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By Jodi Kantor
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When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, he also won a long-running debate with his wife Michelle. Contrary to her fears, politics now seemed like a worthwhile, even noble pursuit. Together they planned a White House life that would be as normal and sane as possible.
Then they moved in.
In the Obamas, Jodi Kantor takes us deep inside the White House as they try to grapple with their new roles, change the country, raise children, maintain friendships, and figure out what it means to be the first black President and First Lady. The Obamas is filled with riveting detail and insight into their partnership, emotions and personalities, and written with a keen eye for the ironies of public life.
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One late September afternoon in 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama were sitting together in the gold-and-ivory splendor of the Oval Office, discussing the most personal of matters in the most official of settings. I was interviewing them for an article in the New York Times Magazine about their marriage, and as they sat in matching striped chairs, Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington watching over them, they spoke about their partnership.
The president was analytical that day, the first lady funny and expressive. But it was clear that the perfect-seeming couple that had glided across the dance floor at the inaugural balls nine months earlier were still privately grappling with the very fact of being president and first lady. Michelle Obama said she still asked her husband, whenever she found him seated behind John F. Kennedy's desk, a few feet away, "What are you doing there? Get up from there!" When I asked how it was possible to have an equal marriage when one person was president, the first lady let out a sharp "hmmmpfh," as if she were relieved someone had finally asked, then let her husband suffer through the answer. It took him three stop-and-start tries. "My staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than they worry about what I think," he finally said, before she rescued him with an answer about how their private decisions were made on an equal basis.
A few moments later, the president made the implausible case that his wife should be somehow walled off from political culture—"the silliness of Washington," he called it. Yet when she insisted that she was wholly uninterested in politics or policy, he eyed her with a bemused expression and gently contradicted her, saying he relied on her feel for public opinion on every domestic policy issue.
After the article was published, I couldn't stop thinking about the subtle tension I had felt in that room. Some of it was between the Obamas themselves. But the real mismatch was between the first couple and the world into which they had catapulted themselves. For all of their ease together in public and the stunning ambition they had shown in pursuing the presidency, the Obamas were not entirely comfortable with the bargains they had made.
How could they be? At the start of the presidential race in 2007, the candidate everyone still called Barack was just two years out of the Illinois State Senate, while his still-unknown wife bought her size-ten shoes on the Nordstrom sale rack, knew her way around a McDonald's drive-thru menu, and expressed little desire to live in Washington. Back then, they seemed like the rare political couple who were residents of our world, not a universe of green rooms, briefing books, and sycophantic handlers. They told us they were different from others in political life; they vowed to remain normal in the White House and to change the nation's capital without letting it change them.
Now, after a career criticizing the establishment, Barack Obama was the establishment. He had little Washington, managerial, economic, or national security experience, and yet his agenda was vast, the country's crises severe, his glow already dimming that autumn. He was a solitary figure in a job where emotional engagement, not just policy accomplishments, was essential to success. The Obamas had disappeared deep into the White House; their friends had become their staff, their children celebrities, their new dog the recipient of letters requesting his official portrait. By 2012, would they still be the couple we met in the 2008 race? How would they cope with the difficulties and failures that were just starting to come into view that fall? Had the Obamas' freshness to political life really been an asset in the first place?
There was something else, too. The Obamas had spent their marriage debating how much change was possible within the political system and whether public life could be made livable. The first lady was the worrier, with little trust that government could create lasting change and fear that political life was inherently corrosive. "I didn't come to politics with a lot of faith in the process," she had said years earlier. "I didn't believe that politics was structured in a way that could solve real problems for people." The president didn't disagree, exactly; his critique of the powerful was nearly as unsparing. But he had an astonishing faith in his own abilities: he believed that he could solve those real problems; that together they could protect themselves from the toxic forces Michelle feared. He told the country, but also his own wife, that he could reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: red and blue America, the legislative process and lofty goals, a political life and a private one.
The White House was already testing those promises severely. "The strengths and challenges of our marriage don't change because we move to a different address," the first lady said in the interview. It was my first clue that the Obamas' private debate hadn't ended on election night 2008—that it continued in the White House, with greater force, scope, and complexity than ever.
Exploring the impact of the presidency on the Obamas' relationship was not nearly enough, I realized. The question was too small. The more difficult question was the reverse one: the impact of their partnership—their debates and differences, shared ideas about themselves, and deep hesitation about politics—on the presidency, the job of first lady, and the nation. In public, they smiled and waved, but how were the Obamas really reacting to the White House, and how was it affecting the rest of us?
