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Flotus Forever: An Ode To Michelle Obama

We've come to the end of the dirtiest campaign battle in history, but the current First Lady is about to leave the White House with approval ratings Clinton and Trump could have only dreamt of.

If someone asked you to free-associate about Michelle Obama's eight years as First Lady, what would you say? Biceps? Side-eye? Hugging the Queen? The most goosebump-inducing kick-ass speech laying out precisely why no one who thinks 'women and girls deserve to be treated with dignity and respect' can in good conscience vote for Donald Trump?

For me, the answer would be an empty packet of M&Ms and an iPod – exactly what I once glimpsed on sneaking a peek into her black leather tote. The candy might not have been the sort of organic, herbicide-free vegetable she would later become famous for cultivating (if you have never googled 'Michelle Obama and turnip', you really should), and the iPod now seems like a quaint period detail, but the tableau still perfectly embodies the overwhelming impression of normality that I took away from our interview.

It was a snowy day in Wisconsin in 2008. As we drove along in the campaign motorcade, discussing everything from race to work-life balance to the way she had to push Barack to propose, all I could think was: this woman is legit. In the near-decade since that car ride, Michelle has morphed from Target shopper to Thakoon muse, PTA parent to girls' education advocate, but her core solidity has remained unshaken. She is political, but she is not a politician. The winning paradox of Michelle Obama is that she is the most ordinary extraordinary person the American public has ever known.

Mrs Obama is leaving the White House with a stratospheric approval rating of 71%, but she wasn't always the beloved figure that she's become. (Remember the tears and squeals that greeted her visit, last year, to the Mulberry School in London's Tower Hamlets?)

In fact, in the 2008 election, her opponents attempted to paint her as a liability: a harridan who was insufficiently proud of her country, a stereotypical Angry Black Lady. To counter them, she introduced herself as the 'mom-in-chief': a woman who was, above all, head of a household. She considered her children more important than heads of state; her authority sprung not from her Princeton and Harvard degrees, but from her prowess at organising sleepovers and keeping the fruit bowl full.

This was a defensive manoeuvre, designed to appeal to more traditional Americans, but it was also a cunning assertion of her independence, a way for her to hold herself slightly apart from a grubby industry that she resented for demeaning her husband. "That's our job as parents – to hold steady through the whining," Michelle told a crowd at a 2014 gathering for her Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity.

Besides ensuring that over 11 million kids get 60 minutes' exercise a day and forcing the Food & Drug Administration to overhaul nutrition labels, one of her greatest achievements is pulling off a distinctly un-mom-like version of the viral Dougie dance. Putting aside her short-lived experiment with a fringe, that's exactly what she's done: hold steady – through those early attacks on her character, through 'birtherism' (the movement that doubts Barack Obama is a natural-born US citizen) and the financial crisis, ISIS and Orlando – to become a figure of reassurance and sanity for the entire nation. All along, she's known exactly what she was about. Her willingness to open up, whether for James Corden's carpool karaoke or to declare that she lives 'in a house that was built by slaves', has increased with her staying power.

If Michelle Obama has, over the years, become a sort of collective materfamilias, she's soon to become an empty-nester (Malia is 18, Sasha 15). Though plenty of ideas for her next act have been bandied about, from talk-show host to 'lifestyle-brand empress', she's said little about her plans, except that they'll be "mission-based, service-focused".

Despite mounting interest in her as a presidential candidate for 2020, I'll stake a lifetime's supply of M&Ms that she will never run for office. Why would she? It's her time now.

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