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The Obama Legacy

After nearly eight years as Commander in Chief and First Lady, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama talked to Essence to reflect on their legacy and what's next for their family.


By Vanessa K. De Luca
Photos by Kwaku Alston
15 min

ESSENCE: The fact that you're leaving in a couple of months hasn't slowed you down one bit. In fact, you're continuing your legacy with the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. What does it mean to you to have that project completed?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, that's not our legacy. It's the efforts of so many people. But it's an extraordinary achievement to have this testimony to the contributions that African-Americans have made to American history on such a prominent site on the Mall, right across from the Washington Monument.

Whether people are going to be looking at a hymnal from Harriet Tubman or some of the great artifacts of sports and music and journalism—for us to be able to tell a story about how quintessentially American the African-American [experience] has been to culture, politics and our way of life, and for us to be there to open it, that's really exciting.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: It will be very nice that the opening will happen while we are in office. I kind of joked to [founding director] Lonnie Bunch when we were at the groundbreaking, "You've got to get this done before we're out of here." He said, "I promise." So we're pretty excited about that. It will be a nice culmination of the eight years here at the White House to leave with that building on the Mall.


You haven't just made sure that we have institutions that will live long beyond your tenure. You've also created some game-changing initiatives like My Brother's Keeper and Let Girls Learn. How will those efforts continue after you've left the White House?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, we're still working on that. But one of the major tasks of any president leaving the White House is that we've got this wonderful opportunity to develop a Presidential Library, or as we're calling it, a Presidential Center, which will not only have an archival function like many of the Smithsonian museums, but will also provide us with a base to continue much of the work we care deeply about.

And I know for sure that both of us will always continue to work to inspire the next generation through education and leadership development and training, not just here in the United States but worldwide. We have a president who actually has a very strong presence among young leaders throughout the world. So there are some real opportunities there.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I couldn't be prouder of the work Michelle has done. You think about something like Let's Move!, which has changed how all Americans think about health and nutrition and making sure that kids are getting outside and getting exercise. She's moved the needle when it comes to looking after our military families and helped to convene and mobilize all segments of society to support the incredible sacrifices that our military families make.

For me, things like My Brother's Keeper, an initiative that started after the death of Trayvon Martin to concentrate on how we can bring the country together in a constructive way [and] provide better opportunities and pathways for young men of color who are at risk—that's something I'm confident we'll be continuing after we leave. And our goal is to, as much as possible, institutionalize changes and practices that serve to create a more just and equal society. Part of My Brother's Keeper is to look at what federal agencies are doing. The Department of Education has really focused on how we ensure that suspensions and expulsions of young men of color aren't disproportionate, because we know if they're suspended or kicked out of school that's one of the surest ways for them to be on a pathway to prison or unemployment, and to a tough time when they're adults. We'll find ways outside of the White House to continue to support efforts like these.


There's an entire generation that's only known a Black President and First Lady in the White House; we call it The Obama Generation. How has the world changed since you first walked through the doors here at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We've gone through tumultuous times over these last seven, eight years: the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression when I came in. Trying to wind down two wars while still maintaining our focus on protecting the American people from terrorism. Trying to transition our economy into a clean-energy economy, dealing with the global challenge of climate change. Making sure that in a country as wealthy as ours we're providing health care to all Americans.

On a host of issues, we've made real progress. And I can unequivocally say that America is better off now than we were when we came into office. By almost every economic measure, we're better off. But having said that, we still have a lot of work to do. And I know that expectations in some ways were so high, particularly because of the historic nature of having an African-American President and First Lady and an African-American First Family. The notion was somehow that perhaps you would immediately see a transformation in racial attitudes.

What we know is that culture changes more slowly than that; it goes in fits and starts. And we still have real challenges around things like the criminal justice system. We still have real challenges in terms of inequality. And the fact is, a lot of African-Americans are still being hindered by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Having said that, when we look at Malia and Sasha and their generation, we're confident that they and their peers are far more sophisticated, far more enlightened, far more open to diversity than our generation was.