I reported and wrote this book to answer those questions. I discovered an untold story of Michelle Obama's deep initial difficulty in the White House—her disorientation in a strange, confined new world, tense relationships with many of her husband's advisers, struggle for internal influence, and eventual turnaround. I also found that reporting on her was a way to better understand her elusive, introverted husband. She is his sparring partner, early-warning system, refuge, and guardian—tougher, by his own admission, than he is. Hers are the ultimate standards he tries to live up to, with consequences we will be debating for a long time to come. Knowing her real experiences in the White House helps us understand not just one of the most influential women of our time but fresh and essential truths about her husband's tenure.
ONE OF THE STRANGEST THINGS about the presidency is how unsparingly intimate it is. The White House is an office, home, and museum all at once, those three functions constantly colliding. The president and first lady often hide just inches from public view. Their jobs are performed the same way, with little separation between public and private, political and personal. Instincts, aversions, blind spots, and vanities that would not matter much in ordinary workplaces have huge significance. Again and again, working on this book, I saw how the Obamas' personal dynamic had consequences for the rest of us: a shared mistrust of politics so strong it sometimes hurt the presidency; the president's often unrealistic assessments of what he could accomplish and the first lady's worry about them; the way the president's career repeatedly required the first lady to take a backseat to him, and the various ways she has reasserted her power; their frequent desire for escape and relief from the life they worked so hard to attain; and the way Michelle Obama rescues Barack Obama, again and again, personally and politically. With many Americans frustrated with Obama's stewardship of the economy, his reelection in 2012 increasingly rests on attractive images and charming stories of him and his family, even though the true story of the Obamas in the White House is far more complex.
Two years after the Oval Office interview, with a great deal more reporting behind me, the idea of discussing marriage in that setting no longer seems strange to me but exactly right. Barack and Michelle Obama have been married to each other since 1992, but for at least another year and possibly longer, they are married to us, too.
Michelle Obama was wearing dark sunglasses and a baseball hat, trying to escape notice.
In early November 2008, just a few days after her husband had won the presidential election, she slipped out of the armed fortress formerly known as her Chicago home with her seven-year-old daughter, Sasha. Their destination was Sasha's tennis lesson at a public court behind an elementary school a few blocks away. The leaves had already turned but the weather was still warm, and boys were playing baseball next to the tennis court.
The notion that her husband was truly going to be the president of the United States was just sinking in. It had only started to seem real on election night, when she stood on stage for his victory speech in front of celebrants in Chicago and far beyond. ("You actually pulled this off?" she murmured to him.) But things were happening fast: he was sketching out what his senior staff and cabinet would look like, and people were already standing for him when he walked into the room. A new Chicago transition office was being prepared, the Secret Service laying thick sheets of bulletproof plastic over the windows. Laura Bush called to invite Michelle to come see the White House. A nationwide guessing game was already erupting over where her daughters would attend school in Washington and even what breed of puppy they would get. Dazed by it all, almost as if reluctant to face the enormity of what had happened and what she would need to do, the president-elect's wife was clinging stubbornly to familiar routines: hence the tennis lesson.
At the park, they ran into Susan McKeever and her daughter, Alana Sahara. They were part of the close-knit group that had seen the Obamas through their rapid rise, watching the girls, keeping the candidate and his wife company in hotel suites in strange cities. They were real friends, from the neighborhood, not political acquaintances. Michelle and Susan were on the board of the same African dance troupe, and just a few years before they had been planning fund-raisers together, including one that filled the Obamas' brick home with loud, rhythmic drumming.
As the two women caught up, McKeever discreetly inquired about an issue the Obamas had quietly been discussing.
"What's the plan? Have you figured things out yet?" she asked.
The first-lady-to-be shook her head. "I still don't know what we're doing," Michelle said, looking worried.
Only a handful of friends and aides knew what Michelle was considering: staying behind in Chicago with her daughters for the rest of the school year while the new president moved to Washington alone. They would all attend the inauguration, of course, but Michelle wasn't sure the rest of the family had to relocate so soon. Perhaps they could take the rest of the year to research school options, slowly move homes. She could commute back and forth, and her mother, Marian Robinson, could stay with the girls in Chicago on the days Washington duties called. That was how the Obamas had lived during the presidential campaign and for a long time before. Why not continue for six more months?
