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'The New York Times' Looks Ahead At Michelle Obama's Future

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Michelle Obama's event marked the end of eight years highlighting issues such as education, nutrition and veterans, subjects that are important but not very controversial. Jodi Kantor of the New York Times writes that this strategy has worked, putting the first lady, quote, "as far above reproach as anyone in the mosh pit of American politics can hope to be." At the same time, Kantor suggests it has concealed some of the first lady's true personality. I ask Kantor what she meant by that.

JODI KANTOR: The way to describe it, I think, is that it's a very tightly edited version of who she is. She has mostly stuck to pretty anodyne topics. She's anti-childhood obesity, she's pro-veteran. But the Michelle Obama that her old friends remember, that people knew in Chicago, she was a really incisive social critic. She knew how to drive an argument home. People liked her both in the workplace and socially because she was so frank. One of my favorite Michelle Obama quotes - this was something she told us that the Times in 2008 is - she said, you know, I don't like corporate diversity workshops. She was talking about the fact that they can have kind of an artificial feel. She said, you make real progress when somebody is honest enough to say something that's really uncomfortable. Of course when you're a candidate's wife and when you're first lady and the first African-American first lady to boot, that is very, very hard to do. So we saw her play it safe. She used to remind me - I would watch her speeches, and I would think this is like watching an incredibly high-level gymnast execute a routine she has practiced. She is going to go out there and nail every move, and then she's going to get off the floor immediately.

SHAPIRO: But unlike a gymnast, it sounds like you're saying the routines she performed as first lady were not life or death. There was no risk of her falling and breaking her neck 'cause she was doing routines that were not terribly Controversial or high stakes.

KANTOR: Well, except that he was the first African-American first lady, and there was always so much at stake with her husband's agenda. Aides and advisers said over and over again, it's not that she's trying to conceal her true feelings, it's that she does not want to be a political liability to her husband. And that is what is so interesting now because for the first time we're about to enter a moment when she really doesn't have to worry about her husband's political career. And not only that, but she's going to be living in Donald Trump's America. I mean, think of what we're about to watch on Inauguration Day. She's going to hand over the keys to her house to this man who smeared her husband, who is going to work to undo everything the Obamas tried to do together. You know, how does she really feel about that? What is her true opinion, and is she going to start sharing it with us?

SHAPIRO: A lot of Democrats would love to see her become more overtly political and overtly partisan after she leaves the White House. Do you think that's likely?

KANTOR: You know, that's what I really wrote about in today's story. Michelle Obama kind of has two identities. In private, she is actually often much more vehement than her husband about Republican opposition. It was very hard to get sources to put it on the record, but they would describe the way she talked about Republicans and opposition in private. And, you know, her remarks were scorching. The level of heat that she can give off in these conversations is often much greater than what Barack Obama does.

SHAPIRO: And do you think we'll now hear that in public?

KANTOR: I don't know if we'll hear it fully because she is also a great admirer of the kind of Laura Bush approach to public life. When she said a few months ago when they go low we go high, I think she was talking about general political rhetoric, but she was also talking about herself. She is somebody who really wants to take the high road. And also, I mean, let's say she became more vocal after the presidency, right? That just begs another question which is does she want to become kind of a partisan warrior thwacking it to Republicans, or does she want to transcend? Does she want to try to bring the country together? For the Obamas in many ways, they have always considered that the higher mission.

SHAPIRO: Jodi Kantor of The New York Times. Her book about the president and first lady is called "The Obamas: The Partnership Behind A Historic Presidency." Thanks a lot.

KANTOR: Thanks so much, Ari. It's great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.