In Salt Lake City speech, Michelle Obama preaches hope as she cringes at climate of fear
‘It isn’t just us first,’ she says of America First agenda.<br>
First lady Michelle Obama hosts mentoring event to celebrate Women's History Month in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
When asked how she views the world “right now,” former first lady Michelle Obama had less of an answer and more of a gut reaction.
She cringed and quietly groaned.
“I don’t have much of a poker voice,” Obama said with a laugh.
Though she didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name — a leader who’s spent much of his early tenure trying to erase the legacy of her husband, former President Barack Obama — the former first lady did tell a Salt Lake City audience Thursday that “we are looking at two different administrations.”
One, she said, was built on hope. The other is being led with fear.
“It isn’t just us first,” she said, a reference to Trump’s “America First” agenda. “We live in a big country and a big world. … You can’t just want to help someone in a hurricane and not make sure they can go to the doctor when they’re sick.”
Her remarks, part of an hourlong moderated conversation, came on the last of a three-day tech conference hosted by Pluralsight, a Utah-based company. More than 1,000 attendees, mostly IT employees, raptly watched as she spoke, clapping loudly and nodding in agreement.
One woman in the audience suggested with a shout that Obama run for president.
“Oh no! That’s still shocking. Like what? Are you kidding me? No,” Obama said. “No, running for office is nowhere on the radar screen but continuing in public service is something I will do for the rest of my life.”
And while she acknowledged “things are tough right now” and suggested “we’re being tested,” Obama professed that she “continues to be hopeful” that the political climate will improve.
One avenue with potential, she believes, is technology. Echoing comments she made in June
at Apple’s annual developer conference, Obama urged computing companies to invest in and hire more women (most major tech businesses, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft, have workforces where fewer than 20 percent of the technical employees are female, according to annual “diversity reports”
Changing that composition, Obama said, will take encouraging girls at a young age to study science and math. It will mean bridging “the technology gap” that persists in low-income districts. It requires revisions to the public-school system. And it warrants forming hiring committees with more women and people of color.
“You can’t just say you want to fix the problems, you have to mean it,” Obama said. “If a bunch of white guys are sitting around the table trying to get more women involved, they’re not going to come up with the answer.”
For Utah’s Silicon Slopes and elsewhere, she added, a behavioral change in the office environment at IT corporations will need to accompany that shift.
“You can’t hire women and then they come in and they’re working for chimps. No offense — you guys aren’t all chimps,” Obama said to laughs from the crowd. “I call my husband a chimp sometimes, especially when he’s watching the Sports Center. I’m like ‘Come on. Look at you. You’re an animal.’”
When the moderator, Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard, suggested it isn’t so hard to include more women in the tech community, she responded: “Duh!”
As first lady, Obama focused on improving education, including initiatives for art classes and healthier lunches. But first moving into the White House, she joked Thursday, was a giant trust fall.
“It’s like being shot out of a cannon while drinking from a fire hydrant blind,” she said. “You have to tell the White House what kind of toilet paper you like. You don’t know where your forks are.”
The biggest challenge, Obama added, was raising two young daughters, Sasha and Malia, “under the glare of one of the harshest and biggest lights.” She and Barack Obama would go to parent teacher conferences with a 20-car presidential motorcade. They’d be asked to take photos in the stands at school sporting events. And they’d require Secret Service protection at proms and first dates.
“They take precedent,” she said of the girls with an emphasis that seemed like a subtle jab at Trump mistakenly writing “unpresidented” in a tweet after his 2016 election.
Still, it was with some relief that Obama reflected on her eight years in Washington. “Freedom! I’m out,” she said with a smile.
Obama has visited Utah before in July 2011 to fundraise for her husband’s second presidential campaign. On this trip she pledged to partner with Pluralsight and return to the state to build on the company’s commitments to expand education through technology.
“What Barack and I don’t want to be is the people that won’t go away,” she said, finishing the event with a standing ovation. “We want to help the next generation come up and take our seats.”