At the start of a second term, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talk to Jonathan Van Meter about their life as parents, their marriage, and their vision for America’s families.
One morning in late January, I am standing at one end of the grand red-carpeted corridor that runs through the center of the White House, when suddenly the First Lady appears at the other. “Heeeee’s comin’,” she says of her husband’s imminent arrival. “He’s coming down the stairs now.” The president is on his way from the residence above, and just a split second before he appears, the First Lady, in a midnight-blue Reed Krakoff sleeveless dress and a black kitten heel, slips into the tiniest bit of a surprisingly good soft-shoe, and then the two of them walk arm in arm into the Red Room to sit for a portrait by Annie Leibovitz. The photographer has her iPod playing the Black Eyed Peas song “Where Is the Love?” It is a mid-tempo hip-hop lament about the problematic state of the world. As the First Lady and an aide laugh together over some inside joke, the president starts nodding his head to the beat: “Who picked the music? I love this song.”
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder
As I’m gettin’ older, y’all, people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin’
Selfishness got us followin’ the wrong direction
A few minutes later, Leibovitz has the president sit in a comfortable chair and then directs the First Lady to perch on the arm. At one point, the First Lady puts her hand on top of his and, instinctively, he wraps his fingers around her thumb. “There’s a lot of huggin’ going on,” says Leibovitz, and everyone laughs. “You’re a very different kind of president and First Lady.”
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That they are. Put aside for a moment that they are the first African-Americans to preside in the White House, or that it feels perfectly normal to see the president enjoying a hip-hop song in the Red Room before lunch, or that the First Lady has bucked convention by routinely mixing Thom Browne and Alexander McQueen with J.Crew and Target, or that Malia and Sasha’s grandma lives with them upstairs, or that the whole family texts and takes pictures of one another with their smart phones. What is truly unusual about the Obamas is that, in their own quietly determined way, they have insisted on living their lives on their terms: not as the First Family but as a family, first.
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“He is a dad,” says the president’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, “and a husband, and he enjoys being with his children and his wife. He doesn’t have a father. He’s trying really hard to be a good dad.” Says former senior adviser David Axelrod, “This is conjecture on my part, but I have to believe that because of the rather tumultuous childhood that he had, family is even more important to him. It’s central to who he is. That’s why he’s home every night at 6:30 for dinner.”
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The president and First Lady both seem to be in ebullient moods, and deservedly so. His surprisingly decisive reelection is now history; the tonally precise inauguration is ten days behind them. The First Lady, it must be said, is funny, and it soon becomes clear that she can’t resist an opportunity to tease her husband. The first real question I ask them is about the persistent notion among the Washington press corps that they—unlike, say, the Reagans or the Clintons—are somehow antisocial, that they don’t privately entertain enough at the White House, that they don’t break bread and smoke cigars and play poker with their enemies. When I joke that they might want to “put that idea to rest” once and for all, the president starts to answer, but his wife, whose back has gone up ever so slightly, cuts him off. “I don’t think it’s our job to put an idea to rest. Our job is, first and foremost, to make sure our family is whole. You know, we have small kids; they’re growing every day. But I think we were both pretty straightforward when we said, ‘Our number-one priority is making sure that our family is whole.’ ”