Opinion: What Michelle Obama’s book reveals about the future of American politics

Editor’s note: Nicole Hemmer is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers from the Right: The Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The opinions expressed in this comment are my own. See more opinions on CNN.


When Michelle Obama took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she had a clear mission: to inject some inspiration into what had been a challenging campaign. Tensions within the Democratic Party, epitomized by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong showing in the primary, had been roiling the convention since it began, and Hillary Clinton’s team had struggled to find balance between the inspiring early moments of her nomination and the darkness. , chaotic energy of Donald Trump’s candidacy.

It was Obama who struck that balance, in a speech full of urgency and possibility. The most memorable line would become a rallying cry for liberals: “When they go down, we go up.”

01 Nicole Hemmer Headshot

Courtesy Nicole Hemmer

From another speaker, such a line might have carried a whiff of liberal conceit, more high horse than high ground. But from Obama, someone who hadn’t sought the spotlight and was still torn by his role in politics, it was a reminder not to follow Trump down the low road, to shape the world you wanted to live in. .

It was also a sign that Obama might one day produce a book like his latest. “The Light We Carry” comes four years after his memoir, “Becoming,” a book that sold 10 million copies in its first few months on the market.

But “The Light We Carry” is not a follow-up memoir. It is a self-help book, reflecting all the conventions of the genre and demonstrating that Obama understands its appeal: not as a former first lady who has done things few people can do, but as someone who has faced family challenges despite its unusual circumstances. He has an intuitive sense of how blurred the lines have become not only between the personal and the political, but also between the influencer and the politician. In this book, Obama shows his desire to use that tangle of emotions and power to bring people together, but the ease with which sentiment and politics now mix is ​​also a reminder of how easily that combination could too. used to divide.

“The Light We Carry” grew out of both the “we go high” moment and the book tour around “Becoming”. If “we go high” became a marker of Obama’s role as a moral authority for millions of Americans, “Becoming” became a conduit through which they came to see her as someone who shared and understood her struggles.

In his new book, Obama writes about the tour that followed the release of his memoirs, when he spoke to sold-out stadiums and living room-sized reading groups. “With the space and energy to write a book and for the first time in decades cut off from the political world my husband inhabited, I found myself putting in the omitted parts,” he writes of “Becoming.” “With the book, I came from the inside out, less cautious than ever, and was surprised to see how quickly others dropped their guard in response.”

The moments where she felt connected weren’t because of the glamorous parts of her life as first lady: “Nobody approached me at book events desperate to talk about the time they wore a ballgown or interacted with a senator or did a White House Visit,” or even their many professional accomplishments. Rather, they grew out of the shared experiences of a parent living with multiple sclerosis, a dog that cannot be trained, or a lunch hour hunkered down in a car, the the only place where, as parents of small children, they can find tranquility and solitude.

That idea that their experiences could not only create connections, but could also be drawn on for helpful advice became the foundation for “The Light We Carry.” Although Obama is famous for her skepticism about politics, she is still committed to creating change. The way she thinks about change should be familiar: change first starts within, then it happens at home, and then it spreads to the larger community. “One light feeds another,” she writes. “A strong family gives strength to more. An engaged community can ignite those around it. This is the power of the light that we carry.”

Family is a good way to describe this new book. Not just because it evokes parts of your memories of him (Obama assumes you’ve probably read “Becoming” by now), but because it follows the conventions of the modern self-help genre. She reinforces her advice not only with personal experiences, but also with a combination of scientific studies, anecdotes, and stories from everyday people and big-name celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Toni Morrison. The emotions she explores are also central to the genre: vulnerability, anxiety, authenticity.

What makes the book so unusual and worth reading is that it is about a first lady rather than a life coach looking to her experiences and emotions to write it. Not because she’s the only first lady to have offered advice, but because the way she presents her advice shows just how much the genre has changed.

For 20 years, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an advice column called “If You Ask Me,” doling out practical advice on political, cultural, and even romantic issues. The column ran in Lady’s Home Journal and then McCall’s, two women’s magazines that were popular in mid-century American culture. But it was a product of both her author and her time: practical, thoughtful, but also reserved: Roosevelt did not open up her innermost thoughts and her private life to her readers. “There are some things in life that one should be allowed to keep to oneself,” she wrote.

The first lady, Mrs. Gerald Ford, gives a press conference in the State Dining Room of the White House.

But American culture would become more therapeutic in the years that followed, creating more space for public discussion of emotions and personal struggles. That became clear when First Lady Betty Ford divulged her struggle with addiction and revealed that she had seen a therapist. It was both a sign of how much things had changed (personal details about public figures, especially politicians, had rarely been willingly disclosed in earlier times), but also how new it was to share that moment. Ford’s revelations shocked Americans while helping create a culture that allowed people to speak more openly about their own struggles.

Self-help writing changed along with the culture, although it was not an area that post-Ford first ladies engaged with. The first ladies wrote books that were not memoirs. Barbara Bush wrote a children’s book from the perspective of the first dog, Millie; Hillary Clinton wrote the policy-focused book “It Takes a Village”; Laura Bush wrote children’s books and a book about women in Afghanistan, but none like “The Light We Carry.”

Obama’s decision to write this book speaks as much to his unusual position as, for some, a voice of guidance and moral upliftment, as it does to his post-White House career. Through podcasts and documentaries, Obama has developed a distinctive brand, more important than a lifestyle brand and more personal than a political brand. That also speaks to this particular cultural and economic moment, when in order to stay engaged with people, celebrities must open the doors to their personal and emotional lives.

All of which makes “The Light We Carry” a fascinating read, whether for reflections on dealing with anxiety and relationships and the immense uncertainty of our lives today, or for a snapshot of a time when politics, celebrity, self-help, and authenticity got tangled up in ways we’re still trying to understand.

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