Last Updated Jan 1, 2019 7:14 AM EST
This interview originally aired Nov. 14, 2018.
Michelle Obama is opening up about what it was like for her family to leave the White House after the election of President Trump. Her memoir, "Becoming," released Tuesday, already sits on top of best-seller lists. In it, the former first lady details her unlikely path from growing up in a small apartment in Chicago's South Side to living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In a wide-ranging conversation, "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King spoke to Obama in Chicago about the current state of American politics, overcoming self-doubt, and couples' therapy with Barack Obama. In their first national TV interview together, King also spoke with Obama with her mother, Marian Robinson, about life inside the White House.
Part 1: "The presidency isn't ours to own"
GAYLE KING: It seems that whatever the Obama administration has done, it seems the current administration wants to undo. How do you handle that when you look at the work that you all have done?
MICHELLE OBAMA: You know, the truth is, is that the-- the presidency isn't ours to own... It's the people's jobs. ... It's not how me and Barack feel... Because we occupied that seat for eight years and did the best that we could do. And the next president that is voted in gets to do the same thing. You know, the question that we have to ask, as citizens and as voters, what direction do we want our country to go in? And we-- we saw here that when you sit out, sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you don't. That's the nature of our democracy.
KING: Why do you think Donald Trump won this election? You probably don't spend much time thinking about it.
OBAMA: Because a lot of people came to the polls, and a lot of people didn't. ... Our democracy is clear. It's just sometimes people think, "My vote doesn't count." And that's just so wrong. ... Voting matters. And the people who go to the polls determine how the country is going to be led. The notion that voting doesn't work, that it's fixed. No, it's not. You know? We saw in this midterm people wanted the country to move in a different direction. And they came out in record numbers. And they voted. And that's how it works.
KING: Do you still believe, 'When they go low, we go high?' After all that has happened?
OBAMA: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, what's the alternative? You know, because going low means you're operating from your place of emotion. You know? It doesn't necessarily mean you're operating from a place of results... More often than not, you don't get results when you go low. You just, you know, get your attitude out. ... And... when you're in the White House, and you have that platform, and that responsibility where every word matters, you know, you're often thinking-- or at least Barack and I often thought, is what we're about to say gonna help? Is it gonna move the needle forward? Or is it just gonna make us feel vindicated in the moment? And you learn that vindication in the moment is so short term. ... Going high doesn't mean you don't feel-- have feelings, and that you don't express feelings... That you don't acknowledge hurt, or pain, or anger. You know, that's not what going high is. Going high means now you-- now you have the feeling. How do you express that feeling in the world? And how do you do that responsibly?
KING: You end your book with, "Let's let kindness in." You still feel optimistic about our country.
KING: And we the people. We as a nation.
OBAMA: Yeah. Because I-- I lived in the country, you know? I traveled the country. ... I saw the heart of who we are... Forget race, or party, or ethnicity, or gender. People agree with us or not. People were kind. ... People are worried. People have issues. But everybody's working for the same thing. The same goal. And I got to see that part of America.
Part 2: "Series of punches" and almost leaving the campaign
As first lady, Obama found herself on the world stage as one of the most visible women in the world. But growing up she says she was haunted by self-doubt – one of the revelations in her memoir. In her conversation with King, Obama describes learning that she was not alone in wondering, "Am I good enough?"
KING: You've been out of the White House for 663 days.
OBAMA: Oh my gosh. (LAUGHTER)
KING: How's it going?
OBAMA: It's going okay.
KING: I want people to get a sense, Michelle, of your life.
OBAMA: Uh-huh. Yeah. My life now?
KING: Your life now.
KING: And that first day. It's one of those rare moments. I call it Toast-gate for lack of a better thing. Toast-gate.
OBAMA: Yeah. (LAUGH) This is how I open up the book, as sort of the life that I was living months after we had moved out of the White House. ... I was alone for the first time in a long time. ... Because for eight years prior to that, I had lived a life where I was always with somebody. There was always a constant presence in the White House. ... But that day... Barack was traveling, Malia was in college, Sasha was somewhere doing something. And it was just me, and Bo, and Sunny, my dogs. ... And I did what I didn't do for eight years, which was open up my own cupboard, pull out some bread, and make some cheese toast.
KING: Did you remember how to do that?
OBAMA: I remembered! ... I still had cheese toast skills.
KING: Throughout the book there is a lot of, "Am I good enough?" ... You're told by a school counselor, "You're not Princeton material"... Why did that not destroy you at the time?