MRS. OBAMA: I think when it comes to Black kids, it means something for them to have spent most of their life seeing the family in the White House look like them. It matters. All the future work that Barack talked about, I think over these last few years we've kind of knocked the ceiling of limitation off the roofs of many young kids' imaginations of what's possible for them. And as a mother, I wouldn't underestimate how important that is, having that vision that you can really do anything—not because somebody told you but because you've seen and experienced it. I think that will be a lasting impact on our kids.


What are some of your favorite memories of being in the White House?

MRS. OBAMA: A lot of it is the personal stuff. Watching your kids play with their dog on the South Lawn of the White House, whether it was sledding down the South Lawn on a food tray with the girls or seeing them play on the swing set that was erected here on the day we moved in. There are so many of those times. Proms have happened here. A lot of firsts happened here for these girls in the rooms upstairs.

But beyond our personal life, for me it's really how we've been able to open up the house to so many folks who normally wouldn't have access. It's been the kids—whether it's pitching tents out on the South Lawn with the Girl Scouts, or playing soccer with kids from Anacostia on the South Lawn, or seeing our mentees come in and sit around tables with presidential china trying the food for a state dinner, and watching them grow into confident young people who are perfectly comfortable walking into the White House—those moments are always cool.

We've had a lot of great entertainment here too, everyone from Stevie Wonder to Prince to the cast of Hamilton and Beyoncé, right in front of George and Martha Washington. And for every one of those events, we were able to do something special for kids, locally and nationally, so they could enjoy some of that celebration for themselves.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, you have memories of achievements. The day we passed health care and knowing that, because of the incredible work of so many people in the White House and congressional allies, millions of people would get health insurance who didn't have it before. You have memories of making sure that the world was safer because Iran didn't have a nuclear weapon, or when we announced that we were opening diplomatic relations with Cuba. So there are big moments like that that you remember, in part because you know how much work went into it and the incredible contributions of the team.

But Michelle is right—the memories that last ultimately are the family memories. Some of my fondest memories of the White House are just being with the girls on a summer night and walking the dogs around the South Lawn, talking and listening to them, trying to get Bo to move because sometimes it's hot. [Laughs] He just sits there and we're yanking on his—

MRS. OBAMA: It's like, "Come on. We're still walking." [Laughs]

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And Sunny, when she was first here, just being out of control. Being up on the roof and watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July and it's Malia's birthday, and they've all got their friends here. And even though by that time she didn't believe me that I'd arranged all this for her birthday—just knowing that those memories would last for them.

MRS. OBAMA: Eight years is a lot of time, when you look back on it. I mean, it's our children's childhood, really. For Sasha it's almost all of her youth. She came in at 7 and she's leaving at 15.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: If you remember the first trip we took together as a family, going to Russia, and Sasha in her little trench coat.

MRS. OBAMA: She looked like a little agent.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: From Get Smart. [Laughs] She's 8, 9, and she's walking around the Kremlin with a trench coat on.

MRS. OBAMA: Walking around the Kremlin, it's like, Who are you? [Laughs] Remember how jet-lagged they were on that trip? That was their first real international trip with him where you sleep on the plane and then you're up and have to go somewhere. We sat in the limousine and Malia was like, "I don't think I've ever felt this bad in my life." [Laughs] That's what jet lag feels like, baby.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: They were troopers. They're seasoned pros now, though.


What do you envision your life will be like after you leave the White House? What are you most excited about doing that maybe you haven't had the opportunity to do?

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, so much. That's the beauty of being relatively young when we leave. I'm looking forward to life after, because there's still so much to do, so much impact that we can have. But personally, I'll love nesting in a new home. I'll love the possibility that I can, like, walk my own dogs in the street, maybe a date night or two without snipers and an ambulance in our motorcade.


