Back in March, I made a long-odds bet that Michelle Obama would be the Democratic party’s vice-presidential nominee. I knew that in her memoir, Becoming, she had said that she wasn’t interested in high office. But political candidates always claim they aren’t running — until suddenly they are.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, had already said he’d take Michelle as his VP ‘in a heartbeat’, which struck me as funny since, if Biden’s heart stopped beating, his VP would become commander-in-chief. Since Biden had been Michelle husband’s running mate, the idea of a 2020 Biden-Obama ticket had a fairytale symmetry that would thrill the public. Strategists crunched the numbers and found that, with an Obama on the ticket, Biden could cruise to victory in November.
Yet that was all wrong. Biden went for Kamala Harris, who is a West Coast version of Barack with more balls. It turns out Michelle really didn’t want to return to the political front line. She was too busy becoming — to use her favourite word — a podcast host like everyone else. Podcasting is now one of the easiest ways for people with huge public profiles to get even richer. It’s also a lot simpler than, say, trying to fix American healthcare.
The Michelle Obama Podcast is exclusive to Spotify — the tech company that rips off struggling musicians in order to reward established megastars with insanely large sums of money. Spotify has just signed Joe Rogan, the king of ‘bro’ podcasts, for some $100 million. Presumably they hope that Michelle, one of the most popular women on the planet, can establish a similar-sized audience among the more mature global sisterhood — the kind of women who keep a copy of Becoming on their shelves, next to White Fragility and a scented candle.
I’m not that target demographic. Still, I found Michelle a natural broadcaster. She has a pleasingly fruity voice. She sometimes overcooks the homespun folksiness but that doesn’t grate. What does grate is all her psycho-spiritual blather and her politics masquerading as self-help. Michelle is a perfect example of the sinister fusion between power and showbiz. People used to think that Oprah might one day occupy the White House. Instead, the first African-American president and his wife have followed Oprah into talk-therapy as entertainment. Michelle and Barack have their own company, Higher Ground, which signs big deals with Spotify and Netflix.
Lady O. says her show’s first season is about ‘the relationships that make us who we are’. She talks a lot about ‘just being’ and ‘becoming we’, even ‘we-ness’ as a solution to the world’s problems. It’s quite easy to forget that mostly she is just talking about herself.
In her introductory spiel, as a piano twinkles, Michelle tells us that she will also be exploring the ‘issues that we’re all dealing with no matter what is going on, whether that’s a global pandemic or a nationwide reckoning with race, or just any old summer afternoon with our own thoughts’.
It’s all meant to sound wholesome and intimate, and perhaps it is. But it’s also suspiciously vague. The former first lady keeps connecting her experiences to ‘this moment’, by which she means the BLM race riots or the agonies of the Trump presidency. She never quite spells that out, however, probably because she doesn’t want to sully herself with grubby partisanship. ‘When they go low, we go high,’ said Michelle famously in 2016. Yet her aloofness from real politics has the perverse effect of making her show seem more blinkered, not less. She assumes all her listeners must be with her on the side of progressive angels. The worst part is that she is probably right.
The first full episode is a 45-minute conversation between Michelle and her man, the 44th President of the United States. It is charming in parts. Michelle and Barack’s warmth and admiration for each other feels real and clear, or at least brilliantly faked. They both speak movingly about the need for people to come together, sacrifice, and the limits of individualism. It’s hard to imagine Melania Trump telling Donald, as Michelle tells Barack, that ‘one of the reasons why I fell in love with you is … because you are guided by the principle that we are each other’s brothers’ and sisters’ keepers’.
Yet that conspicuous vagueness lingers. It’s like a conversation between two evangelical pastors who act as if they aren’t talking about God when they are. The God in this case is the mission of the Democratic party, yet we are all enjoined to think it is about the common good.
‘It is much more gratifying to live this life as a we,’ concludes Michelle, returning to her third-person theme as Barack talks about how much more rewarding a selfless life can be. True, no doubt, but tough to swallow from a couple who have been rewarded with an enormous fortune for their public service which led to Donald Trump.