Barack Obama on The Women Who Made Him

The former president reflects on his childhood and what makes Michelle, Sasha, and Malia so badass.
By Barack Obama
Nov 19, 2020 @ 7:45 am
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In honor of the release of his highly anticipated memoir A Promised Land, InStyle sat down with former President Barack Obama to talk about the most influential women in his life. Here is his exclusive response along with an excerpt from the first chapter of his book. 

InStyle: What’s the most badass thing about Michelle, Malia, and Sasha?

Barack Obama: They all have multiple badass qualities. I think people know Michelle well enough to know how amazing she can be as a public speaker. They probably are less aware of what it’s like to work out with Michelle when she’s really in her groove. And sometimes that includes her boxing. You don’t want to get in the way when she’s working on a bag — including some kicks. There’s force there.

Credit: Photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis.

Sasha is, as Malia describes it, completely confident about her own take on the world and is not cowed or intimidated — and never has been — by anybody’s titles, anybody’s credentials. If she thinks something’s wrong or right, she will say so. When she was 4, 5, 6 years old, once she made a decision, she would dig in and couldn’t be steered off it. I write in the book about how we were trying to get her to taste caviar when we were visiting Russia. She was like, “Mnn-nnh. No. Sorry. That looks slimy. It’s nasty. I’m not going to do it, even if I’ve got to give up dessert.” And that part of her character has always been there. 

And Malia, she is just buoyant. She’s somebody who enjoys people, enjoys life, and enjoys conversation. She’s never bored, which is a badass quality that can take you places. 

Credit: Photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis.

From A Promised Land

I don’t come from a political family. My maternal grandparents were Midwesterners from mostly Scots-Irish stock. They would have been considered liberal, especially by the standards of the Depression-era Kansas towns they were born in, and they were diligent about keeping up with the news. “It’s part of being a well-informed citizen,” my grandmother, whom we all called Toot (short for Tutu, or Grandma, in Hawaiian), would tell me, peering over the top of her morning Honolulu Advertiser. But she and my grandfather had no firm ideological or partisan leanings to speak of, beyond what they considered to be common sense. They thought about work—my grandmother was vice president of escrow at one of the local banks, my grandfather a life insurance salesman — and paying the bills, and the small diversions that life had to offer.

And anyway, they lived on Oahu, where nothing seemed that urgent. After years spent in places as disparate as Oklahoma, Texas, and Wash­ington State, they’d finally moved to Hawaii in 1960, a year after its statehood was established. A big ocean now separated them from riots and protests and other such things. The only political conversation I can recall my grandparents having while I was growing up had to do with a beachside bar: Honolulu’s mayor had torn down Gramps’s favorite wa­tering hole in order to renovate the beachfront at the far end of Waikiki.

Gramps never forgave him for it.

Barack Obama and his mother, Ann Dunham.
| Credit: Courtesy: the Obama-Robinson Family Archives.

My mother, Ann Dunham, was different, full of strong opinions. My grandparents’ only child, she rebelled against convention in high school — reading beatnik poets and French existentialists, joyriding with a friend to San Francisco for days without telling anyone. As a kid, I’d hear from her about civil rights marches, and why the Vietnam War was a misguided disaster; about the women’s movement (yes on equal pay, not as keen on not shaving her legs) and the War on Poverty. When we moved to Indonesia to live with my stepfather, she made sure to explain the sins of government corruption (“It’s just stealing, Barry”), even if everyone appeared to be doing it. Later, during the summer I turned twelve, when we went on a month-long family vacation traveling across the United States, she insisted we watch the Watergate hearings every night, providing her own running commentary (“What do you expect from a McCarthyite?”).

She didn’t just focus on headlines either. Once, when she discovered I had been part of a group that was teasing a kid at school, she sat me down in front of her, lips pursed with disappointment.

“You know, Barry,” she said (that’s the nickname she and my grandparents used for me when I was growing up, often shortened to “Bar,” pronounced “Bear”), “there are people in the world who think only about themselves. They don’t care what happens to other people so long as they get what they want. 

Barack Obama with his mother, Ann Dunham (left) and grandmother, Madelyn Lee Payne Dunham.
| Credit: Courtesy: the Obama-Robinson Family Archives.

They put other people down to make themselves feel important.

“Then there are people who do the opposite, who are able to imagine how others must feel, and make sure that they don’t do things that hurt people.

“So,” she said, looking me squarely in the eye. “Which kind of person do you want to be?”

I felt lousy. As she intended it to, her question stayed with me for a long time.

For my mother, the world was full of opportunities for moral instruction. But I never knew her to get involved in a political campaign. Like my grandparents, she was suspicious of platforms, doctrines, absolutes, preferring to express her values on a smaller canvas. “The world is complicated, Bar. That’s why it’s interesting.” Dismayed by the war in Southeast Asia, she’d end up spending most of her life there, absorbing the language and culture, setting up micro-lending programs for people in poverty long before micro-credit became trendy in international development. Appalled by racism, she would marry outside her race not once but twice, and go on to lavish what seemed like an inexhaustible love on her two brown children. Incensed by societal constraints put upon women, she’d divorce both men when they proved overbearing or disappointing, carving out a career of her own choosing, raising her kids according to her own standards of decency, and pretty much doing whatever she damn well pleased.

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama.
| Credit: Photographed by Pari Dukovic.

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In my mother’s world, the personal really was political — although she wouldn’t have had much use for the slogan.

None of this is to say that she lacked ambition for her son. Despite the financial strain, she and my grandparents would send me to Punahou, Hawaii’s top prep school. The thought of me not going to college was never entertained. But no one in my family would ever have suggested I might hold public office someday.

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama, published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House.

InStyle interview by Sandra Sobieraj Westfall.

For more stories like this, pick up the January issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Dec. 18.