"I could not have been prouder of them," former President Barack Obama tells PEOPLE

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Virginia Chamlee
November 24, 2020 09:14 AM
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Since their family left the White House in 2017, former First Daughters Malia and Sasha Obama have largely stayed out of the spotlight — but they were right there among the tens of thousands of demonstrators this summer, masked and without fanfare.

That's according to former President Barack Obama himself, who recently spoke with PEOPLE about his memoir A Promised Land and life in quarantine with wife Michelle Obama, and their daughters.

During the wide-ranging conversation, President Obama said 19-year-old Sasha and Malia, 22, felt "the need to participate" in the midst of nationwide demonstrations against police brutality after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

"I didn't have to give them a lot of advice because they had a very clear sense of what was right and what was wrong and [of] their own agency and the power of their voice and the need to participate," their dad says. "Malia and Sasha found their own ways to get involved with the demonstrations and activism that you saw with young people this summer, without any prompting from Michelle and myself, on their own initiative."

"They didn't do it in a way where they were looking for limelight," the former president, 59, adds. "They were very much in organizer mode."

"I could not have been prouder of them," he says.

• For more from PEOPLE's interview with former President Barack Obama, including details of the former first family's life together in quarantine this year, subscribe now or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Wednesday.

Barack Obama PEOPLE cover
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Protestors gather at the "Black Women In Charge, The Monumental March & Voter Registration" rally in Indianapolis in June.
| Credit: Amy Harris/Shutterstock

President Obama — a law professor and community organizer in Chicago before entering political office — has long been vocal about the power of activism.

In a June essay for Medium, he wrote that the demonstrations sparked by the killings "represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States."

His daughters — both now in college — seem to have inherited his spirit, though Obama sees it a bit differently.

"I think a couple of times they asked for sort of very specific suggestions about what would be the best way to communicate X or what would be the most useful thing that, if we were mobilizing a whole bunch of friends, to have an impact, what should we be doing?" he says. "But they didn't need to be encouraged. Their attitude was — we've seen something wrong and we want to fix it, and we think we can fix it. And we understand that it's not gonna take just a day or a week or one march to fix it. But we're in it for the long haul."

President Obama doesn't foresee either Malia and Sasha going into politics like he did, but "I think both of them are going to be active citizens."

"They're reflective of their generation in the sense they want to make a difference and they think about their careers in terms of: How do I have a positive impact? How do I make the world better?" he says. "What particular paths they take in doing that, I think are going to change and vary between the two of them."

"I think they're going to want to have an impact and their friends feel the same way," he continues. "It's interesting when you talk to them in groups, the degree to which, compared to young people when I was coming out of college or you know even 20 years ago, I think people were much more focused on their finances and the perks of a job. And these kids are really focused on — how can I do something that I find meaningful, that resonates with my values and my ideals? And that I think is an encouraging sign for the country."

Sasha (left) and Malia Obama in 2016
| Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty
Malia Obama (left) and Sasha Obama in 2016
The Obamas celebrate Thanksgiving 2019
| Credit: Michelle Obama/Twitter

Obama previously spoke about his own anguish over George Floyd, who died after he was seen pleading for air while being arrested in May as an officer pressed a knee into his neck.

"It’s natural to wish for life 'to just get back to normal' as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us," Obama wrote in Facebook post published shortly after the video of Floyd's arrest went viral. "But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly 'normal.' "

"This shouldn’t be 'normal' in 2020 America. It can’t be 'normal,' " he wrote then. "If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better."

While Obama has not spoken at length about his daughters' activism and political opinions, he has held them up as models of grace and dignity in the face of adversity. (A Promised Land, which shattered sales records in its first day was dedicated to his wife and daughters.)

At his final White House news conference, President Obama spoke of the disappointment his girls expressed at the outcome of the 2016 election after Donald Trump fueled the "birther" conspiracy theory movement that Obama wasn't born in the United States.

"They paid attention to what their mom said during the campaign and believed it, because it's consistent with what we tried to teach them in our household and what I've tried to model as a father with their mom and what we've asked them to expect from future boyfriends or spouses," Obama said at the time. "What we've also tried to teach them is resilience and we've tried to give them hope — and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world."

• Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Barack Obama on PeopleTV.com or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

The former president has also proudly spoken about the qualities that make his daughters, as he said in the cover story for InStyle's January issue, "badass."

"Sasha is, as Malia describes it, completely confident about her own take on the world and is not cowed or intimidated — and never has been — by anybody’s titles, anybody’s credentials. If she thinks something’s wrong or right, she will say so," Obama told InStyle

Malia, meanwhile, is "somebody who enjoys people, enjoys life and enjoys conversation. She’s never bored, which is a badass quality that can take you places."

While neither the former president nor first lady personally joined other demonstrators this summer ("we'd have Secret Service and there'd be a whole bunch of constraints"), Obama says that "truthfully, what got me excited was to see a new generation take up the torch and recognize that this is their country to remake."

"To see so many young people from different walks of life come together so rapidly, overwhelmingly peacefully and with a lot of thought and care and sophistication," he says, "it was the biggest bright spot of this year, on the wake of one of the darkest moments of this year."