When Barack Obama was thinking about getting into politics, his wife didn’t think much of the idea. “Oh, please, no,” she pleaded. “Do something else. There’s just such an easier way to make a living.”
Michelle Obama made that confession to TODAY’s Meredith Vieira as her husband sat by her side during the first joint interview the couple has given in more than a year.
The Democratic candidate for president talked about his relationship with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his well-publicized comments about “bitter” voters who “cling” to their religion. His wife, however, focused on the frustration of standing by while the man she loves takes hits in the media and about how much admires what he’s done.
“There’s still a level of cynicism that's there,” she said of the U.S. senator from Illinois’ chosen profession. “But the truth is, I just know how special he is. And I don't want to sound like the cheering wife.”
Michelle Obama said she’s proud of the way Obama has altered America’s political landscape, citing “the fundamental changes that he has made in just 15 months in the way that people see themselves, the way people see their futures, the way that young people are looking at their possibilities, the way we're talking about politics, even though we slip sometimes, and we still get pulled down into the old ways of playing the political game. Changes have happened.”
Mistakes have also happened, Obama admitted when Vieira asked him about the hits he’s been taking, including being called an elitist.
“We wouldn't be sitting here if that was the perception of the majority of the American people. It's only when you become the front-runner that, suddenly, people are looking for potential chinks in the armor,” he said.
“But are you responsible for some of those things?” Vieira asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Obama spoke specifically about the comments he made in San Francisco leading up to the Pennsylvania primary, which he lost by 9 percentage points to his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. He spoke about the economic hardships voters were facing and said they were bitter and clung to their guns and religion.
“That was very poorly phrased,” Obama said, saying the remarks came at the end of a long day of campaigning when he was fatigued. “I should have said angry and frustrated [instead of] bitter. I should have said people rely on their religious faith during these times of trouble as opposed to cling.”
After those San Francisco remarks, he was hit with the elitist tag. “The irony is that I think it is fair to say that both Michelle and I grew up in much less privileged circumstances than either of my two other potential opponents,” he said.
Obama knows why he’s attracted the attacks. “Here I am. An African-American named Barack Obama who's running for president,” he said with a chuckle. “I mean, that's a leap for folks.”
While admitting to mistakes in his choice of words, he defended the way he’s handled the controversy surrounding his former pastor, the Rev. Wright. When inflammatory comments about America first hit the news earlier this year, Obama stood by his association with the clergyman. Only when Wright elevated the level of his rhetoric this month did Obama finally renounce all ties with him.
“I think that the sequence of events was the right one, because this is somebody who had married Michelle and I; who had baptized our children,” he told Vieira. “When those first snippets came out, I thought it was important to give him the benefit of the doubt. If I had wanted to be politically expedient, I would have distanced myself and denounced him right away. Right? That would have been the easy thing to do.”
Neither he nor Michelle Obama would be drawn into further discussions of Wright.
“We hear time and time again that voters are tired of this,” she said. “They don't want to hear about this division. They want to know what are we going to do to move beyond these issues. What made me so proud of Barack in this situation is that he is trying to move us as a nation beyond these conversations that divide us so deeply.”
“Do you personally feel that the reverend betrayed your husband?” Vieira asked.
“You know what I think, Meredith,” Mrs. Obama replied. “We’ve got to move forward.”
She laughed when she talked about reading media reports about her husband. “I take the paper and I ball it up and I throw it in the corner,” she joked.
“She gets protective of me,” Obama said.
“I do,” she said. “I love my husband. You don’t want anybody talking poorly about the people that you love. And quite frankly, I think he’s handled this stuff. I’m so proud of how he has maintained his dignity, his cool, his honor.”
Obama gently tried to interrupt, admitting to being embarrassed by the praise.
“But I am proud of you,” she said.
“I know,” he replied.