Barack Obama hated the idea. At forty-seven years old, he had never lived full-time under the same roof as his daughters. He started commuting to Springfield, the Illinois capital, as a state senator in 1997, before they were born, and in 2005, when he became a U.S. senator in Washington, he had initially wanted his family to move with him, before conceding they would be better off in their familiar Chicago world. The 2008 presidential campaign had made him a near-stranger to his own bed. In an unusual bit of logic, the prospect of finally living with his wife and daughters had helped him get excited about running for president in the first place: it was a reward for all of the years of separation. He argued that even when the Obamas moved to Washington, they would hold on to their old lives, return to Chicago frequently.
Outsiders would have found his wife's hesitation shocking: wouldn't living in the White House be a matchless experience, filled with moments and opportunities of which most people could only dream? First families always moved in on inauguration day, part of the pageantry that accompanied every new administration, and the idea of a commuter first lady was hard to conceive. Any presidential victory was thrilling, but Barack Obama's came with extra superlatives: the fastest rise in memory; the fall of the ultimate racial barrier. Michelle had worked her heart out to help drive him to victory, and untold numbers of strangers looked forward to the Obama family moving into the house of Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy.
If people all over the world were celebrating the prospect of the Obamas arriving at the White House, why was she hesitating?
MICHELLE OBAMA COULD BE A hard figure to understand: both more charming and more cutting than her husband, his most ardent supporter on the outside and his most devastating critic in private, more idealistic but also more cautious than he was, far less sophisticated politically but also quicker to sense problems.
The idea of lingering in Chicago was naïve, an indication of her innocence about how the presidency or politics really worked. She was a contrarian by nature, often suspicious of what others wanted or expected her to do; just because others assumed she would be excited about something didn't mean she would be. She was anxious about relocating her children to a new city in the middle of the school year, as the president's children no less. And both Obamas were still attached to the idea that they could make private, independent choices about how to live, instead of surrendering to public opinion. Even though staying behind in Chicago could set off criticism, the Obamas barely consulted their political advisers on the question of when Michelle and the girls would move, and the public never found out what they had been considering.
Their discussions about the move were only the latest in the long series of private debates that stretched back to the beginning of their relationship. Some political couples ran hand in hand together toward power, fame, and glory, hoping that one day they might have a shot at living in the nation's most famous residence. The Obamas were not like that. Behind every one of Barack Obama's decisions about his political career, behind all the speeches and announcements and races, lay a series of heartfelt, sometimes contentious debates with his wife about the nature of politics. He believed that he could use politics to achieve true, lasting change, that he could surmount the obstacles that limited others, that his career would not cost his family a normal life, that his wife would find a comfortable place for herself within his universe. She wanted to believe all of that, and sometimes she did. But over the years, she had also found considerable reason for doubt.
THE FIRST TIME THE OBAMAS laid eyes on each other was in the summer of 1989, at the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin. He was a student working there for the summer after his first year at Harvard Law; she was the recent graduate assigned to mentor him. Early on, he would watch her while she worked in the law library. When he walked into her office, she appeared disinterested, but as soon as he left, she would turn to her office mate with her mouth open and eyebrows up. Wow.
Soon each was gushing to friends about how smart the other was. Barack was worldlier and more mature than many other law students, with a beguiling willingness to ignore barriers and dream big. He was not yet thirty, but he had already lived in Indonesia and Hawaii, where he was raised, and organized public-housing residents in Chicago. When he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, the nation's most prestigious legal journal, other students cried, newspapers across the country wrote about him, and his new girlfriend back in Chicago had her first concrete evidence of what he might achieve.
If Barack opened Michelle's horizons, she offered him something he never had: the prospect of a stable family life. His upbringing was exotic but lonely. His father, a Kenyan graduate student, returned to Africa when Barack was two, barely kept in touch, drank too much, and died in a car crash. His mother was a wanderer, a white anthropologist who sent her son to live in Hawaii with his grandparents while she worked in Indonesia. As a result, he was unusually solitary and self-reliant; law school classmates remembered him as too serious, too much of a loner, to attend first-year parties with everyone else.
Michelle had never kept boyfriends for long before. She was statuesque, impassioned, and loyal, with a wicked comedic glint. But she was tough on everyone around her, with expectations others often found unrealistically high, and few compunctions about calling people out when she felt they had failed. Those standards appealed to Barack. He wanted to live up to his potential, to hedge against the bitterness and disappointment of his father's life. He sought a partner who would "help him remember what he was there to do and who he was," said his sister, Maya Soetoro.
