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Obama Good Not Great — Yet


Great news that Michelle Obama went to Africa and met with the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, on girls’ education. I was really impressed, as I’ve often felt there was much more to her than met the public eye.

I kept waiting for the first lady to speak out about her slave ancestors buried in South Carolina. Or her own journey as a girl from Chicago’s South Side to Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She crossed the city on the bus.

When she first became first lady, it was clear no lovefest was in the works. She was wary. The walls were high, though most welcomed the Obamas with open arms. But the first black first lady was focused as she set up a household with two school-age daughters and her mother to help her manage. A three-generational family in the White House was refreshingly old-fashioned.

The first lady is now showing a fuller side of herself. That’s the substance I hoped to see all along, so there’s an element of wish fulfillment. As it happens, the president is blooming late in the life of his presidency.

Something’s happening here. Ever since President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” solo at the funeral of nine murdered black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, he shed his sleek reserve and customary caution, and put more of himself on the line. That was last June.

I’m not saying he’s a totally changed man, but to give an example: The president was invited to speak at his daughter Malia’s graduation at Sidwell Friends School. He declined, saying he’d be crying. Never an open book, he is generally more forthright.

Over the past seven years, let’s be honest, Michelle Obama has emphasized fashion, fitness and her biceps to a fault. The closest I came to running into her was at SoulCycle, where people get whipped into a revival frenzy in dark rooms where really loud music is played. It’s a religious — or at least spiritual — experience. She’s a believer.

There were days — and nights — where her bare arms seemed a bit much, out of season. I could have lived without the Mom dance and the Beyonce concerts. As for her gowns, ensembles and suits, Obama sometimes tries too hard to make a splash. Her formal state dinner dresses can be too fussy and architectural.

As tall as she is, I’d like to see more solid colors and fewer busy prints. You can’t go wrong with Rose Garden pink or colors that capture the White House rooms: such as the Blue Room, the Red Room, the pale yellow State Room.

The Washington Post fashion writer, Robin Givhan, adores the way Obama dresses. She and Obama went to Princeton, but not together. I enjoy Givhan’s elegant work as a journalist, but the raves sometimes lose their punch.

Ask yourself this: What is Michelle Obama’s legacy? In the beginning, her projects included her vegetable garden for healthy eating and military families. Like anybody could argue with that? Childhood obesity: Who’s for it? Her early tiptoes into policy seemed poll-tested and bland.

Laura Bush, Obama’s predecessor, made a cultural contribution that became an event on the Washington late summer calendar: the National Book Festival. A private lady, she made a public difference.

What I know about Obama comes from books or Chicagoans. The president might say lightly that his wife is “my supervisor.” Peter Slevin, a Washington Post journalist, authored a fine biography that discusses her close-knit working-class family heritage.

But I wanted to hear things from her. Michelle Obama could have done something big, like sharing and leading a national dialogue on race, slavery and reconciliation — perhaps a project only she could have done.

She did say the other day that the White House was built by slaves. That was as close as she’s come to a real reckoning with that past. Yet she will have a major moment to speak when the nation’s first Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in September. It gleams on the National Mall,

The first lady’s family represents the slave strand of the national experience, getting chained in vessels on the Middle Passage, working the red clay dirt salted with tears and blood. The president’s Kansas-Kenyan origins do not. That’s why the nation will be enriched to hear Michelle Robinson Obama speak for her side of the first family.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit


Photo: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama speaks during an event to mark Nowruz on Wednesday, March 11, 2015, at the White House in Washington, D.C. Nowruz is a holiday that is celebrated by more than 300 million people in diverse ethnic and religious communities across the Middle East, Central and Southwest Asia, and Eastern Europe. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

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