Barack Obama on Letting Sasha and Malia "Figure Out Who They Are on Their Own"
Former President Barack Obama started writing his new memoir, A Promised Land, four years ago — long before any of us could have predicted what 2020 would bring. Even so, the book's release feels especially vital and timely in a year that has been so momentous in both presidential and American history. In its resonant pages, Obama looks back at some of the most critical and challenging moments from his early days as commander in chief, but he also shares a more personal, intimate picture of how life in the White House and public eye impacted Michelle and his young daughters, Sasha and Malia. A Promised Land is also forward looking, charting a course for American progress, and speaking to young people about the role they have to play moving the country forward.
POPSUGAR editors asked Obama to give us a look into his writing process, divulge the life lessons he's shared with his own daughters, and speak to young people who are eager for change — but might be discouraged by its pace — in an interview that was both political and personal.
What was your typical routine or process when writing this book? When, where, or in the telling of which stories did you find the words really flowed?
Well, I began the book shortly after the end of my presidency when I was on an actual vacation with Michelle. I'm old fashioned, so I found yellow legal pads, bought some pens I liked — I was very particular about the pens — and by the end of the trip, I had a clear outline of the book in my head.
Sitting down to actually write it was a different story, which I'm sure you've figured out, seeing as that trip with Michelle was almost four years ago. But, eventually, I found my flow, especially during the summer when we had a deadline to hit.
As for what I had the most fun writing, I'd say the answer is the stories about our family. When we were in the White House, Michelle and I tried to protect our girls from the glare of the public spotlight as much as we could, so I had a blast finally getting to describe some of the simple delights of life with them during those years. Those are some of my favorite parts of the book.
Young people — especially young people of color — are at the forefront of the most important social movements of our time. What advice can you share with them, based on your own experiences, on how to keep forging ahead when the battle seems uphill?
"The folks who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your belief that things can't get better. But they are wrong."
Look, as I said in my speech at this year's Democratic National Convention, I understand why a young person might look at politics right now — the meanness and the lies and the gridlock — and think, what's the point?
And my answer to them is that the folks who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your belief that things can't get better. But they are wrong.
Now, that doesn't mean progress in our country moves in a straight line. Sometimes, it's two steps forward, one step back. But if you think it's too hard to bring about change today, my advice to you is to remember those who came before us.
If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans whose right to work in safe conditions, whose right to vote, whose right to marry, whose rights to basic dignity were denied year after year. But instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work.
So many young people, from those who flooded airports in the early days to those who organized protests for racial justice this summer, have followed in those footsteps over the last four years. And if we are going to usher in the progress we need, we cannot let up during these next four. We can't take off four years or eight years in a democracy. There's too much we still have to do.
What's a life lesson you learned from your own mother that you've passed on to Sasha and Malia?
"We'd much rather Sasha and Malia figure out who they are on their own than try to shape who they become."
In the book, I write about a time my mother found out I was part of a group that was teasing a kid at school. She sat me down and said, "There are people in the world who think only about themselves. 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 asked me, "which kind of person do you want to be?"
That question hit me hard — and Michelle and I have tried to impart similar lessons to Sasha and Malia.
But in general, we have tried not to take too prescriptive an approach to parenting. We'd much rather Sasha and Malia figure out who they are on their own than try to shape who they become.
Though we do always make sure to tell them when we're proud of them, just as my mother did with me.
Was there a particular day in your presidency when you experienced both the highest of highs and lowest of lows?
As president, you feel a lot of what happens in this big, raucous country, and we had a full plate from day one — juggling two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Election Night 2008 felt magical. Almost a quarter of a million people came out to celebrate on a warm night in Grant Park, Chicago. But as fun as that night was, it was just a promise. What mattered was delivering on that promise. So the first moment that comes to mind is the night we passed healthcare reform. It had been a long, messy process, just like with all significant legislation, but it changed a lot of people's lives for the better — and to this day, it still is.
Given the political and social divide in America, where do you find faith that it's possible for us to come together as a country and heal that divide?
"Those folks — who look out at everything we face as a country and do the work to make it right — they're the reason I still believe our better days are ahead."
Well, my name's Barack Hussein Obama, and I made it to the White House, so I've always been able to maintain a sense of optimism. And from my very first days as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, I have been amazed by the basic decency of the people I have met around this country. As long as I can keep their stories in mind, I stay hopeful — and that's even been true over the past four years.
We've seen folks of every age and background pack city centers and town squares so that families wouldn't be separated. We've seen the Parkland kids lead us so that another classroom wouldn't get shot up. We've seen healthcare workers risk their lives day in and day out to save somebody else's loved ones. We've seen Americans of all races joining together to declare that Black Lives Matter.
Those folks — who look out at everything we face as a country and do the work to make it right — they're the reason I still believe our better days are ahead.
Additional reporting by Mandy Harris, Lisa Peterson, Zareen Siddiqui, Riyana Straetker, and Lisa Sugar