The Michelle Obama Podcast shows the former First Lady’s adroitness as a broadcaster

There's something old-fashioned, quintessentially – and wistfully – late 20th century about these conversations. 

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Michelle Obama’s adroitness as a broadcaster was more than demonstrated in her contribution to the online Democratic Convention on 18 August, but anybody needing more evidence should listen to the way she never rambles once during her podcast.

In the first episode she talks to her husband at what you feel certain is the kitchen table – such is their relaxedness – and yet she’s always studio-ishly steering the discussion to hit marks like an experienced presenter conscious of the clock, which I guess she is. All those committees she’ll have headed as First Lady, and years before as a lawyer. Time costs.

“We talk about this a lot…” nods Barack, now and again, as they have several “big thoughts about communities” in their 50-minute conversation. It implies they spend a formidable amount of time putting the world to rights discussing the nature of self-sufficiency and empathy and personal responsibility, when most couples would be at that table silently forking meatballs.

They’re staggeringly team-workish. Even able to imply it’s the first time they’ve heard various stories about their younger selves, when it simply can’t be true. Like the one about Michelle longing, as a working-class child, for a house with stairs. “Stairs: that’s some success,” she remembers. Barack lovingly chuckles. Michelle mentions “journeys” and “arcs” and “growth” in a slightly pompous way, but then everyone is pompous in the world of celebrities doing special engagements at the Well Meaning foundation, where everybody talks a bit like U2.

There was just something so… old-fashioned about the whole exchange. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so starkly the rupture that’s taken place since that internationalist after-dinner optimism about “change” so embodied by the Obamas. That whole soft power Western alliance consensus stuff. So thoroughly has it been replaced by a completely different geopolitical arrangement of power, by a reactionary nativist right that might never go away, by a very hard-to-win and violent fight about climate change. The whole conversation struck me as quintessentially – and wistfully – late 20th century. It made me sad, to be honest. I’m not sure that was the aim. 

The Michelle Obama Podcast

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid

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