LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Michelle Obama returned to The Women’s Conference today to address a group of 14,000 attendees, most of whom were women. She noted the last time she was at the conference was a few years ago in which she appeared in a panel with four other wives of presidential candidates. It was one of the highlights of being on the campaign, she said, because it was a “chance to step back and breathe.”
“It had taken a little convincing to persuade me that this whole running-for-president thing was a good idea,” she said. “And by ‘a little’ convincing, I actually mean it was a lot. We had two young daughters at home.”
She said that even once she was on board she was reluctant to go out on the campaign trail. “I didn’t like the idea of leaving my girls for days on end. I didn’t have a whole lot of experience on the stump. And to tell you the truth, I was scared. I was worried that I’d say the wrong thing. I was nervous that someone might ask a question that I didn’t know that answer to.”
She was criticized by her husband’s opponents for comments she made during the 2008 campaign and became a lightning rod for the right.
“I have a tendency to do that thing that a lot of women do," she said, "where you get 99 things right, but spend all your time beating yourself up about the one thing you messed up."
She also took the opportunity to speak about an issue that has become a priority for her as first lady. It was an issue, she admits, she wasn’t aware of before she hit the campaign trail: military families.
She highlighted their struggles: having to move every few years; helping kids adjust to new schools; finding jobs in new towns with no connections or how to ace an interview with an employer who’s reluctant to hire someone who might move in a few years.
These were issues that many women face but Obama sought to portray the additional challenges added when there are other obstacles unique to military families.
“How do you keep your fears and anxieties from your kids when, as one mother wrote me – and this is a quote: ‘A good day is when a military chaplain does not knock on my door.’”
Or, she said, when for Christmas, “The only gift your little girl asks for is for her father to come home.”
“I had no idea,” Obama said.
She acknowledged Jill Biden as a strong partner with her on the issue. “With Joe Biden came Jill Biden, who is a blue star mom and knows a thing or tow about military families,” she said.
Jill Biden, who spoke moments before the first lady, talked about her own experiences being a military mom.
“I will never forget the day when my son told me he was joining the National Guard,” Biden said. “I was worried every single day he was deployed in Iraq.”
She noted the troops she has come across as she’s traveled to military bases. “I am particularly humbled by the female soldiers I meet,” adding that women make up 15% of the military and serve in leadership positions of every branch of service.
Maria Shriver, who introduced the first lady, noted that it was the last time she’d be standing before the crowd as the first lady of California. It was a kind of farewell speech for her, as she thanked her staff and conference organizers who have helped put on the conference for the last seven years. At the same time, it was an introspective look at her time as first lady of California and the journey leading up to it.
“I was wrong trying to talk Arnold out of running for governor,” she admitted. “I, myself, didn’t like growing up in a political family.” She was afraid, she said. “I thank him for not listening to me.”
She recalled her mother telling her not to stand in the way of someone else’s dream. In many ways, her speech was a tribute to her late mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
She thanked her kids for handling their situation with “grace,” saying that her family 1 democrat 1 republican and 2 decline to states.
She said at first, she was reluctant to accept a job that she was told was to design the governor’s Christmas ornaments. She was afraid of giving up her career at NBC News. But in the end, she says, she’s grateful for the experience. “The role of first lady,” she said, “forces you to define not just the role, but yourself as well.”
“My past and my present have prepared me well for my future.” She said she’s learned not to be afraid. “Being outside your comfort zone doesn’t mean you can’t handle it, doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” she said. “It means you’re uncomfortable.”
“I’ve struggled a bit this year,” she said, since her mother died. She also talked about her father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and how painful it is for her at times.
On the closed circuit feed in the press-filing center there were cutaways of women in the audience wiping tears from their faces.
As for what she’ll do after her time as first lady of California is up. “I’ve never made a big decision in my life without my mother,” she said.
“People here are dreamers,” she said. “I feel comfortable here.”
“I’m going to let go of my need to jump into action, my need to have a perfect plan.”