— President Barack Obama has a “thick skin” and “has kept every single promise that he’s made” — including the one he made to quit smoking, first lady Michelle Obama told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in her first-ever live morning television interview Wednesday.
It took some tough love from the women in his life to get the president to make good on his pledge to kick the cigarette habit, Mrs. Obama said in a wide-ranging chat on the first anniversary of her Let’s Move campaign to battle childhood obesity. The interview also touched on jobs, family life inside the White House, whether or not her husband dyes his hair and the chances that first daughters Sasha and Malia will be allowed to open Facebook accounts.
Mrs. Obama said that the president has been smoke-free for nearly a year now. “We want him to be healthy, and he’s worked hard at it, and I’m very proud that he’s been able to kick the habit,” she said.
And how did he do it? “I don’t know,” Mrs. Obama said. “Once he made the commitment to quit, I left him alone, because it’s a very personal thing. I don’t think it’s one right way to do it ... When a person is doing the right thing, you leave them alone.”
She added that she’s absolutely certain the president is not sneaking butts on the sly. “You can tell,” she said.
Economics and politics
In response to an e-mailed question from a viewer seeking advice for job seekers in what remains a difficult economy, the first lady maintained: “We’re seeing some significant improvements in the economy ... If we look at where we were two years ago, when Barack took office, we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
“It’s a slow growth,” she acknowledged. “And that’s something that Barack has said: Change doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time. But if you look at the accomplishments over this year, he has kept every single promise that he’s made. It doesn’t always feel good when you’re down and out, but I think we’re on the right path.
“I think this is why, in the State of the Union address, my husband focused on investment in the future,” she added. “My advice is to find the sectors that are growing. Find a way to retrain. Look at community colleges and use this time to recharge skills and keep growing. We’re at the point in this country where all careers are fluid; I think the days of working in companies 20 years are gone. And young people kind of know that already: They’re coming in and they’re thinking, ‘I’m here two years, but what’s my next step? How do I get my next training certificate, how do I keep moving forward?’ And I think that’s how we have to focus.”
Asked whether the divisive tone of debate in the country — and the occasional hostility focused on the president in particular — were taking a toll on her husband, Mrs. Obama said it comes with the job. “This is a tough job. You’re not going to please everybody all the time, and that’s not why you do this job. There are tough decisions that have to be made. So, I’m sure that [while] there are people who don’t like my husband, there are people who have had strong feelings about every single president that’s ever held the office.”
The president, she added, expects the occasional brickbat. “I think one of his gifts is consistency. Emotionally he doesn’t get too high or too low unless it has to do with his family ... He’s got a thick skin and is focused on a set of goals. He wants to do the best job he can in office, and I think he’s doing a great job and he’s remained steady through it all.”
Mrs. Obama also said that she too is ready for the rigors of politics when the president launches his re-election campaign in earnest next year. “I’m not thinking about it right now because it’s not on my radar screen, but when it’s time to get out on the road and talk to the American people, it’s something that I enjoy doing.”
Family and food
If the president is re-elected, the Obamas’ two young daughters will be well into their teens by the time the family leaves the White House, and Mrs. Obama has considered the fact that they would then have spent the bulk of their childhood inside the bubble of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But so far, she says, she believes her family has handled the rarefied environment well.
“Barack and I really try to keep them out of this, and I think we’ve done a good job,” she said. “I say this all the time, but friends who come to visit, they look and [say], ‘These are the little girls we’ve known.’ So we’re going to just stay vigilant.”
Besides, she added, one advantage to living in the White House is that it has helped her stay firm in her determination to keep her daughters off of social networking sites like Facebook until they’re older. “I’m not a big fan of young kids having Facebook,” she said.
Also on the topic of children, the first lady touted her Let’s Move initiative to improve the health of American children. “We’re getting involvement from every sector, from businesses, from the medical profession, from teachers, from parents ... I had hoped when we started this that this would be a unifying issue, because we all care about our kids. And I have seen that positive momentum that people are ready to make some hard choices in their lives, and the way they live. We’ve fundamentally started shifting the conversation in this country.
“Also, you’re going to see more focus on nutrition education,” she added. “That’s as important as the food that they eat — the kids understanding how to eat.”
Mrs. Obama acknowledged that it raised a few eyebrows when a White House that has spent so much time stressing the need for good nutrition hosted a Super Bowl party that featured Buffalo wings, kielbasa, bratwurst, chips and deep-dish pizza. But she insisted that such occasional indulgences are acceptable. “I’ve always talked about balance in this campaign. We’re really trying to make some changes, and if you go at a parent and you say, ‘You can never take your kid to get a burger,’ you’ve lost them, because that’s not the reality that we live in.
“That’s what I tell my kids: You can have birthday cake and do whatever you want as long as you eat your vegetables every day and you’re getting some exercise,” she added. “So this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition ... Life is about good food — at least in America.”
Finally, the first lady tackled a question on many Americans’ minds: Does the president dye his hair?
“No, he’s pretty gray,” she said. “I think if he had known he would be president he would have started dyeing his hair like 10 years ago ... now it’s too late.”