OBAMA: Well, because fortunately... it was the direct opposite of everything I had ever been told about myself. ... I had grown up with love and support and encouragement and high expectations. ... But here I walked into this room with a woman who really didn't know me, because it was a big high school, and she had to make a quick assessment. And her assessment could've been-- and I don't know-- was, "Grade point average? Yeah, you're a good student. You know, your scores are good. You're black. You're here in this public school. Maybe you're stretching." She didn't even know my brother went to Princeton. She didn't ask me any questions. ... She didn't try to figure me out. She just decided that the dream I presented was wrong. ... But let me tell you... we could probably go into any room of black women, or people of color, or people who grew up in poor communities, or rural communities, and you'd ask them, "Has anybody ever told you you couldn't?" And everyone would raise their hand.
KING: You get to Princeton, and one of the first things you notice is... "They're not smarter than me."
OBAMA: Mmm-hmm. So now I'm expecting brilliance. Genius. And then what I discover is, wow, there's a lot of arbitrariness to this stuff, you know? Because while a lot of students are sort of criticized, there's a debate about affirmative action when it comes to race. What I point out is that I got to Princeton, I realized there's a whole-- all kinds of affirmative action that goes on. There are kids who get in because they're athletes. There are kids who get in because there's a legacy. ... It's just that race stands out. ... But it was important for me to see that.
[OBAMA during the 2008 campaign: "Are you tired of the way the country is going? Are you mad enough?"]
KING: Did you feel you were judged differently? Because you write in the book your grace would have to be earned.
KING: You knew that you-- you felt you could not stumble.
OBAMA: Yeah. Well I-- I had experienced that over the course of the campaign. ... I write in Chapter 17, you know, that chapter was probably one of the hardest for me to write. And it's the hardest, still, for me to read. Because it goes over a painful time in the campaign when I thought I was doing great telling my story, sharing it honestly. But... my whole persona was distorted. This was the time I was called an 'angry black woman.' I was called 'Obama's babies' mama.' I was called someone who didn't love her country. And I-- I-- I-- I-- it's important for me to paint all that. Because people don't remember that. They see Michelle Obama. Now, especially young girls. And they don't-- they don't-- they were too young to know that part of my journey.
KING: Let's go back to 'angry black woman.' How did you process that? ... It's painful.
OBAMA: It's like the punch in the gut that the counselor... it was another series of punches. Someone who judged me without knowing me. It was just happening at a bigger level. ... But I had to draw on the same foundation of, I cannot let one, or two, or a few people's judgements of me control me. And at that point I had thought about getting off the campaign trail. And I--
KING: You went to Barack Obama and said--
OBAMA: Yeah. I was like, "Look, if I'm not an asset, then just pull me out." And he was like, "No. You are--you're the closer. You know, we need you out there." And so I had to get myself together... I'm gonna have to show the world that I do belong. I am good enough to be the first lady. I do love my country.
Part 3: Marital counseling, and her mother, Marian Robinson
Michelle Obama says it was never easy being the wife of a driven politician. The demands of campaigning and politics strained their marriage, she said, and they sought help in couples' therapy. In their first national TV interview together, King also spoke with Marian Robinson, Obama's mother, about her eight years in the White House.
KING: You've had a complicated relationship, it seems, with politics.
OBAMA: Mmm-hmm. Every time Barack came to me with the idea of running for an office, I was just like, "Please don't do this. Pick another career. You're gifted. Y'all went to college. You got a law degree. Can't you do anything else besides this?" There's so many ways to save the world. But every time I had to think to myself, that approach is selfish. Because I knew I was married to someone who was gifted and someone who could contribute. And but for the fact that I was married to him... it would be hard on me-- I would want him to run.
KING: Yeah. But he was always a different kind of guy.
OBAMA: He's a different guy--
KING: He's a different kind of dude. There's a great story in the book where you said, you wake up one night, and he's staring into space. Is he thinking about his dad? Or is something bothering him?
OBAMA: (LAUGH) Right.
KING: And what was he thinking about?
OBAMA: Like, income inequality. It's like, really, dude? I thought you were dreaming about me.
KING: So you knew he was different. ... You're very candid about talking about marital counseling.
OBAMA: Mmm-hmm. You know, I-- I tell young couples it's like when you get married, you've got that moment. Those-- those years, if you're lucky, where it's just the two of you. Individuals on your paths. You come together when you need to. It all works until you have kids. Your first joint project where the inequalities are felt, you know... I'm working, and managing child care, and sick kids, and trying to coordinate my job, and he's flittering in... Tension started to-- to arise. And we knew that we needed to have a place where we could really work these feelings out.