Seriously?

MRS. OBAMA: That's what he travels around [with]—press pool, CAT team, an ambulance, communications. There are about 20 cars that go everywhere with him. And that's date night. It's like, "Here we go, everybody," all 100 of us going to dinner. [Laughs]

PRESIDENT OBAMA: What we talk about most is just doing some ordinary stuff. We've had these extraordinary experiences, and what a privilege that's been. But you don't realize the day-to-day stuff that is part of life and that you've missed. Something as simple as taking a walk and not having a big group of people around you, or being able to take a vacation and roam around without every single thing you're doing being scrutinized—I think that will be a great pleasure.

And then, professionally, the ability to, through the Presidential Center, bring in young talent from across districts—young aspiring organizers or politicians or journalists or filmmakers or musicians—not just here in the United States but from around the world, and talk to them about how they can advance a social justice agenda, and give them tools, networks and resources to push us in a better direction. I think there's going to be a lot of opportunity to do that, and in some ways, I'll be less constrained.

The thing about being President is, there are institutional constraints that aren't always fully appreciated from the outside. I'm very proud of the fact that if you take a speech that I gave back in 2004 and you compare it to what I say today, I've been very consistent. And I can genuinely say that for whatever mistakes or shortfalls I've had during the course of my presidency, my values, my beliefs and my efforts to bring the country together and provide more opportunity to more people have been consistent.

And so I don't feel as if I've had to trim my sails in terms of who I am, but in terms of what you say in certain situations or how you approach a certain issue, the office is one you have to be mindful of. You can't just be unfiltered in ways that, as an ex-President, you may be able to be. And that, I think, provides some opportunities to speak directly to young people in ways that will hopefully be as inspiring and maybe more inspiring than when I was wearing a suit all the time and surrounded by a lot of pomp and circumstance.


They're telling me that we have to wrap up, but here's to freedom. [Laughs]

MRS. OBAMA: Freedom!


Kwaku Alston (@kwakualston) has photographed some of the most famous faces in the world, including Hollywood luminaries Cicely Tyson, Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey and Janelle Monae. He photographed ESSENCE's first cover with the Obama family for the September 2008 issue.


Mrs Obama: Hair, Johnny Wright; Makeup, Carl Ray.

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S LEGISLATIVE WINS

PASSED HEALTH CARE LAW

Though zealously challenged by Republicans, the Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress in 2010. It survived a Supreme Court decision in 2012, when justices voted to uphold the law, which has, as of March 2016, given 20 million Americans who previously had no health insurance access to coverage.

REPEALED "DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL"

The 18-year-old directive that military personnel not discuss or be asked about their sexual orientation was long considered discriminatory. The President abolished the law in 2011.

CREATED "RACE TO THE TOP"

Designed to overhaul to the U.S. education system, Race to the Top is a more than $4 billion investment in K–12 schools. The White House outlined four key goals for the program: "development of rigorous standards and better assessments; adoption of better data systems to provide schools, teachers and parents with information about student progress; support for teachers and student leaders to become more effective; and increased emphasis and resources for the rigorous interventions needed to turn around the lowest-performing schools." By creating a competition among schools, the President incentivized districts to devise plans to enhance curriculum with "personalized learning models" and to improve student–teacher relations. This fund is absolutely necessary, considering that 83 percent of Black fourth-graders scored below proficiency levels in reading, and 82 percent of Black eighth-graders performed below proficiency in math, according to a 2013 Department of Education survey, in addition to the fact that Black students are suspended from schools at a higher rate than other groups.

IMPROVED SCHOOL NUTRITION

In step with the First Lady's Let's Move! campaign, the President signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. The law empowers the USDA to create healthful food programs in American schools that replaced the long-standing breakfast and lunch plans. The goals of the act are to improve the nutrition and wellness of schoolchildren and to teach best practices with regard to food safety to administrators and workers.