The bedrock of the budding Obama relationship was their shared passion for social change. Each had spent time on Ivy League campuses and in the poorest Chicago neighborhoods, and had seen the way certain advantages—education, employment, health—fostered others, while one disadvantage led to a cascade of others. The two young lawyers believed that the gaps between the two places lay less in talent or hard work than in opportunity, power, access, and wealth.
Behind the backs of Sidley partners, Barack chided fellow summer associates for pursuing private-sector careers. Over after-work beers, he grilled them on what they wanted to do. Banking or litigation, most said. "What do you want to do with that?" he would prod. To advance, to provide for our families—he dismissed those answers. He didn't care about money and didn't always relate to people who did. "It's got to be about what you can give back," he would say, a former fellow associate, Thomas Reed, recalled.
Obama envisioned himself as a writer, among other things, and he was awarded a contract to write a book about race relations after winning the law review presidency. But he threw himself into the project without much planning, changed the book to a memoir, ran a voter registration project as he wrote, and blew his deadline. After the Obamas were married, in 1992, he spent weeks alone in Bali with the manuscript, and in Chicago, he slipped off for long hours to write, leaving Michelle behind. "Barack Obama does not belong to you," Yvonne Davila, a friend, used to tell her. She meant that there were big things in store for him, bigger than family; people were always making that kind of portentous prediction about Barack. But that raised a question for Michelle: where did her husband's ambitions, not to mention his solitude and tendency to overestimate what he could handle, leave her?
EARLY IN THEIR MARRIAGE, the Obamas made two discoveries: the world of politics and government was not the right place for Michelle, and, as Barack admitted, it was in many ways an uncomfortable fit for him, too.
In 1991, Michelle left Sidley to work as an aide to Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley, the new and still unproven heir to his father's machine. She and Barack were nervous about the job. Daley senior had opposed the desegregation of schools and presided over an ethically challenged political operation, and the new mayor's first run for the job had ended in ugly racial divisions. "Having grown up in a proud African American family, she wasn't sure if there was a conflict between her values and his," said Valerie Jarrett, the mayoral aide who recruited Michelle and became a mentor to both Obamas. Jarrett, young, elegant, and educated at top schools, was an example of how the younger Daley intended to be different. She was from one of the best-established African American families in Hyde Park, a generally anti-Daley neighborhood, but she believed in gaining power to change things from above.
Some of Michelle's work was straightforward, like helping downtown businesses during a massive flood, but when she served as a liaison to agencies that provided for the city's most vulnerable—seniors, the disabled, and children—she was distressed by how heavily the projects were influenced by connections and favors. It was "the ugly underbelly in city government on how decisions are made—or not made," Kevin Thompson, who worked with her, said. Underlying issues of poverty and education had little chance of being addressed. She disapproved of how closely Daley held power, surrounding himself with three or four people who seemed to let few outsiders in—a concern she would echo years later with her own husband. At work, Michelle always seemed crisp and professional, but she could be harshly critical of the mayor's administration behind closed doors.
According to former colleagues, she particularly resented the way power in Illinois was locked up generation after generation by a small group of families, many of them white Irish Catholic—the Daleys in Chicago, the Hyneses and Madigans statewide. "Someone doesn't have the right to be elected because of whose womb they came out of," she would say a few years later to Dan Shomon, her husband's political adviser. "You shouldn't have a better chance if you're a Kennedy than if you're an Obama. Why is it that they have the right to this?"
She lasted only two years before moving on to a job leading a program that spoke volumes about her conclusions. It was called Public Allies, and its aim was to train a new generation of urban leaders from more diverse backgrounds—an alternative to the established power structure. Two years later, in 1995, Valerie Jarrett was unceremoniously dumped from her post: she was standing in the way of powerful developers, who convinced the mayor to let her go, and even though Jarrett and the mayor were close, he never spoke to her about the decision. The Obamas were horrified, their worst suspicions about that world confirmed.
Barack saw the same problems with politics as Michelle did. But for him, those weren't reasons to stay out; they were reasons to get in. He believed in his own talent and singularity; he felt sure that the usual rules would not apply. That summer, a state senate seat representing Hyde Park was opening up, and Barack, who had been teaching law and working at a civil rights firm, told Michelle he wanted to run. "I married you because you're cute and you're smart, but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do," she told him.
As a state senator, he grandly insisted, he would do nothing less than redefine the job and restore ethics to politics. "What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer," he said in an interview, "as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?" He would have to raise funds from wealthy donors in the short term, he conceded, but would be able to do without them once he was better known.
