One of the biggest questions former First Lady Michelle Obama had about the 2016 election was, why did female voters reject Hillary Clinton?
“We are here because a lot of people didn’t vote,” said Obama, who was speaking at the 39th annual Simmons Leadership Conference in Boston. “Women weren’t comfortable voting for a woman, sadly. We have to own that reality. To me that is the deeper question for us to claim. As women, what happened? What is going on inside of us where we are still afraid to embrace a different vision of leadership?"
Clinton wasn't a perfect candidate, "but she was way more perfect than many of the alternatives,” Obama added.
In a wide-ranging discussion with Simmons President Helen Drinan, Obama talked about everything from her time at Princeton (she came in feeling like an affirmative action case) to why women are so critical of each other (women expect themselves to be perfect and project that onto other women) to the time Archbishop Desmond Tutu insisted on doing pushups with her. (She said she tried to stop him, but he was persistent.)
And though her post-White House life has been more focused on developing the next generation of leaders than pure politics, she took the opportunity in front of the majority female audience to weigh in on the performance of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I take a deep sigh, and I think about what I’ve learned from my husband,” she said when asked about how she feels about the current state of the country. "We are at a point in time where we have to figure out who we want to be as a nation, and we’ve had two stark examples of what we can be. I know what I want to be,” she added, alluding to the differences between her husband and President Donald Trump.
Despite the problems facing the U.S. today, Obama sees progress. It wasn't that long ago that the Jim Crow laws were being enforced and there was a federal anti-gay marriage statute on the books. “Of course we’re going to have some struggles as we push the needle,” she said. “There are bumps on any journey.”
Obama reiterated that she will not run for elected office. Instead, her post-White House life will focus on cultivating the next generation of leaders through the Obama Foundation, eponymously named foundation. Last Fall, they held a summit in Chicago to bring young leaders from around the world together to network and share ideas. Their time, she said, will be spent developing "thousands of Michelles and Baracks."
“You have to want the job,” Obama said. "Just because I gave a good speech, and I’m smart and intelligent, doesn’t mean I should be the next president. That is not how we should pick the president.”
After Oprah's speech at the Golden Globes about the #MeToo movement, there was speculation that she might run for president, but Obama said voters need to be more concerned with who knows the most about policy as opposed to who makes us feel the best about ourselves. Cultivating young women who understand the issues facing this country as leaders and giving them the guidance they need to navigate the byzantine process of building a political organization and fundraising are a better bet than hoping that a celebrity will run.
And then we have to vote for these women, she added.
"Hillary Clinton, probably the most qualified person in history, lost," Obama said. "That should be more discouraging than the fact that Oprah and I don’t want to run."