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Becoming
Michelle Obama
read on April 17, 2019

I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves."

Can you imagine any other person writing that line about the White House? I mean, damn.

Becoming is really two books. The first is about Michelle Obama's lower-middle-class upbringing, and her path up through Ivy League undergrad and then law schools, and ending up as an IP lawyer. I was honestly a bit surprised at her starting point - I figured anyone going to Princeton and then Harvard was either rich or connected, but she just worked her ass off and got into incredible debt. Her internal struggle with the IP work was interesting too. She never got into the details on the finances - but it was clear that when she left her good-money lawfirm job to go work at city hall, that she had a whole lot of debt left and was taking a big risk in order to do more fulfilling work.

The second part of the book is about Barack and politics. Here, I was surprised at how consistently and explicitly she's disliked politics. From the beginning she didn't want Barack to do it, and thought that together they could create more positive change in other areas (via private or non-profit work). She never admits to being wrong about this, and while she's obviously very proud of the work that both she and Barack did while in office, I wonder if she suspects that she was right the whole time (particularly now, as much of their work is undone by the current administration).

Overall I enjoyed the book a lot. It does a good job describing the almost-overnight transition from normal person to 1st family, as well as the trappings of the White House itself. (E.g., when living there it's a huge secret service hassle to even get outside, or even get fresh air at all).

I also thought it was interesting that Obama is an outspoken feminist, but has adhered to very stereotypical gendered roles. She is hyper-focused on her role as a mother and largely abandoned her personal career and interests in order for her husband to do what he wanted. Whereas, her description of Barack is certainly one of a loving husband and father, but one who (with very small exceptions) always prioritized his career and constituents above his own family. She was often frustrated by this, but didn't go into as much detail on the topic as I would have been interested to read.

More than anything, Obama presents herself and her husband as overwhelmingly decent people - highly intelligent and ambitious - good people who overcame massive odds and yet are directing their passion and energy at trying to make the world a better place for all. It was terribly sad to read, because juxtaposed against the current administration and headlines of the day, you long for a return to this kind of normalcy where leaders are admired for their intelligence and decency, even if you disagree with their particular politics. But here also lies the biggest fault of the book. I understand this is the personal memoir of the First Lady and not a political discourse, but no discussion of the Obama administration - even from this perspective - seems complete without some kind of reconciliation on how we got from there to here. What happened in 2015/2016 that sent us so off-course? I tend to flip-flop on how much I think the outgoing administration could have done, and who holds responsibility. There are many defensible interpretations. But Obama's read of the situation is entirely in the vein of "and then this surprising exogenous event happened", rather than "and then we totally dropped the ball", which makes sense, but is too incomplete.

 

Author Bio:

Michelle LaVaughn Obama (née Robinson; born January 17, 1964) is an American lawyer, university administrator and writer, who was First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. She is married to the 44th U.S. president, Barack Obama, and was the first African-American first lady. Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In her early legal career, she worked at the law firm Sidley Austin, where she met Barack Obama. She subsequently worked in non-profits and as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and the Vice President for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center. Michelle married Barack in 1992 and they have two daughters. Obama campaigned for her husband's presidential bid throughout 2007 and 2008, delivering a keynote address at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She returned to speak for him at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. During the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, she delivered a speech in support of the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady. As First Lady, Obama served as a role model for women, and worked as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity and healthy eating.