In the acknowledgement portion of The Obamas, author Jodi Kantor thanks many of her friends for their support including Shira Stutman, adding: “Shira insisted that Michelle Obama was perfect and that if I told her otherwise her world would collapse.” Shira’s world is safe. Michelle Obama is not perfect, but overall the first lady described in Kantor’s book comes across as smart, principled, disciplined, strong, opinionated, empathetic, a fierce defender of her husband, a hands-on mother to her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and a devoted daughter to her mother, Marian Robinson. In other words, a role model for women everywhere.
Why then has Kantor’s book stirred up such a firestorm about the depiction of Michelle Obama? In an interview with Gayle King on the CBS Morning Show, the first lady objected to being portrayed as “an angry black woman.” On CNN, an exchange between the author and anchor Soledad O’Brien, who broke the cardinal rule of a journalist by revealing her own bias, became heated. Among other things, O’Brien accused the author of ending each chapter with something negative about the first lady. Kantor denied the charge. “Your portrait … is the tone is sort of a sense of a woman who is frustrated, unhappy, and a little bitter about having the privilege of being the first lady,” O’Brien told Kantor. The author stepped in to clarify what she had written. “I think that words like bitter are coming from you, not from me. I definitely never used that word.”
The Obamas is less about Michelle Obama and her marriage and more about Barack Obama’s first years in the White House. Kantor, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, has covered the Obama Administration and written about the first family since 2007. A graduate of Columbia University, Kantor dropped out of Harvard Law School after one semester to write for Salon.com in 1998. Four years later, she became the Arts & Leisure editor of the Times, apparently the youngest person ever to edit a section of the newspaper. In 2009, she wrote “The Obamas’ Marriage,” the cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. The president and the first lady were interviewed for that story although Kantor did not interview them specifically for the book. Some of the quotes and anecdotes included in the book first ran in the magazine story.
Kantor said she interviewed more than 200 people for the book, including many White House officials as well as close friends of the first couple. There are few startling revelations. Most of the Administration’s events, skirmishes, successes, and misfires have already been covered in the press. No matter who sits in the Oval Office, there is always a battle between the West Wing, where the president and his team live, and the East Wing, where the first lady and her staff work. While Michelle claims that she never voices her opinion to her husband’s staff, he does. (At times the president comes across as using his wife as a foil, voicing her displeasure when, truly, he is reflecting his own). “She feels as if our rudder isn’t set right,” Obama told his aides on one occasion. The president’s advisors often felt caught between Barack and Michelle. “You’re unintendedly in the midst of that quarrel even if you don’t have a stake in it,” former press secretary Robert Gibbs is quoted as saying.
It’s no secret that Michelle Obama was never thrilled with the idea of her husband running for public office. When Barack was in the final days of his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Michelle told the Chicago Tribune: “If he loses, it might not be so bad.” To bring home the point, she rubbed her hands together with “mock glee.” On another occasion, she said: “What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first. And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy.” Michelle has worked to change that order. In a December, 2011 Barbara Walters interview, she said she now places herself higher on her priority list. “It’s something that I found I needed to do for quite some time, even before the presidency. And I found other women, in similar situations, balancing career and family, trying to do it all, and a lot of times we just slip pretty low on our own priority list because we’re so busy caring for everyone else.”
Michelle has grown into her role as first lady, not an easy accomplishment and something all first ladies have struggled with. The early White House days found her fighting to maintain a sense of normalcy in her family’s life. She soon realized, however, that she had to construct a “new normal.” At a Take Your Child to Work event for military families, a little boy named Gavin asked her how she felt when moving into the White House. “Shocked,” she replied. “But it’s not a shock anymore. It’s just kind of normal. But it took a little while to get used to, because what would you think if you woke up and you were living in the White House? Would you be shocked?” Gavin nodded.
Following the move into the White House, there were many shocks during those first days, weeks, and months. Michelle soon realized that everything, everything she did would be scrutinized and one small detail could derail her efforts. When she pitched in at a food bank, the focus became the $500 Lanvin sneakers she chose to wear for the outing. When she decided to take Sasha on a trip to Spain with another mother and her daughter, she was roundly criticized for taking a lavish vacation while other Americans were facing unemployment and foreclosure. She often found herself in a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” situation. If she dressed in designer clothes for an event, she was criticized for her profligate spending. But if she appeared looking less than glamorous (on one occasion walking the family dog, Bo, in baggy madras shorts with a bra strap showing), she was criticized for not presenting the proper image for a first lady. Eventually she figured it out, wearing designer clothes for fancy state dinners and wearing less expensive outfits (the one from H&M she wore during a Today Show interview sold out) in many public appearances.
Eventually, Michelle soon realized that she was in a position not only to support some of her husband’s initiatives, but also to advance her own. Concern over childhood obesity promoted her to launch the fitness campaign, “Let’s Move!” (To compliment the first lady’s campaign, Beyonce recorded a video that has more than 16 million hits on YouTube). To promote good nutrition, she has lobbied supermarkets to stock lower cost fresh fruit and vegetables in urban areas. Along with Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, she has championed giving back to veteran and military families.
The Obama story is still a work in progress. “In their nearly three years in the White House, the Obamas had changed positions with one another,” Kantor writes. “She had entered with her expectations low and then exceeded them; he had entered on top of the world, and had been descending to earth ever since…But the presidency had united the Obamas as never before.”