CHICAGO — It was “The Michelle Obama Show” in front of 14,000 cheering fans as the lights went down and spotlights blazed skyward for the former first lady’s entrance Tuesday. Through a sound system befitting Beyoncé , Obama called out from backstage at the United Center, “Hey, Chicago! I’m so happy to be back home. I have one question for all of you tonight: Who are you becoming?”
The book tour for Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” began a few miles from her childhood home and will carry her around the country and across the Atlantic in the coming weeks. After a highlight reel, a polished biopic, a video of people telling the camera what they are becoming and the same from a handful of handpicked audience members, Obama strolled on stage to thunderous cheers.
For nearly 100 minutes, she held a microphone and answered questions from her friend Oprah Winfrey, who effusively praised the book and the woman who wrote it.
She probed Obama to tell of her journey from Chicago’s black working class to an independent professional career, a challenging marriage to a future president and the punishing and uplifting life she lived for eight years in the White House.
“There were days when I felt suffocated and other days when I felt awestruck,” Obama said, adding that going high when others go low “doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.”
Here are seven takeaways from the first stop on Obama’s book tour.
Trump’s inaugural: Sameness
At Barack Obama’s two inaugural ceremonies, she saw diversity and “a representation of America.” On January 20, 2017, she saw something else. “When I sat on that stage, I saw sameness. That was the first time it struck me that this is going to be different. And then I listened to the speech and I said, ‘This is going to be really different.’ And my heart sunk.”
Last flight out
Once Trump was sworn in, the Obamas boarded a Marine helicopter, and she was tempted to look over her shoulder and say, "Bye, Felicia." (She didn't.) Aboard the luxurious jet they had flown as Air Force One, she sobbed in her husband's embrace for what felt like 30 minutes.
“I think it was just the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly,” Obama said. “I said, ‘That was so hard. What we just did, that was so hard and I’ve wanted to say that for eight years.’”
Marriage counselor: You both have issues
The Obamas went to couples therapy. "My hope was that we'd go to counseling and the counselor would look at him and say, 'Fix yourself,'" she said, triggering a wave of knowing laughs. "And he didn't tell him. It was sort of, well, 'Then there's you.' And I'm like, 'Whaa? I didn't come here for me.'
“What I learned about myself was it’s not my partner’s job to make me happy, we have to make each other happy.”
Picking the time to tell her story
Obama said the timing wouldn't have been right for a memoir while she was in the White House. She didn't want the attention to her personal thoughts and the country had bigger things to worry about. Now she's ready. "This book is me, fully," she said. "I'm still a box-checking, A student and if a memoir is about truth, then I'm telling it."
Obama often rehearsed for White House events with her staff. "They'd give me a chance to have my bubble moments. We'd practice answers and then I'd be able to say what I would really want to say. My communications director would be like, 'No. No, we shouldn't say that,' " Obama recalled in her best schoolmarm voice. " 'Optics not good.'
“So you count to 10 and you think of a better answer, that’s more appropriate.”
A needlessly divided nation
"We're fighting over stuff, and dividing each other up, over things that don't matter," Obama said, urging her audience to share their stories and to listen to others. "I pray that we seek that empathy in each other and give each other the fricking benefit of the doubt."
Seeing Obama striding into a room, commanding a stage or drawing a laugh on late-night television, outsiders often assume that she has always been self-confident. But she often speaks of her insecurities and her sense that, as she puts it, "I'm not supposed to be here."
Winfrey asked, "Have you finally answered that nagging voice of, 'Am I good enough?' "
Obama answered simply. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah.”