"I've been basking in the reflected glow of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama for the better part of my life now, but somehow this past year, she's raised it to another level," President Obama tells PEOPLE

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall Sean Neumann
December 06, 2019 11:00 AM

Sell-out book tours and international humanitarian trips aside, Michelle Obama is happy to keep enjoying the quiet(er) life with her husband, Barack.

In an interview with PEOPLE in this week’s issue about her record-smashing 2019, the former first lady talks about her and President Obama becoming empty-nesters this year — after sending their youngest, Sasha, off to college in the fall — and what that time together has meant.

“We’ve rediscovered all these little pockets of time, just me and Barack, that for a couple decades have been filled with school events or sports practices,” Mrs. Obama, 55, tells PEOPLE. “We’re taking full advantage of this new normal, simply spending time with each other and remembering what brought us together in the first place.”

“Sometimes I’ll get a glimpse of him and just go, ‘Hey you! Where have you been for 21 years?’ ” she continues. “It’s been fun. The tough part, of course, is missing our girls. It’s an adjustment to see each other for a weekend here, a holiday break there, but the moments we do spend together feel extra special because of it.”

Mrs. Obama was named one of PEOPLE’s four People of the Year after she sold more than 11 million copies of her revealing memoir, Becoming, and spoke to tens of thousands on an accompanying book tour.

• Jennifer AnistonJennifer LopezMichelle Obama and Taylor Swift are PEOPLE’s People of the Year! For more from their revealing interviews, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on sale now.

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With an eponymous foundation with her husband, Mrs. Obama has also focused on girls’ education access around the world and other issues.

In addition to their upcoming Netflix projects, President Obama is working on his own memoir, which could be released next year ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

“I don’t think Barack’s got anything to worry about. He knows what he’s doing when it comes to writing books. Even if his process is a little slower than mine — no one has ever accused him of being a fast writer,” Mrs. Obama says, teasingly. “But that’s good. He always ends up with something thoughtful and profound, as only he can.”

RELATED: The ‘Emotional’ Moment the Obamas Dropped Off 18-Year-Old Sasha at College: ‘We Wanted to Make It Feel Normal’

While promoting Becoming last year, Mrs. Obama opened up about some of her life’s challenges, including that she and President Obama had been to marriage counseling.

“Because we’re role models, it’s important for us to be honest and say, ‘If you’re in a marriage and there are times you want to leave, that’s normal’ — because I felt that way,” she told PEOPLE last November.

From left: former First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama
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Former First Lady Michelle Obama
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Last year, Mrs. Obama talked with PEOPLE about the bliss of a recent getaway to Palm Springs in California, just her and her husband. It was “the first time in a long time it was just the two of us,” she said.

“And it was good,” she said. “We swam, we sat and he wrote because he’s still writing his book. So he’s a little resentful,” she added with a laugh.

A year later, with Sasha joining big sister Malia off at their respective colleges, the Obamas are continuing their journey alone, together: “no kids, no publicity, no nothing.”

RELATED: Michelle Obama’s Incredible 2019, from Breaking Records with Her Book to Being Praised by Beyoncé

“I’ve been basking in the reflected glow of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama for the better part of my life now, but somehow this past year, she’s raised it to another level,” President Obama tells PEOPLE in a statement. “I couldn’t be prouder of her — or more excited for her — not because of the arenas she’s sold out or the book sales records she’s shattered, but because of the example she’s setting.”

For Thanksgiving, Mrs. Obama shared a family photo of the foursome together, with Malia and Sasha all grown up.

Watching her girls get older, stronger, more mature, has been a joy. As have her own milestones. (This month she’s traveling to Malaysia and Vietnam to focus on girls’ education.)

“More than ever, I recognize that it’s the smallest moments that matter most of all — the moments that you and you alone can savor,” Mrs. Obama says. “Becoming is a lifelong process and I take a lot of comfort in that fact.”

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