Michelle Obama began to cry as she delivered her final public remarks from the White House on Friday morning at an event celebrating school counselors. Her message, which was directed toward young people, was one of hope and inclusion.
“It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division . . . that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country,” Obama said as her voice cracked. “Our hope that if we work hard and believe in ourselves then we can be whatever we dream regardless of the limitations that others would place on us.
“That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us, politicians, parents, preachers, need to be providing for our kids, because that is what moves this country forward — our hope for the future.”
The first lady, who campaigned energetically for Hillary Clinton, was clearly disappointed by the recent election results; her emphasis that “hope” is what makes the country move forward appears to be a repudiation of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, asserting that he will “Make America great again.”
The school counselor awards ceremony, which Obama began hosting in the White House in 2015, is reflective of the first lady’s focus on young people and opening the White House to groups who typically aren’t invited to the historic mansion.
She became tearful near the end of her speech, discussing the hopes of her father, a municipal water plant worker in Chicago, that his children would be successful. She said she also wanted young people to know they belong in America, which some have questioned following the divisive presidential election.
“No matter where you are from, no matter how much money your parents have, no matter how they worship or who they love or what language they speak at home, they have a place in this country,” she said of the nation’s children.
“This country belongs to you, to all of you, from every background and walk of life. If you or your parents are immigrants, know that you are part of a proud American tradition. . . . If your family doesn’t have much money, I want you to remember that plenty of folks — including me and my husband — started out with very little. But with a good education and a lot of hard work, anything is possible.”
Obama began her remarks lightheartedly by shouting out the celebrity supporters of her educational initiatives — University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, the singer Usher, comedian Jay Pharoah and reality TV personalities Andy Cohen and La La Anthony — who sat in the audience. “As one of my staff said, ‘You roll pretty deep,’ ” she joked.
Obama credited them with using their “star power to inspire young people.” Several of the celebrities had earlier attended the first lady’s “College Signing Day,” a hoopla-filled festival to honor students for their high academic achievements in the same way that future pro athletes are feted.
President Obama has a farewell address in their home town of Chicago scheduled for Tuesday, but Michelle Obama said the education-focused White House event was an ideal setting for her final message. School counselors from every state stood behind her as she credited them with inspiring young people and charged them to continue their work. “You see the promise in each of your students and . . . you do it all in the face of some overwhelming challenges,” she said. “You stick with students in their darkest moments.”
Obama said that she plans to continue encouraging young people to pursue higher education and that she has been building toward life after the White House, considering opportunities to continue her advocacy.
She leaves the White House as one of the nation’s most popular political figures, her approval ratings approaching 70 percent, and her final interviews have been punctuated with questions about her future. While she is looking forward to a private life, and has said she plans to take a warm-weather vacation following the inauguration, she has already begun constructing her post-White House team and is considering her next move. She is expected to write a memoir but has not announced any firm commitments.
Her final talk-show appearance as first lady will be Wednesday on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.”