Michelle Obama is a behind-the-scenes force in the White House, whose opinions on policy and politics drew her into conflict with presidential advisers and who bristled at some of the demands and constraints of life as the US president’s wife, says a new book that gives a detailed account of the couple’s relationship.
New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, in a book to be published on Tuesday, portrays a White House where tensions developed between Michelle Obama and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and former press secretary and presidential adviser Robert Gibbs.
The Times newspaper posted an adaptation of the book, The Obamas, on its website that appeared to capture its most revealing accounts. The book is based on interviews with 30 current and former aides, although the Obamas declined to be interviewed for the book.
Michelle Obama is portrayed as having gone through an evolution from struggle to fulfilment in her role at the White House but all the while an “unrecognised force” in pursuing the president’s goals.
She is seen publicly as the friendly and popular face of the softer side of the White House, the one reading to school kids or promoting exercise as a means to reduce child obesity.
Kantor says in the book that early in 2010 as the president’s health-care agenda seemed in danger of collapsing, Michelle Obama let it be known she was annoyed by how the White House was handling the strategy. After media reports indicated that Emanuel was unhappy pursuing the health care overhaul, Emanuel offered to resign, Kantor wrote. The president declined the offer.
By that spring, however, Kantor writes that Michelle Obama had “made it clear that she thought her husband needed a new team, according to her aides”.
Kantor recounts a scene in which Gibbs, frustrated after tamping down a potential public relations crisis involving the first lady, exploded when presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett told him Michelle Obama had concerns about the White House response to the flap. The initial commotion had been over an alleged remark by Michelle Obama to France’s Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House was “hell”.
Gibbs cursed the first lady, who was absent. Kantor writes that Gibbs later said his anger was misplaced and that he blamed Jarrett for creating the confrontation. Kantor writes that Jarrett appeared to have been too quick with her criticism of Gibbs and that two of Michelle Obama’s aides later said Jarrett had misspoken.
The White House had a cold reaction to the book, calling it an “over-dramatisation of old news” and emphasising that the Obamas did not speak to the author, who last interviewed them for a magazine piece in 2009.
“The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the president and first lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “These second-hand accounts are staples of every administration in modern political history and often exaggerated.”
The book depicts a couple often wishing they could escape the confining White House life more freely; a president who at times gets deeply frustrated by how the press covers him; and a former chief of staff, Emanuel, who let loose with profane outbursts on staff members.
All of those themes have been presented in some form in other publications.
One incident recalled that Jarrett used a phone aboard Air Force One to call a New York Times reporter who was pursuing a story about how Obama’s West Wing was essentially a big boys’ club. Jarrett was calling to argue that the premise of a male-dominated operation was overblown. The book says that even though Jarrett was the one making the call, it was the president himself who was managing the response to the Times’s story, even before it came out, by “personally dictating talking points to the aides who would speak to the reporter”.
The book describes another incident when Obama, after winning a US senate seat and writing a best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope, sought self-protection and privacy as he came to terms with his new fame. Some staffers came up with a word to describe times when the senator couldn’t connect with people: “Barackward,” a combination of “Barack” and “awkward”.
But despite the White House pushback to the book, Kantor also includes many positive portrayals of both Obamas as committed parents and a down-to-earth power couple who have not lost their perspective.
Other revelations in the book:
n Michelle Obama initially chafed at life in the White House and for a short period before the inauguration had even considered staying in Chicago in 2009 at least until the two Obama daughters completed their school session.
n As the first African-American first lady, Michelle Obama wanted to make sure that when it came to White House decor and entertainment she displayed sophistication, creating anxiety with Obama advisers who wanted to make sure the White House did not appear to have a tin ear to the nation’s struggling economy.
n Despite reticence in 2010 to campaign during the mid-term elections, Michelle Obama is now “an increasingly canny political player eager to pour her popularity into her husband’s re-election campaign”.