Barack Obama and his wife flew to London together. They have been staying together at Winfield House, the sprawling American ambassadorial residence in Regent’s Park, and are photographed together regularly, boarding and leaving planes and helicopters, walking from cars, meeting with the Queen and assorted world leaders. But they move in completely different worlds.
In the President’s world, everything is collapsing markets, housing prices, confidence. In the First Lady’s world, everything is soaring spirits, ballet dancers, ambitions. In Barack’s world, expressions of optimism are carefully qualified. In Michelle’s world, expressions of pessimism are almost unthinkable. For Barack, the big question is how he is going to save the world from economic and nuclear Armageddon. For Michelle, the big question is who made her darling cardigan with the sequins and the argyle print.
“My husband you know him. He is going to be very jealous of my afternoon,” the First Lady said Thursday afternoon during a visit to a girls’ school in London. “He is meeting with important people, but it is not as much fun as my afternoon.”
This was a rhetorical feint of sorts, since Michelle’s whole point was that she was meeting with important people too, a group of about 200 proud teenagers from a mind-boggling variety of backgrounds. The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School has about 1,000 students, all of them girls ages 11 to 17, two-thirds of whom speak English as a second language. Fifty-five languages are spoken at the school. Ninety percent of the students are ethnic minorities, and no single ethnic group makes up more than 21% of the student body. As a group, they treated Obama as if she were an American Queen, a personification of what they can only dream of becoming in a country where no minority has risen nearly as high as the Obamas.
“I am just very touched,” Michelle told the girls, choking up with emotion as she spoke. “All of you are jewels.” In the moment, it did not seem at all like an overstatement. For the better part of an hour, the girls had been performing for the First Lady, presenting a remarkable array of talent for public speaking, for modern dance, for Shakespeare, for belting out ballads with names like “I’m Going All the Way.” It was hard not to be inspired by the scene, but then that’s what seems to happen around Michelle Obama these days.
On Wednesday, the First Lady toured a cancer ward with Sarah Brown, the British Prime Minister’s wife, finding peace amid the pain. After a makeup session with two female patients, she had tea. “It’s an oasis,” she said. “It’s a quiet place that makes people feel whole.” Hours later, she met with the Queen of England, appearing to breach rigid ancient protocol with the most human gesture, reciprocating Elizabeth II’s light touch by gently draping her arm across the back of the Queen.
Then Thursday morning she was off to the Royal Opera, dressed in a sequined, patchwork cardigan, the kind of goofy outfit that in another context could get a teenage daughter eye rolls from her baffled parents. While world leaders tried to come up with a plan to relieve the record unemployment around the globe, Michelle Obama enjoyed the sinuous beauty of ballet. At the end, Brown tried to connect the two, delight and despair an awkward task in such troubled days. “In this difficult time, with the difficult summit taking place down the road, you remind us all about the part that culture plays in keeping us all alive,” she told the opera-house performers.
At that very moment, Barack Obama was across town in plenary-session meetings with other national leaders at the G-20, discussing regulations, stimulus and funding for emerging markets that they hope will stem the enormous amounts of human suffering the world will endure over the coming months. The President had already met the day before with the Russians to discuss preventing nuclear apocalypse, with the Chinese to discuss the genocide in Somalia and with the South Koreans to discuss the pending missile launch by North Korea.
Barack’s and Michelle’s experiences may seem like night and day, but there are similarities as well. Like the President, the First Lady has an ability to exude a calm confidence amid chaos. As she mingled with 12 other spouses of G-20 heads of state at the opera house Thursday, she looked at times reserved if not a bit shy. But it did not appear to be a shyness born of insecurity as much as her own nature. She was not trying too hard to impress anyone.
And later in the day, when Michelle Obama finished speaking at the school, she spent time hugging each of the 24 girls who had joined her onstage after singing in a choir. Some, she hugged more than once. Then she bent down, kneeling on the lip of the stage, to hug the girls in the audience, sending a sudden shock through her Secret Service detail. The embraces did not seem awkward or forced; Michelle was simply celebrating the young talent around her and her newfound ability to inspire others. This is her new role, it seems, a balance to her husband’s grim and sober task. “Nothing in my life’s path would have predicted that I would be standing here,” she told the girls. “I am an example of what is possible when girls, from the very beginning of their lives, are loved and nurtured by the people around them.”
And as she concluded, she switched to the first-person plural, suddenly speaking for more than just herself. “We are counting on every single one of you to be the best that you can be,” she told the young women, many wearing Muslim headscarves, all sitting in rapt attention. “We know you can do it. We love you.”
See photos of Obama’s travels in Europe.