As Michelle Obama prepares to leave the White House, she’s been talking publicly about how eager she is to return to normal life. “I want to open my front door without discussing it with anyone — and just walk,” she told Oprah Winfrey.
She has also said she wants to sit in a yard, stroll through a big-box store and open a window in her house, things she has not been able to do for eight years.
Yet a team is already laying the groundwork for what’s likely to be a somewhat busier post-White House schedule for a popular first lady who has signalled her eagerness to continue her advocacy work of recent years — and has proved to be a compelling voice in American politics.
After a long break, Obama plans to get to work with a small staff in Washington. The group will be led by Melissa Winter, her longtime deputy chief of staff. Winter was the first lady’s first hire during her husband’s 2007 campaign.
“Mel has been by my side from Day One. There is truly no one I trust more completely to make order out of chaos and take an idea from inception to execution,” Obama told the Washington Post. “For the past decade, she has been one of my most trusted advisors and dearest friends.”
“Right now it is an empty plate,” Winter told the Post in an interview. “I really think the most important thing is to give her time to breathe and get acclimated to being a private citizen again, knowing that she doesn’t have to tell people where she’s going to go, and we don’t have to put out an advisory if she’s going to go walk around a museum.”
Obama also needs time to “feel what it feels like to feel bored.”
“When she’s ready, our group will come together, and we’ll do strategy. And we’ll talk about what does the first event for the new Michelle Obama look like. How do we want it to feel, and how does she want it to feel?” Winter said.
Their overarching strategy for Obama’s next phase is “sometimes less is more.”
“She has such a powerful voice. You don’t have to augment that with a lot of things,” Winter said.
The family will also need income to support themselves as well as the post-White House staffs they are building. Obama, who was once her family’s primary breadwinner, hasn’t earned a salary in eight years. Former first ladies and presidents have accepted paid offers to speak — not always without controversy — in addition to championing favourite causes.
In the meantime, the president has said his wife is working on her memoir — another typical income-generating project for former first families — which is expected to net a multimillion-dollar advance.
“Probably down the line there are many books in her,” Winter said. “I think she’d be a wonderful children’s book author.”
Now that she has held her last official events, Michelle Obama and Winter’s most pressing concern is moving from the White House to the 760 sq m home the Obamas will rent in Washington’s Kalorama neighbourhood. The family will stay in the city for at least two years while daughter Sasha finishes high school.
Winter served as the person in the White House guarding the Obamas’ time together as a family.
She has practically lived with Obama since February 2007, first in Chicago and later on call to the White House.
Winter knows what Obama needs on the weekends. She knows what the girls need, and she has a relationship with the entire family.
She also has an uncanny memory for Obama’s events — and attire. A colleague recalls Obama being unable to recall details of an event, and Winter saying, “It was here and you wore the brown dress with the bow.”
“I have felt like I have always worked for a family before a first lady,” Winter said. “I have made it my priority when we are in meetings and doing long-range planning [to remember] things like ballet performances, sporting events, parent-teacher conferences. All that stuff comes first.”
She also knows Obama’s disparate groups of friends and has helped her move easily around Washington for her exercise classes, concerts, restaurant dates and walks in Rock Creek Park, a circuit Obama is likely to continue as she stays in the city as a private citizen.