Obamas-Inside-6/22/14
(Photo: MIller Mobley for Parade)

This week, America’s foreign policy is dominating the headlines, but it’s the White House’s second-term domestic agenda that’s the focus of our Parade cover story. On Monday, June 23, the President and Mrs. Obama will host a Working Families summit in Washington, D.C. to discuss the need for affordable childcare and paid family leave, raising minimum wage, and achieving equal pay for all. In an interview conducted by Parade Editor-in-Chief Maggie Murphy and contributing writer Lynn Sherr on May 20, the Obamas opened up about their personal connection to these issues and what they hope to accomplish during their remaining time in the White House. 

President Barack Obama and wife Michelle have never been your typical working stiffs. With four Ivy League degrees between them, they’ve enjoyed high incomes and strong job security. But before and during college, they each worked minimum-wage jobs. And there was a time when they felt the same kind of financial aches and marriage strains that today’s dual-income families know all too well. As a young married couple in Chicago, they were mired in student debt, juggling multiple jobs and two kids, and bickering over who did what housework. “I wouldn’t fold,” remembers the president. “I didn’t separate, and Michelle’s point was, that’s not laundry.”

Silly suds stories aside, the Obamas feel they’ve been there. They know what families need, especially America’s working moms. According to the Pew Research Center, a record 40 percent of households with children under the age of 18 are led by mothers who, much like the president’s own mother, are either the sole or primary breadwinner for the family. Of working mothers with very young children, one in five has a low-wage job.

On June 23, to help raise the national discussion of these issues, the president will host the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington, D.C., a listen, learn, and recommendation session open to business leaders, lawmakers, economists, and ordinary citizens. Says the president, “There are structures that can help families around child care, health care, and schooling that make an enormous difference in people’s lives.”

Photo: MIller Mobley for Parade
(Photo: MIller Mobley for Parade)

In a May 20 interview with Parade editor in chief -Maggie Murphy and contributing writer Lynn Sherr in the Oval Office, the first couple discussed their work experiences, what they hope to get done before they leave the White House, and their roots in the ordinary. The president, who once scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, began by recalling his days as a waiter in an assisted living facility—a story that even surprised his wife.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was a great job, although the folks there sometimes were cranky because they were on restricted diets. Mr. Smith would want more salt, and you’d say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith. You’re not allowed.”

MICHELLE OBAMA: I never knew about that one!

PO: I also worked as a painter. My first four jobs were minimum wage or close to it.

MO: My last year in high school, I worked at a bindery, side by side with grown-ups who had been there their entire lives. Knowing that I, as a 16-year-old, was getting the same income and doing the same work… it gave me respect for those workers. But it also gave me an understanding that more is needed for folks to be able to cobble together a decent life on minimum wage.

PARADE: When you first got married, you weren’t poor, but you did have some economic struggles. How did you pay for your mortgage? Could you save money?

PO: When Michelle graduated from law school, she went back and lived in her parents’ house, upstairs. When I got out of law school, I moved in with her. So we lived for a year in Michelle’s mom’s second floor.

Courtesy of Obama for America
Early in their marriage, despite having good jobs, the Obama's (in the mid-'90s) found it (Courtesy of Obama for America)

And now she’s living upstairs.

PO: Right. [laughs] The car I drove for the first five years of our marriage was used. I bought it for $1,000, paid cash. So, we pinched pennies. But we also got help. My grandmother helped a little bit on the down payment [for a condo]. And we scraped together what savings we had.

Who handled the budget?

PO: I was usually the bill payer,

the grocery shopper, and generally the dishwasher. Michelle was -usually the bathroom cleaner, just because she didn’t think I did a good enough job. [laughs] There were certain things she just didn’t trust me to do.

One of your initiative’s priorities is fair pay—and equal pay for women. Mrs. Obama, when you were working in law, did you think you were being paid less than your male coworkers? 

MO: You know, I didn’t really think about it. Because—and I think this is one of the challenges women face—we don’t think about salary enough. When I got hired in my firm, I was grateful. There wasn’t even a thought of negotiating at all. I thought I was there to do a good job.

Now I realize that that’s one of the challenges that we have as women:  We don’t negotiate for ourselves. We don’t negotiate hard. And I realized that again later on when I had Malia, my first child. After a while, I asked for part-time work [at the University of Chicago]. And I did the same job, part time. Essentially, I just got paid less. That was the first time I realized I would never again work part time, because that’s not a good deal for women.

As you, Mr. President, write in The Audacity of Hope, there were “strains” in your marriage during that period. 