PUSHED FOR WALL STREET ACCOUNTABILITY

After 2008 saw the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression—more than 8 million jobs lost, stock markets crashed and many homes foreclosed on—President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. Designed to shield Americans from bearing the brunt of the burden when big companies abuse the financial system, the act cracks down on risky trading and largely unregulated practices by corporate giants. At the signing ceremony for the act, President Obama remarked, "Passing this bill was no easy task. To get there, we had to overcome the furious lobbying of an array of powerful interest groups and a partisan minority determined to block change…. It demands accountability and responsibility from everyone. It provides certainty to everybody, from bankers to farmers to business owners to consumers. And unless your business model depends on cutting corners or bilking your customers, you've got nothing to fear from reform."

EXPANDED HATE-CRIMES PROTECTIONS

According to a 2014 FBI report, African-Americans represent 63 percent of hate-crime victims in the U.S. In 2009, when that figure was at 72 percent, President Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded existing regulations. The updated act also includes protection for a "wider class of victims" and makes it easier for prosecutors to gain a conviction.

COMPENSATED WRONGED FARMERS OF COLOR

The President signed the Claims Resolution Act in 2010, which provided $4.6 billion to Black farmers and Native Americans who were discriminated against by the Department of Agriculture.

PASSED CREDIT CARD REFORM

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act (2009) rolled out strict rules designed to guard consumers from predatory bank practices. Among the changes: No one under 21 can procure a card without an adult as the primary cardholder or without demonstrating independent ability to make payments; banks aren't allowed to raise interest rates until 60 days after a payment is missed; and bills must be mailed to customers at least 21 days before the due date. According to a study by Dēmos and the NAACP, African-Americans pay high interest rates and experience more negative effects of borrowing than other groups.


THE FIRST LADY'S INITIATIVES

LET'S MOVE!
(2010)

The nationwide platform encourages and incorporates healthy eating and exercise in the daily lives of school-age children.

FLOTUS isn't afraid to use celebrities and pop culture moments to get her message out. Here she is (left) playing in a tug-of-war contest in London ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games. On the right, she happily engages with students.

Mrs. Obama's commitment to children's health is no more apparent than through her Let's Move! program. Since launching it in 2010, the First Lady has enlisted the help of Beyoncé to make an exercise music video (above) and pushed for an updated Nutrition Facts label.

JOINING FORCES
(2011)

Raising awareness of and giving support and resources to military families are the main tenets of this platform. Mrs. Obama, along with Dr. Jill Biden, established Joining Forces to help this oft-overlooked segment of the population, frequently visiting military bases (left).

Mrs. Obama is intent on showcasing the unique skills and qualifications of veterans and their families. In an effort to increase employment rates for vets, the First Lady has made a priority of advocating for them and bringing their stories to the forefront. Her program also focuses on providing mental and physical wellness assistance.

LET GIRLS LEARN
(2015)

This education campaign seeks to provide opportunities to underprivileged and underserved girls around the world.

There are more than 62 million girls worldwide who aren't in school. It's a grim reality that the First Lady uses as the driving force behind her push to get them access to education. She's worked jointly with the Peace Corps and USAID to dedicate some $27 million in funding, and to deploy educators to countries like Liberia.

REACH HIGHER
(2014)

The leap from high school to college is a big one, and not everyone makes it. Michelle Obama's charge with Reach Higher is to help eradicate the barriers that stand in the way of a student enrolling in a two- or four-year college or university, or in a professional training program after graduation. Mrs. Obama also launched Better Make Room as part of Reach Higher to give students a platform to create their own content.

You can't say that the First Lady isn't inventive. She teamed up with former Saturday Night Live star Jay Pharoah (below) to release "Go to College," a rap song (complete with a music video) about the importance of, you guessed it, going to college.


THE FIRST LADY'S FASHION WINS


THE PRESIDENT'S COOLEST MOMENTS