World & Nation

Michelle Obama sees post-White House ‘freedom’

Michelle Obama at the US-Africa Leaders Summit
First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush participate in a session titled “Investing in Our Future” at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.
(Ron Sachs / Pool Photo)

Presidents and their spouses are loath to talk publicly in detail about their post-White House plans – lest they be seen as checked out before the clock runs out. But every so often they let a tidbit slip.

That was the case Wednesday when First Lady Michelle Obama sat down with former First Lady Laura Bush for a discussion about the power of the first-spouse post.

The conversation, an event connected to a summit of African leaders wrapping up Wednesday, was largely focused on urging African first ladies to use their platforms to help young girls.

But Obama spoke bluntly and broadly about her own plans.


In describing her work for military families, Obama declared it “something I’m going to do long after we leave the White House.”

“The platform, it continues,” she said, speaking to the 27 first spouses – all women – in attendance.

It’s little surprise that Obama is planning to keep up some public policy work. As first lady, she has become the country’s best known anti-obesity advocate and demonstrated a savvy use of celebrity culture and media to push her message.

She’s consistently outpolled her husband when it comes to popularity.


But she also has bristled under criticism and regularly expressed distaste for Washington’s political culture. She suggested her next chapter won’t have much to do with the partisan politics of government – and she’s just fine with that.

“What I’ve seen from the Bush family is that there is a level of freedom that also comes after you’re out of the spotlight,” she told journalist Cokie Roberts, the event moderator.

“It’s a new spotlight, it’s a different spotlight. But I think that there is more that you’re able to do outside of office oftentimes than you can do when you’re in office.”

Former President George W. Bush and wife Laura attended the symposium Wednesday, making the trip from Dallas to promote their work in Africa.

Through the George W. Bush Institute, they have expanded on the  President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, a program launched during Bush’s tenure.

The institute also now partners with PEPFAR and nonprofits to advocate for HPV vaccination and cervical cancer prevention.

On Wednesday, Bush announced plans to expand that project, known as the Red Ribbon Pink Ribbon campaign, to Namibia and Ethiopia.

“It takes a lot to get me to leave Dallas,” the former president said, joking about his relaxing, post-presidential life as an amateur painter.


Obama was careful not to dwell on her future freedom while her husband is asking voters to send Democrats to Congress to help him move his agenda in the remainder of his second term.

Playing to the crowd, she urged the African first ladies to seize the moment to help promote change for women and girls.

“We can’t waste this spotlight. It is temporary and life is short, and change is needed. And women are smarter than men,” she said.

Obama urged the group to think and talk about their long-term plans, even as she claimed not to be taking her own advice.

“As women we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our legacies – what we want to leave behind in the work that we do,” she said. “But that takes planning. It takes coordination. It takes partnerships. And I don’t think that we should be afraid as women to have those conversations.

“It’s too soon for me to do it now. But the time will come,” she added.

In fact, Obama has shown signs of thinking about how history will evaluate her work.

Her anti-childhood-obesity initiative has taken a more aggressive approach in recent months, to the delight of advocates who once criticized her for steering clear of the important policy fights.


She also has added an education initiative to her portfolio of projects – an issue the first lady said inspires her.

“I’ve found that I’ve been most effective when I am uniquely authentic, there’s an authenticity to what I say,” she said.

“So that means I have to really believe passionately in the causes that I take on. And that lends itself to more power, more effectiveness.... This was true when it came to the issue of educating our young people.”

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