PO: Look, we had Malia, and then three years later we have Sasha. At that point, our student loans are still more than our mortgage. Michelle’s working full time. I have three jobs. There are stretches where I’ll be away for three days at a time. If the babysitter can’t make it, Michelle’s the one who’s got to scramble and figure it out.

Courtesy of Obama for America
"What is best in me, I owe to her," the president (above, with his mother, Ann Dunham, in an undated photo) wrote of his single mom in Dreams From My Father. (Courtesy of Obama for America)

Because she’s the mom or because she’s there?

PO: Because she’s the mom, but also because she’s there. If Malia or Sasha got sick, it was Michelle who would come home. There were times where we couldn’t always afford to provide things that would be helpful to Michelle to make time for herself. So, for example, I’d go work out. Michelle wouldn’t, because she felt, “I’m already away from the kids. If I take time for myself, then somehow maybe I’m not being a good mom.”

So there were arguments based on this.

PO: Look, parenting is the greatest joy in life, but it also creates a strain. And we were lucky. We knew families who, at the same time as they were going through this, were also dealing with an ailing parent.

Talk about that. Part of the Working Family initiative is also about making sure people have access to paid family leave, whether to care for a child or a sick parent. Why is it important to have that time?

PO: Michelle and I were lucky because, as professionals, you generally have some flexibility built into the job. But what it made me think about was people who were on the clock. If you’re an hourly worker in most companies, and you say, “I’ve got to take three days off,” you may lose your job. At minimum, you’re losing income you can’t afford to lose. Michelle had an ailing dad when we were first dating; he had multiple sclerosis. She remembers the toll that took on the family.

MO: I took my last job [before my husband entered the White House] because of my boss’s reaction to my family situation. I didn’t have a babysitter, so I took Sasha right in there with me in her crib and her rocker. I was still nursing, so I was wearing my nursing shirt. I told my boss, “This is what I have: two small kids. My husband is running for the U.S. Senate. I will not work part time. I need flexibility. I need a good salary. I need to be able to afford babysitting. And if you can do all that, and you’re willing to be flexible with me because I will get the job done, I can work hard on a flexible schedule.” I was very clear. And he said yes to everything.

You should be the agent for every woman out there.

MO: That’s how I advise young women: Negotiate hard and know your worth.

So much of it falls on women. But, Mr. President, you’ve spoken about the fact that so many young fathers in our society, particularly in lower-income communities, need our support, too. How do we put Dad back in the picture?

PO: We were talking earlier about the strains on the family with two parents working and young children at home. I want to be absolutely clear: Michelle bore far greater burdens than I did. But I think she’ll also admit that I really love being a dad.

But when men don’t have work, when they don’t feel good about being able to support their families, then often they detach themselves. The children then don’t have a male presence in the home. And the mother, no matter how heroic she is, now is on her own, which puts more strain on her.

So, part of the challenge here is to say to young men, “Take responsibility for your children.” But part of it is also, let’s make sure we’ve got an economy in which they feel as if they’re attached to the workplace, and bringing home a paycheck.

Mr. President, you have two and a half years left in office. Which parts of this initiative are you going to fight hardest for?

PO: We want to start the conversation and move on all fronts. There are things I can do administratively, like executive orders on equal pay and on minimum wages for workers on federal contracts. If I want a minimum wage nationally, we need Congress to act. On child care, we’re pushing for universal pre-K. On all fronts, we’re pushing for legislation. But if Congress doesn’t act, then we’ll work with various stakeholders, highlighting companies and businesses that are doing the right thing.

This is where people live. If we can highlight these issues and sustain it over the next year, it’s still possible to see bold action out of Congress. Families just want to see progress. They don’t expect this to be solved right away.

Is this about your daughters also, and their future?

PO: Absolutely. Every little girl I meet out there, I think about Malia and Sasha, and the notion that they’d be treated differently, trapped, not paid enough, having to settle for a raw deal on the job, having to scramble between taking care of kids, taking care of an aging parent, being single moms like my mom was and going to school and work at the same time, then having to come home and cook.

Courtesy of Obama for America
"Families happen because you have a society that is supportive of families," says the president (with Mrs. Obama and Sasha, left, and Malia, right, in 2004). (Courtesy of Obama for America)

 

Do you want your daughters to work in the types of character-building minimum-wage jobs you had?

MO: Oh, yeah. I think every kid needs to get a taste of what it’s like to do that real hard work.

PO: We are looking for opportunities for them to feel as if going to work and getting a paycheck is not always fun, not always stimulating, not always fair. But that’s what most folks go through every single day.

MO: That’s what life is.

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