of their generation: They take for granted that treating somebody differently because of their race makes no sense, in the same way they take for granted that it doesn’t make any sense to treat somebody differently because of their sexual orientation or disability. It doesn’t require a long lecture for them.

What we have tried to explain is that history doesn’t always move as fast as we’d like; that there are vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow. And although things have gotten enormously better, those biases are still there. We try to make sure that they’re reflecting on any hidden biases they may have, including stereotypes about themselves, how they think they should have to act as African-American girls. We don’t want them to be constrained by any stereotypes. So when something like Ferguson or the Trayvon Martin case happens, around the dinner table we’re pointing out to them that too often in our society black boys are still perceived as more dangerous, and that it will be part of their generation’s task to try to eradicate those old stereotypes.

I would have thought that you’d be fairly insulated [from that reality]. You’ve experienced it?

MRS. OBAMA: I think people forget that we’ve lived in the White House for six years. Before that, Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs. I tell this story—I mean, even as the First Lady—during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. These incidents in the black community, this is the regular course of life. These are the challenges that we still face as a country.

THE PRESIDENT: There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and some-body didn’t hand them their car keys.

That’s happened to you?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

MRS. OBAMA: He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee.

How do you get past that?

THE PRESIDENT: We don’t have to deny the progress that’s been made to also be honest about problems that remain. The small irritations or indignities that we experience are nothing compared to what a previous generation experienced. And I think one of the dangers is that, so often, this gets framed as black folks complaining or feeling victimized. When it comes to interactions between police and their children, then it becomes something of a different magnitude. It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed or, worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.

I met with some young people from Ferguson, and I cautioned them not to think that these issues are all going to be solved overnight. Police have a tough job, and they have a right to go home just like anybody else does from their job. But I told these young people they should be active. I want them, in peaceful ways, to express what’s going on in their lives.

What did you think of LeBron James showing up on the court wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt [a reference to Eric Garner’s quote during the police choke hold that killed him]?

THE PRESIDENT: I think LeBron did the right thing. We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness. I’d like to see more athletes do that—not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.

In the next two years you have to work with a very Republican Congress. Who, among their leadership, do you have good personal relationships with?

THE PRESIDENT: I have good personal relationships with a lot of them. Speaker Boehner and I laugh and joke and talk on the phone all the time. Mitch McConnell is somebody who never overpromises and we can do business with. In the Senate, a lot of the Republican senators are people I’ve served with. So typically the issue is not personal relations. My hope is that, with Republicans now responsible for both chambers, they’ll feel an obligation to govern, and I’m looking forward to working with them to get some things done in my last two years.

Let’s move on to the fun stuff.

THE PRESIDENT: [Smiling] I don’t do fun.

Last movie you saw?

THE PRESIDENT: Boyhood was a great movie. That, I think, was my favorite movie this year.

Last book you read?

MRS. OBAMA: I’ve read others [since, but] I read Gone Girl a couple summers ago, which is one of my favorites. The book is much better than the movie.

THE PRESIDENT: I’m in the middle of a wonderful book that was recently released called Redeployment, by Phil Klay. He’s an Iraq War veteran who’s written a series of short stories. Really good. Really powerful.

Last song stuck in your head?

MRS. OBAMA: Oh [singing] “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh—”

THE PRESIDENT: We were just singing it.

It’s not “Let It Go” from Frozen?

MRS. OBAMA: No, our girls are—

THE PRESIDENT: They’re a little too old.

MRS. OBAMA: I really miss the fact that—I used to use my kids as an excuse to see all the Disney movies, and now I beg them and they won’t go.

THE PRESIDENT: Nowadays the three of them are in their Beyoncé world.

MRS. OBAMA: We love Beyoncé.

Last time you danced?

THE PRESIDENT: Friday night. In the Yellow Oval [in the White House’s upstairs private residence]. We had some guests over. It was a small group.

MRS. OBAMA: Somebody wanted to dance. And Barack was the deejay.

THE PRESIDENT: We started with Aretha’s “Rock Steady.” Sly and the Family Stone. Then we ended the night on Al Green, and everybody did a little slow dance.

MRS. OBAMA: He’s got a good playlist.

THE PRESIDENT: Let me just say—

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, God, here we go.

THE PRESIDENT: My playlists are famous. [Laughter]

MRS. OBAMA: He’s very proud of his playlist. It’s good, it’s good. A good chunk of it is my playlist too, though.

Last viral video your girls had you watch over and over?

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, the one we quote is—”Linda, honey, listen, listen. Linda,” with the little boy. Now, whenever the kids are trying to get a point out, they’re just like, “Listen, listen. Listen to me.” [Laughter] “Listen to me, honey.”

THE PRESIDENT: My favorite of all time, I think, was BatDad. Whoever BatDad is out there, man, I was into your thing. [More laughter]

MRS. OBAMA: His wife didn’t seem as pleased.

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, that’s what was funny about it. He comes in and he’s all like, “What are we having for dinner?” [Laughing] But clearly the most astonishing Vine this year was Michelle and the turnip. I mean, let’s face it—who else can make a turnip into a star but Michelle Obama?

Lastly, as tough as this job is, what in the daily business of running the country still brings you joy?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, that’s easy. Once, sometimes twice a day, I get a letter or I talk to somebody face to face who says, “You made a difference in my life.” “My child didn’t have health insurance, they got a checkup, turned out they had a tumor; they caught it in time—he’s doing fine.” “I didn’t think I could afford college. You expanded the Pell grant program, and now I’m able to go to school.”

We had a group of Native American kids we had met up in Standing Rock in North Dakota, a remote area, poor. We had a roundtable with them, talking about substance abuse, alcoholism. You had kids who were in foster care, kids living in buses. And we promised that we’d invite them for a visit.

MRS. OBAMA: A couple weeks ago they all came. They spent a day at the White House talking to everyone from our chefs to the Secret Service. We took the kids to lunch at Good Stuff and had burgers and pizza. It was funny because a lot of them didn’t believe it when we said we were going to see them again. And there they were. One girl hugged Barack so tight, he said she told him, “This trip saved my life.” You realize that even small gestures in this world can make a huge difference. They can change the trajectory of a kid’s life. That’s pretty awesome. It’s worth the sacrifice and the bumps and the bruises to know that showing kids their worth, through your eyes, can make the difference. We’re ready for two more years, and 10 more years after that of doing work like this.

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