The Story of How Michelle Obama Made ‘Yes We Can’ Happen


“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”

Those were some of the last words uttered by Barrack Obama during his farewell speech delivered last night in Chicago, Illinois – the place where it all started.  He spoke to a crowd of around 18,000 people including political leaders, celebrities, and constituents, while millions more watched and followed along on social media.

Needless to say, more than a few tears were shed – the president’s included. And to end it all, were the words that sprang from Obama’s lips eight years ago when he was a young Senator from Illinois campaigning on a a platform of hope:

“Yes, we can.

Yes, we did.

Yes, we can.”

The audience erupted. The internet burst. And much of the faith that many felt was lost this past election season was partly restored by a sentence that made America believe in change all those years ago, and helped many to remember to hold onto hope in the years ahead. Yes we can.

But the iconic slogan itself almost didn’t happen. As the Washington Post explains, the phrase was first written into the young Obama’s ‘seriously underfunded’ 2004 U.S. Senate advertisement by David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign media advisor at the time.

RELATED: First Lady Michelle Obama Teaches Us How To “Live Our Lives Out Loud” In Her Farewell Interview

Axelrod added this into the last part of his script – the sign off- at the last minute. But Obama’s reaction when he read over the copy was less than enthused. He wondered if the phrase was too corny. According to the Post and Axelrod’s accounts, Obama turned to his wife, Michelle Obama and asked,

“Meesh, What do you think?”

“Not corny” she replied from her perch on the stairs, a quick a stoop she had taken during a lunch break to watch the future president create his first commercial. In his memoir, Axelrod wrote,“He deeply trusted Michelle’s instincts and connection with people. Her imprimatur immediately sealed the deal, preserving a tag line that would become our rallying cry in this and future campaigns.”

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The Obamas relationship together has long been admired, and they often refer to each other as best friends. Yet despite his leading place in government, Obama has always looked to his wife – a Harvard Law School graduate who established herself in both the public and private sector.

When asked by the New York Times in 2009 how any couple can have a truly equal partnership when one member is president,  Obama responded, “My staff worries a lot more about what the First Lady thinks than they worry about what I think.”

FLOTUS has been an essential cornerstone of her husband’s presidency and has respectably carved out her own position into a post that is anything but the traditional figurehead’s past. Aside from coining the term FLOTUS, she has championed healthy eating, military families and established a role model for the young, modern women.

“She really modernized the position of First Lady,” says Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post while discussing Obama’s legacy as FLOTUS on CNBC.

Yet it was the First Lady’s ability to be real, and authentic that was and will be the standing cornerstone of her legacy, despite the harsh critics she faced while in the White House, says MoveOn.org’s Karine Jean-Pierre; “A lot of it was because she was so real. Michelle Obama was one of the most authentic political figures that we will ever see in our lifetime. While she changed the White House, she didn’t let it change her.”

It was that sense of guttural, instinctive truth, an understanding of the people she and her husband represented, as well as a keen sense of the political landscape that helped seal the deal on the campaign slogan that would change the history of the United States that fateful afternoon of filming twelve years ago.

Yes We Can became an echoing phrase for the Obama campaign and presidency. As the legacy of America’s 44th presidency comes to a close, it was a phrase that was sorely needed last night. And one last reason the First Lady’s will be a huge presence in the Obama’s legacies .

Shanthi Blanchard

About Shanthi Blanchard

Shanthi is a writer and consultant based in New York City. As a digital and brand strategist, Shanthi works for women entrepreneurs and rural businesses on a mission to improve the world. She is also a passionate political writer, sports enthusiast, and runner. Follow her in twitter and Instagram @Oms4Shanthi. Pitch Shanthi: shanthi@heragenda.com
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