Those sorts of statements worried Michelle: how was a person like that going to fare in a notoriously corrupt state capital? Later, others would wonder whether her husband was too earnest, too conflict-averse, but Michelle had seen and said all of it long before. "I think he's too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism," she worried to an interviewer at the time. The former law review editor was going to become part of a system she deplored—and at the same time, they were talking about starting the close-knit family they both craved. He told her it would work out; she was dubious.
Still, Michelle made a decision she would repeat over the years: she dedicated herself to his victory and success. If he was going to run, she was not going to let him lose. She tried to elevate the campaign with a nice office and a classy fund-raiser at the local black history museum—none of the usual tackiness or tawdriness of state politics. She made herself the arbiter of who on the campaign was performing and who was not. If a volunteer promised to gather three hundred petition signatures, "two hundred ninety-nine did not work because three hundred was the goal," said Carol Anne Harwell, the campaign manager. If you underperformed, "you met the wrath of Michelle." And for the first time in his political career but not the last, she helped connect him with other people. Some voters were quizzical about Obama's unusual name, even rude—he clearly wasn't from the South Side. But when Michelle knocked on doors on his behalf, neighbors instinctively understood that she, and therefore he, was one of them.
IN DECEMBER OF 2003, Barack and Michelle gathered with family and friends at a lush nature preserve in Oahu to celebrate Maya Soetoro's marriage to Konrad Ng, a Canadian Chinese doctoral student. The Obamas had two small daughters by then, Malia and Sasha, dressed in identical red-and-white sundresses that day. The bride and groom had asked Barack to start off the ceremony. He rose to speak to the assembled guests against a spectacular backdrop: green lawns, rocky cliffs, the sparkling Pacific Ocean, the occasional peacock wandering past.
But there was nothing idyllic or romantic about his remarks; he spoke frankly about the difficulty of marriage. The odds were stacked against enduring happiness, he told the small crowd. "Our society has not necessarily equipped us to sustain relationships," Ng recalled him saying. Careers, not to mention children, drove partners in opposite directions, he warned.
Only a few guests knew that the Obamas were just emerging from the lowest point in their relationship. Barack had won the state senate seat, but his time in Springfield had been frustrating for both Obamas. As soon as he arrived, he complained it was not serious enough: legislation he drafted was not even heard and some new colleagues—Democrats!—even poked fun at his name. "He would call me and say, 'This person is an idiot. They get an F,' " Harwell recalled. Michelle reached her limit when, in 2000, her husband rushed into a poorly planned challenge to Representative Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther and well-connected South Side operator. Rush swatted Obama away easily, labeling him a pretentious interloper whose lofty ideas about reform did nothing for people who didn't have jobs. Michelle felt her husband was self-absorbed and unrealistic: he was trying to run for Congress, serve in Springfield, teach law on the side, and be a father and husband. Their disagreements had grown so deep that the Obamas needed two or three years to recover, the president said later.
"'The strengths and challenges of our marriage don't change because we move to a different address,' Michelle Obama told Jodi Kantor early on. How though did those strengths and challenges evolve in the White House? What did they signal to the rest of the country and, how did they shape policy? An intimate, arresting view of a formidable couple and, especially, of a transformative First Lady, one who may have taught us more than we yet realize."
—Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches
"A meticulous reporter, Kantor is attuned to the nuance of small gestures, the import of unspoken truths. She knows that every strong marriage, including the one now in the White House, has its complexities and disappointments. Kantor also--and this is a key--has a high regard for women, which is why hers is the first book about the Obama presidency to give Michelle Obama her due. In the process we learn a great deal about the talented and introverted loner who married her, and how his wife has influenced him as a president...Kantor retires wooden stereotypes of the political wife as prop or a problem and instead explores what it means to be a modern first lady, one with her own opinions and an expectation that she will be heard."
—Connie Schultz, New York Times
"The Obamas is among the very best books on this White House. It's a serious, thoughtful book on the modern presidency in general."
"Energetically reported.... Kantor nails her story.... We political gluttons will lick the spoon clean."
—David Remnick, The New Yorker
"A portrait of a remarkable marriage.... Kantor's writing is insightful and evocative, rich with detail...[and her] reporting rings true--and considering the administration's insistence on presenting a unified front, it is a considerable achievement."
—Kerry Luft, Chicago Tribune
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2012
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Back Bay Books