Michelle Obama: 'Prison Elements' to White House Life

Michelle Obama compares White House living to prison days after visiting Nelson Mandela's old cell.

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First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush participate in the African First Ladies Summit on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush participate in the African First Ladies Summit on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

First Lady Michelle Obama has admitted a fact of life that her predecessors have rarely acknowledged: Living in the White House is like a splendid form of incarceration.

"There are prison elements to it," Obama said at a forum in Africa this week. "But it's a really nice prison. You can't complain." She added, however, that the "confining" elements can be difficult to get used to.

Isolation has been a problem for presidents as I describe in my new book, "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." But first ladies can be just as frustrated as their spouses with the "bubble" they live in, because their activities are severely restricted and everything they do in public is endlessly scrutinized.

Sometimes they resort to disguises in order to escape from the White House and move around without drawing attention. Both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton have left the White House secretly on occasion, wearing sunglasses, baseball caps or scarves and casual clothing, to take a walk, go shopping or dine at a restaurant. In October 2011, Obama was photographed wearing sunglasses and a cap as she shopped at Target in the Washington suburbs.

[PHOTOS: Obama's Trip to Africa]

Obama spoke at a meeting of the wives of African leaders in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Tuesday, the final day of the Obamas' weeklong trip to Africa. She was joined by former First Lady Laura Bush, who was on a separate trip to Africa with her husband. The first ladies' event was sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute.

Obama said it's sometimes difficult to highlight important issues "while people are sort of sorting through our shoes and our hair, whether we cut it or not." At that point, Larua Bush interjected: "Whether we have bangs" – causing the audience to erupt in laughter.

Picking up on the theme, Obama said she was surprised by all the recent media coverage of a hair style she adopted that included bangs. "Who would have thought?" she said. "I didn't call that...But we take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see. And eventually people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we're standing in front of."

"We hope," Bush added.

"They do, and that's the power of our roles," Obama said.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.