KING: Was he like, "Great, let's go to counseling"?
OBAMA: Oh, no. Oh, no. No, he was--
KING: "I can't wait to go."
OBAMA: He was-- Barack is a problem solver. It's like, "I'll buy a book, and we will study--"
KING: (LAUGH) On relationships.
OBAMA: On relationships. And we still study Chapter 12. You read Chapter 13. And we can figure this out. You know? It's just one of those things. It's like we don't need help from anybody. And I was like-- Because for me I was like, I need to go to somebody who's going to tell you you're wrong-- exactly, and I talk about that. It's like, well, I didn't get that. The period of counseling, for me, was a turning point. Because I learned that... I was still responsible for my own happiness. ... It wasn't his job to solely make me happy. I had to figure out my space in this.
KING: Do you still feel if we need to go back, we would do that? Even--
KING: --even though that you're so well known now?
OBAMA: Oh, gosh, yes! Yeah. I-- I-- I think counseling is one of those tune up times. ... Marriage is hard. All marriages are hard. And even-- look, I-- you-- you know us. I love my husband.
OBAMA: We have a wonderful marriage. But it takes work.
KING (to ROBINSON): The whole eight years you were in the White House, I think I could count how many times I saw you on TV. And I got up to one, and then I had to stop.
MARIAN SHIELDS ROBINSON: Stop. (LAUGH)
KING: Yeah. It's just not something that you do. ... But why is it that you didn't want to do interviews, Mrs. Robinson?
ROBINSON: I didn't want to say anything that would-- you know how you accidentally say things? I figured if I didn't say anything, then I wouldn't say the wrong thing. (LAUGH)
KING: We don't have to worry about that. ... When your daughter becomes first lady of the United States, and your son-in-law is the president, how do you wrap your brain around that? What are you thinking?
ROBINSON: It's pretty difficult. Let's face it.
KING: Uh-huh. Why?
ROBINSON: Because I felt like this was going to be a very hard life for both of them. And I want-- was worried about their safety. And I was worried about my grandkids. I mean, that's what got me to move to D.C.
KING: Why did you want her there? Why was it important to you?
OBAMA: Oh, because-- for the girls. You know, I-- I-- I wanted them to come home to family... There was just parts of the girls' lives that I just knew were gonna be okay 'cause mom was there. When I traveled internationally, grandma was there. When I wasn't home at the end of the day, grandma was there. When the kids were still little and they needed to have someone be with them in school. I mean, you think about my girls were being driven around in a motorcade of three cars with at least four grown adults with guns in each of those cars. And I just thought that that's an unnatural way for a little second grader to go to school. Well, mom would ride in the car with her to make it feel like a regular carpool.
KING: You're in the White House where they say, "Mrs. Robinson, can we get you something? Mrs. Robinson, do you need anything?"
KING: Was that a big adjustment for you?
ROBINSON: It was a huge adjustment. As a matter of fact, I had talked them into allowing me to do my own laundry.
KING: You were doing your own laundry?
ROBINSON: Yes. (LAUGH)
OBAMA: And she taught the girls how to do their laundry. They would go upstairs for laundry lessons. And she was the most beloved figure in the White House. Let me tell you.
KING: I believe that.
OBAMA: And she had a stream of people. The butlers, the housekeepers. They would all stop by, and they would-- grandma's room was like the confessional. You know, everyone would go there and just unload, you know? And then they'd leave. People still visit mom in Chicago.
ROBINSON: They were like family.
OBAMA: Some of the staff come and visit. If they're in town in Chicago, they visit her.
KING: Do you feel you have your life back? Do you miss the White House at all.
ROBINSON: No. Not at all. (LAUGH)
KING: You have your life back.
ROBINSON: You know, I do miss the people. Because they're-- they were like family to me. And... we got pretty close there.
KING: Your mom says she doesn't miss the White House. Do you?
OBAMA: No. No. I mean, the eight years was more than enough. And what I realized over the years is that home is where we are. You know? And the White House happened to be our home for eight years. But we took all that love and energy, and we just moved it to another house. It's still there. And... that's the part of life that's important.
KING: What's the best thing about Michelle Obama that makes you proudest?
ROBINSON: Well, now I-- my saying is, when I grow up, I would like to be like Michelle Obama. (LAUGH)