Life after the White House for Michelle Obama and U.S. first ladies before her

Michelle Obama is waving goodbye to eight years as U.S. first lady. What comes next? Photo from Getty Images
Michelle Obama is waving goodbye to eight years as U.S. first lady. What comes next? Photo from Getty Images

As U.S. president Barack Obama bid farewell in an address Tuesday, he honoured his wife, Michelle Obama, for having “grace and grit.”

In his Chicago speech, he looked to his wife and said: “For the past 25 years, you’ve been not only my wife and mother of my children, but my best friend. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You’ve made me proud. You’ve made the country proud.”

What happens when Michelle hands over the keys to incoming first lady Melania Trump?

Obama is a Harvard-educated lawyer, who founded the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a not-for-profit organization. By the way, Michelle is one of three first ladies with an advanced degree — including Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

There have been calls for the popular public figure to run for the highest seat in 2020 — much like Hillary Clinton. Though she has been mum on that front, her husband has emphasized that she will not.

“Michelle will never run for office,” he said during an interview with Rolling Stone in November. “But I joke that she’s too sensible to want to be in politics.”

Though it’s hard to predict with any precision as to her next steps, there are murmurings she could continue on projects she promoted while she was in the White House: girls’ education and healthy families. She often invited media to watch her plant a new garden full of vegetables at the White House and emphasized the benefits of exercise.

“I am so excited to continue working on this issue not just for the next seven months as first lady, but for the rest of my life,” she said of her work on education for girls at a woman’s summit in June.

What have other first ladies done post-White House?

Photo from Getty Images
Photo from Getty Images

Most recently, we saw Hillary Clinton run for president as the Democratic candidate. Prior to that she served in the Obama administration as secretary of state — after spending eight years as a New York state senator after her husband, Bill Clinton, left office (1993 to 2001). She also shot down recent rumours she would make a run for mayor of New York City.

Photo from Getty Images
Photo from Getty Images

Laura Bush, who was a school librarian before she married George W. Bush, focused on literacy campaigns while her husband was the governor of Texas and then when he was president (2001 to 2009). Since she left the White House in 2009, Bush maintains a busy schedule of about 200 events a year, giving speeches and attending conferences, according to the Washington Post. As well, she helps program for the Bush Center, the presidential library for the 43rd president. The couple also work on opening clinics in Africa focused on cervical and breast cancer and continues to promote the program known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Photo from Getty Images
Photo from Getty Images

One of the most public first ladies was Nancy Reagan, known for her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign during her husband Ronald’s time in office from 1981 to 1989. After leaving the White House, she established the Nancy Reagan Foundation to support after-school drug prevention programs. And then, when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, they created the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago. Ronald passed away in 2004 and Nancy died last March.

Photo from Getty Images
Photo from Getty Images

Betty Ford — whose husband Gerald Ford was appointed president (1974 to 1977) after Richard Nixon resigned — was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer just weeks after becoming first lady and underwent a mastectomy. Ford was open about her illness at a time when such matters were never in the public. A strong advocate of women’s rights, she landed TIME magazine’s woman of the year accolade in 1975. Her most noted legacy, however, was concerning addiction treatment. She had developed a opioid dependency due to a pinched nerve. Post White House, her alcohol drinking increased and she underwent rehabilitation. After a full recovery, she established the Betty Ford Centre in 1982 to help women with chemical dependencies. And as the 1990s wore on, she lent her voice to support gay and lesbian rights in the workplace, and spoke out in support of same-sex marriage. Ford died in 2011.

Photo from Getty Images
Photo from Getty Images

Jackie Kennedy — whose husband JFK was assassinated in 1963 — focused on her husband’s legacy: opening the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in 1977 and advising at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She married Aristotle Onassis in 1968, and after his death in 1975, she took up work as a book editor. Kennedy, who had a degree in French literature, maintained her lifelong interest in the arts and preserving historical structures — she successfully lobbied legislators in the New York State capitol to prevent private concerns from changing or destroying their property if it was deemed historical architecture. She died in 1994.

Eleanor Roosevelt set an example for future first ladies. She re-made the position. Prior to her time in the office (1933 to 1941), most of them stayed in the background. While Franklin held the highest post in the land, she gave press conferences advocating for human rights, women’s issues and children’s causes. She also wrote a newspaper column, “My Day,” and travelled abroad to visit American troops during WWII. Roosevelt actively worked after her stint in the White House: President Harry Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, from 1945 to 1953. She also chaired the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission and helped to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

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