What made Michelle Obama succeed as first lady?

Michelle Obama's top moments as first lady
Michelle Obama's top moments as first lady

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Michelle Obama's top moments as first lady 01:14

Story highlights

  • Michelle Obama is leaving the White House more popular than her husband
  • Isha Sesay: Michelle Obama never framed her experience as a 'black experience,' so it was one that everyone could relate to

(CNN)First lady Michelle Obama will leave the White House on Friday as one of the most influential first ladies of all time and with a higher approval rating than her husband.

How has she done it? CNN's Isha Sesay, founder of W.E. Can Lead, a nonprofit organization working in Sierra Leone to educate and empower girls, was invited to travel with the first lady to Morocco and Liberia for the filming of CNN Films' "We Will Rise: Michelle Obama's Mission to Educate Girls Around the World." She said Obama's ability to be truly empathetic has allowed the first African American first lady to resonate with people across all walks of life. "Everyone who met her knew that they were dealing with someone very, very real," Sesay says.
Here's an edited transcript of a conversation with the CNN International anchor and correspondent:
    Obama tears up talking about Michelle
    Obama tears up talking about Michelle

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      Obama tears up talking about Michelle

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    Obama tears up talking about Michelle 02:00
    CNN: Can you describe what it was like watching Mrs. Obama walk into the room and speak with the young girls during your trip?
    Isha Sesay: I mean she's so graceful, elegant, and warm. There's always that moment of, like, an out-of-body thing. Is she really in the room? Is she really that available and approachable and sort of normal? It always takes you aback. You have that moment where you're expecting a little bit more formality and she doesn't come with that. She doesn't come with any of that.
    CNN: Were there any boundaries between the girls and the first lady?
    Sesay: We had quite a few conference calls with the White House staff. I asked what would be the protocol for the girls who would meet Mrs. Obama. It was made clear that once the girls got through security and were in the room with her, they could touch and refer to her freely. There were no restrictions placed on the interactions with her.
    CNN: How do you think she has been able to remain so normal over the past eight years?
    Sesay: Her upbringing and her life experience prior to becoming the first lady. I think it's everything that has shaped her. I think to come from the South Side of Chicago with a father who taught her to work hard and to be raised by a really strong mother who taught her to be focused and determined, has shaped her tremendously. To have risen to the heights that she has risen to before she even became first lady -- from being a lawyer to her public service dedication in Chicago -- are things you just don't shake off. All of those are character-building experiences. You can tell when you speak with her that she grew up in a space where family, community, and making a difference were everything. And she carried all of those experiences right into the East Wing.
    Everyone who met her knew that they were dealing with someone very, very real.
    When she hears a girl talk about hope, struggles, and challenges, she knows what that means. She is truly empathetic, not sympathetic, but empathetic.
    CNN: Her representation for black women is quite evident, but she really resonates with all women. How has she been able to do that?
    Sesay: I think she is one of those people who transcends race. I think being a black woman adds another layer, but she's a woman first of all and I think women have universal struggles of being a working mother, people challenging your potential, doubts, and glass ceilings.
    I don't think that she ever puts up walls when she speaks to people. I don't think that she ever framed her experiences as a "black experience." She calls upon the principles and values that all people share. Her desire for a better life, her desire for people to be healthy, her desire for children to be educated, her love for her family, and her love for her husband. I think those are things that everyone can buy into whether you're black or white.
    CNN: You've said that you think Mrs. Obama will be much more effective out of the "machinery of government," how so?
    Sesay: Don't get me wrong, the machinery of government definitely elevated her and put her on a global stage. Everyone realized, "Oh my gosh, I actually want to listen to this woman."
    But I think that she is going to have a lot more freedom to go to more places and meet more people. She will be able to shape her own agenda without worrying that in some way her agenda may be in conflict with policies or politics.
    I remember asking her about leaving the White House and about what comes next. I recall her saying, "You know, traveling is going to be a lot easier."
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    CNN: After she leaves the White House, will she ever stop being looked at underneath a microscope of being the first black first lady?
    Sesay: Never. I think that she's quite remarkable and I think that people will always be fascinated by what she does. The Obamas were scrutinized while they were in the White House and they will be scrutinized afterwards because of who they are. I think that, that scrutiny will be heightened more than any presidential family.
    Another thing to remember is they've both got activist roots. They're both active in wanting to change things. I feel like they both want to be disruptive -- in the best sense of the word -- to make things better for people. I think that's going to continue when they leave the White House. Anyone who kind of shakes things up, breaks down barriers, and tries to change the way people think always comes with scrutiny.
    CNN: I have to ask, do you have Mrs. Obama's number in your phone? Can you call and say, "Hey, when this is all over do you want to grab a cup of coffee?"
    Sesay: I'm not quite inside the bubble. I may have to call a friend who calls a friend who calls a friend. Trust me, I'm a very enterprising journalist, so I know I could get it, but not on speed dial.
    This interview was conducted by Jhodie-Ann Williams.