One of the refrains of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming (2018) – which charts the former first lady’s journey from her working-class origins on the South Side of Chicago to the White House, by way of Princeton, Harvard, a high-end corporate law firm (where she met Barack), and a series of executive jobs in the non-profit sector – are “four words that reliably plague even the most accomplished and powerful people I know”: Am I good enough?
While her husband is portrayed as a bookish dreamer full of languid self-confidence, Obama (née Robinson) presents herself as driven, industrious and fastidious: a “control freak”, “a detail person”, a “box checker” whose idea of a group holiday (she is “rigorous about friendship”) is a “boot camp” featuring multiple daily workouts, and no dessert or booze. At Princeton, Obama writes in Becoming, “Beneath my laid-back college-kid demeanour, I lived like a half-closeted CEO, quietly but unswervingly focused on achievement… Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”
In the introduction to her new book, The Light We Carry, Obama recalls this old inner doubt surfacing one night just before the publication of Becoming: “Have I said too much? Can I pull this off?… Am I good enough? In that moment, I had no answer except for I don’t know.” Given the way things have turned out since that anxious evening in 2018, it seems reasonable to suppose that Obama’s doubts are at least in abeyance. Her autobiography – the rights to which had reportedly been jointly bought with Barack’s memoirs for $65m – went on to sell 17 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the most sold books of all time.
In 2019 Obama packed out not bookshops or lecture halls but stadiums (an “international arena tour” is how she refers to it in the new book) in more than 30 cities across the US and Europe. The tour became the subject of a Netflix documentary (also called Becoming), released in 2020 (and produced by the Obamas’ own media company, Higher Ground), in which you can see fans – somehow “readers” doesn’t quite capture it – reduced to hysteria at book signings.
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If the magnitude of Obama’s stardom is difficult to overstate, it’s also tricky to categorise. “Rock star, role model, world’s most admired woman…”: these were among the epithets Oprah Winfrey reached for when interviewing Obama in 2020. Obama’s unfixed status perhaps owes something to the amorphousness of the role that launched her celebrity. First lady of the United States – or “Flotus” – is a protean “non-job”: ambassadorial, symbolic, entailing few defined responsibilities and lacking in official authority, but an influential platform from which to champion politically uncontentious causes (children’s heath, girls’ education, and support for military families, in Obama’s case).
Obama’s speciality – her “superpower”, as Winfrey puts it to her – is, in her own view, “empathy” (she loves children and famously hugged the Queen). But her forte might more accurately be described as a gift for popularity itself, or for a kind of familiar, charismatic public performance that made her a great asset on her husband’s campaign trails. She has an ability to amplify intimacy and to project a demeanour of warm authenticity, charming even vast audiences by seeming “real”, though always formidably self-possessed.
Obama has arguably been honing her life into a paradigmatic shape since entering the political spotlight with her speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, during which she said her story embodied the “American Dream”. Obama is a gifted communicator and a practised auto-mythologiser, but not a writer and Becoming, though absorbing, is not a literary achievement (and not notable for its original descriptions: “the little jolt of satisfaction”, “a zing of anticipation”, “a pang of longing followed by a bruising wallop of inadequacy”).
The book is too conspicuously collaborative – written with the help of “an incredibly gifted team”, helmed by the journalist Sara Corbett – to be stylish. Obama’s workaday prose is personable in a blandly impersonal way: plain, direct, sometimes folksy, in the manner of the campaign speech (“Bear with me here…”), with the occasional incursion of corporate jargon (there are frequent references to “outcomes” and “goals”).
Becoming was lauded for its ostensible candour and “vulnerability”: it covers personal topics, ranging from the trivial – Barack’s irritating way of being late for dinner and leaving the butter out – to the painful: infertility, miscarriage, marriage counselling, the early death of her father, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his 30s. Such self-exposure created a compelling impression of ordinariness despite Obama’s remarkable achievements and exceptional experiences.
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The Light We Carry codifies, with considerably greater banality, the sorts of “life lessons” that were perfectly easy to infer from Becoming, where the narrative was so taut and well-organised that its reminiscences acquired a kind of casual instructional force. But the instruction was less offensively platitudinous when left implicit, and not distilled in mawkish slogans (“Starting Kind”, “Going High”). The vivid particulars of Becoming – the scratch keyed into the side of her father’s beloved Buick during a visit to a predominantly white Chicago suburb – have given way to vague exhortations: “to step forward rather than back, to stand up rather than sit down, to say more rather than less”.
Subtitled “Overcoming in Uncertain Times”, the book’s introduction sketches the mise-en-scène in the customary lofty clichés – “uncertain” here meaning Donald Trump, the pandemic, and “issues of injustice and instability”. The first chapter (“The Power of Small”) opens with a recent photograph of Obama, beneath which a caption of breathtaking bathos informs us that “Knitting has helped show me how to settle an anxious mind”. The change of prefix – from “becoming” to “overcoming” – signals an unfortunate shift of genre (from memoir to self-help), and so from showing to telling. There are still anecdotes – perhaps the most diverting chapter (“Partnering Well”) is an account of Obama’s first visit to Barack’s family in Hawaii in the early stages of their romance. But stories are scarcer – you have to trawl through the generic disquisition on whatever bromide is being dispensed to get to one.
The new genre also entails a transformed mode of address: this is no longer the Michelle Obama of Becoming, emerging dazed from eight years in the “bubble of the White House” (its bulletproof windows must, apparently, always remain closed), unsure of how she would be received, reflecting on the surreal process of “becoming known”. The Michelle Obama of The Light We Carry has seen the arenas and book sales, is deluged with letters asking for existential advice and appears comfortable with her status as all-purpose idol, offering guidance from her perch as empath-in-chief.
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Notwithstanding the gestures to distinguish herself from those “high-earning, successful women” who “give off a certain effortless vibe” – “I am here to tell you that it’s more complicated than this” – the candour on offer in The Light We Carry is mostly about what it’s like at the summit: “Please know that, like everyone else, I find myself needing to overcome. Also, those heights so many of us are striving toward? I’ve reached a fair number of them… I can tell you that doubt, uncertainty, and unfairness live in those places, too.”
In Becoming, Obama seems concerned with squaring personal ambitiousness with her “values” – hence her leaving corporate law for high-powered public-spirited jobs. But amid all the memoir’s disclosures, there is no mention of the raw will to power that must be an ingredient in even the most altruistic of presidential aspirations. The implausible impression the book conveys is that Barack Obama stumbled across the highest office in the country as a consequence of the escalatory logic of his irrepressible optimism and his passionate wish to make an impact.
In a not dissimilar way, the self-help ethos of The Light We Carry conceives of one’s contribution to the world and relation to others as bound up with self-care and individual progress. Obama’s “toolbox” for inner resilience may be helpful, even necessary, especially when, as she writes, the “message” of the elite, white-dominated spaces she was once excluded from (at high school she was told she was not “Princeton material”) is: “I don’t see you as being entitled to what you’ve got”.
Nonetheless, the attempt to hitch social concern to personal success betrays a political world-view which has no interest in “togetherness” of a more substantial kind, nor of collective power. In this world there are individuals, families, communities and our “common humanity”, but people’s fates are not fundamentally connected – instead they are tenuously linked via the philanthropic intentions of those at the top.
Rather than collectively shaping the world, we must each develop techniques for surviving it: “How do we adapt”, stay “balanced and confident”, “keep moving forward even during times of high anxiety and stress”? How, that is, do we minister to our own flames, maximising our progress and comfort in a darkening world?
Lola Seaton is an associate editor at New Left Review and a contributing writer at the New Statesman
The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times
Viking, 336pp, £25
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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette