The Obamasby Jodi Kantor
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… See more details below
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. Filled with riveting detail and insight into their partnership, emotions and personalities, and written with a keen eye for the ironies of public life, THE OBAMAS is an intimate portrait that will surprise even readers who thought they knew the President and First Lady.
New York Times
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Energetically reported...Kantor nails her story....We political gluttons will lick the spoon clean."David Remnick, New Yorker"
Jodi Kantor offers a glimpse into the tensions of a culture that expects our women to achieve as highly as our men but our first ladies to take a back seat to their presidents. The result is a sympathetic portrait of both Obamas that could help to humanize an administration criticized as being aloof and inaccessible."Ilyse Hogue, The Nation"
The stories are titillating, and you'll gulp them down like salted peanuts."Entertainment Weekly"
[Kantor's] writing is insightful and evocative, rich with detail... Her reporting rings true-and considering the administration's insistence on presenting a unified front, it is a considerable achievement."Kerry Luft, Chicago Tribune"
[Kantor's] thoughtful new book is fluidly written, with a canny sense for the way political marriages can be useful prisms to see into ambition, power, gender and the contradictions of public life...The Obamas is built primarily out of interviews....[and] the legwork pays off in some sophisticated perception into a 'friction-filled marriage that has proved strong nonetheless.'"Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer "
Kantor's book reveals many unknown stories and revelations about the connection between the personal and political in this presidency, and how the first couple's partnership affect us all."Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The New York Times Book Review
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By Kantor, Jodi
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Kantor, Jodi
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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.
She particularly resented the way power in Illinois was locked up generation after generation by a small group of families, all 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.
While Michelle wished he had chosen a more stable career, not to mention a more lucrative one, she also felt he wasn’t achieving as much as he could. If he was going to be a politician, she believed, his accomplishments were going to have to be weighty enough to justify the sacrifices. Michelle always reminded him “about his own potential and power to effect change,” as Soetoro put it later. Smarting from his loss to Rush, Obama had publicly questioned whether seeking elective office was the best way for him to improve people’s lives.
Now, at the Hawaii wedding, he alluded to his wife’s faith in him. The key to a lasting union, he told the gathering, was to choose the right partner—“somebody who sees you as you deserve to be seen,” he said; someone who recognizes your potential and your vulnerabilities.
No one asked Michelle to speak, but at an open microphone a few hours later, she told the newlyweds to expect to labor over their union—“part of the contract,” as she put it. Marriage could be worth it, she promised: not easy, but ultimately worth the struggle.
As the terraced hills and Pacific views faded into darkness, five-year-old Malia paired off with a little boy on the dance floor. Barack was such an eloquent speaker that he should run for president, guests clucked. Unbeknownst to them, he was running for U.S. Senate. He had made a deal with his wife: it would be his last run, and if he lost, he would leave politics forever.
THAT WAS WHEN THE STORY turned in a way that neither Obama could have dreamed. First, Barack won the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat in March 2004, with surprising support from many white voters in rural areas. Over the summer, his new communications director from Washington, Robert Gibbs, helped convince staffers for Senator John Kerry, about to become the Democratic presidential nominee, to give Obama the keynote slot at the party convention. In an electrifying speech, he created an instant reputation as a counter to the sitting U.S. president. Unlike George W. Bush, Barack Obama was self-made, introspective, intellectual, and gifted with words.
It wasn’t just a speech; it was a statement of the Obama worldview. He emphasized his unique story, his ability to overcome odds and do what others could not. He conjured up an appealing image of American unity, arguing that the divisions between red and blue America did not even exist. He was rising in politics by arguing against politics, casting himself as a new kind of leader who would look past ossified labels, unify the country, and tackle long-standing issues.
It was as if a river that Barack Obama had been swimming upstream spontaneously reversed course to send him surging ahead. State politics had punished his erudition and earnestness; now those qualities were rewarded. Instead of making fun of his name, many people admired his life story. His campaign staff had used boxes of Dreams from My Father, his long-dormant memoir, as doorstops; now the book became a best seller.
Michelle found a way of finally accepting that her husband was a politician: by refusing to admit he was one. “Barack is not a politician first and foremost,” she told a reporter around that time. “He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.” Together they were like tailors who called themselves “garment reconstruction engineers,” unwilling to fully acknowledge the business they were really in.
Over the years, many Chicagoans thought Michelle showed just as much promise as her husband did, maybe more. “If someone said to me, one of them is going to grow up to be president, I may have bet on her,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, as she recalled meeting the Obamas for the first time. But his success in 2004 put them on different planes: he was the instant celebrity, she the still-unknown spouse, an administrator at the University of Chicago Medical Center. At some events, he was so thronged by fans that he would escape into the men’s room to speak with his wife on the phone. Sometimes Michelle flipped on the radio or television and heard her husband’s voice talking at her. “Look, I’m in the picture, too,” Michelle told a friend at the supermarket checkout line, showing her a glossy celebrity magazine with Barack’s picture in it. “That’s my elbow!”
Michelle could be funny about it: At Malia and Sasha’s school, the Obamas were upgraded from the planning committee for the annual fund-raiser to honorary chairs. When they were introduced at the event, Barack reached for the microphone but Michelle snatched it out of his hands. “I know you came here to listen to Barack,” she announced, “but tonight he’s just arm candy.” The crowd roared, and Barack smiled a Cheshire cat smile, looking amused to play number two.
But she felt left out in other ways, too. She worried that her husband was not home enough, that campaign staff weren’t sharing daily talking points with her or helping her get to a campaign event and then home again to feed her kids, and she spoke to them bluntly about it. “Her very direct way is very direct and it can rub some people the wrong way at times,” said Thompson, who served as Barack’s personal aide on the race. Sometimes as he and Barack drove back from an event in some remote Illinois county, Michelle would call to ask him to bring home eggs and milk. Some staff members were dubious. As later generations of aides would continue to wonder: her husband had been slogging around all day; couldn’t she go easy on him?
In her few campaign appearances during the Senate race, she was just as outspoken; in front of a fifty-person crowd in Edwardsville, she ripped into then President Bush. Her father suffered from multiple sclerosis but managed to send two children to Princeton, she said. So to hear a “rich, spoiled president” lecture about family values was insulting, she told the audience.
At moments when she was expected to say standard political-wife things—to tell anyone who would listen that Barack Obama was simply the best—she delighted in playing against type. “If he loses, it might not be so bad,” she told a reporter during the final stretch of the Senate race in September 2004, rubbing her hands together with mock glee. She was willing to speak up for herself, too: “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,” she added. “I’ve had to come to the point of figuring out how to carve out what kind of life I want for myself beyond who Barack is and what he wants.” Her long-standing debate with her husband was now spilling into the pages of the Chicago Tribune.
Michelle may have felt overlooked by her husband’s staff, but they saw the gap between Barack’s soaring career and Michelle’s desire for stability, and they were always trying to smooth things. As Barack sailed to victory in the Senate race, the Obamas had dinner with Rahm Emanuel, then a U.S. congressman from Illinois, and his wife, Amy Rule. Though Barack wanted his family in Washington, Emanuel and Rule urged the Obamas to do as they had: keep the family in Chicago and endure the commute. Otherwise Michelle and the girls could end up with the worst of both worlds, living in a strange town with no support network and a busy Barack. Rule was pointed: she had been to Washington to see her husband sworn in and she had not been back. Emanuel and Rule’s message had been planned out with David Axelrod, a top campaign consultant who was now advising Obama.
Soon after Barack won the U.S. Senate seat, in November 2004, with 70 percent of the vote—the bid by his Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, melted away in a marital scandal—the public and private calls for him to run for president began. Michelle tried to calm everyone down. He was a man, not a prophet, she told anyone who would listen, and he had barely done anything on the national stage yet. For everyone else, his boundless enthusiasm inspired hope; but it caused her worry, because she sensed expectations were getting out of hand. But the satisfaction of watching others see her husband as she saw him eroded some of Michelle’s resistance. “It really clicked with her that this may be the destiny everyone was always talking about,” Thompson said.
“If he runs in 2008 and serves two terms, he’d only be fifty-four afterwards,” she said over dinner with Thompson. “What would we do then?”
But Barack sometimes had trouble discussing the prospect of running for president with his wife. He had asked so much of her already, and never anything nearly as great as this before. He could be in physical danger. She was new to the public stage, in uncharted territory. Forget a black first lady—the country barely had any famous black professional women to begin with, only entertainment and sports celebrities.
In September of 2006, Obama accepted an invitation to attend Senator Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry in the early-voting state of Iowa—the strongest hint yet that he was considering running. Michelle found out from a news alert on the Chicago Tribune website. When Obama, back in Washington, admitted to Robert Gibbs that he had not told his wife, Gibbs was alarmed. “Are you crazy?” Gibbs asked.
IN OCTOBER 2006, BARACK PUBLISHED a new book, The Audacity of Hope, a virtual White House audition memo. On a rainy night in Chicago that month, the members of greater Obamaworld gathered for a book party under a tent in the backyard of Valerie Jarrett’s parents. As Barack took to the center of the tent to address the crowd, the guests all had the same question on their mind, one to which even Axelrod and the other advisers present didn’t know the answer: would he run?
Initially, Barack had tuned out the presidential talk, too. But he was just as disappointed with the U.S. Senate as he had been with the state senate—he had gone to Washington to do big things, but he was a junior member of a slow, rule-bound, Republican-controlled body. “Shoot. Me. Now,” he wrote to an aide, in the middle of a particularly long-winded oration. (The speaker was Senator Joe Biden.) The appeal of a 2008 run was hard to resist. Top Democrats were telling him he could skip the grind of Capitol Hill—where he was so new he still got lost in the hallways—and go directly after the presidency. “This country is ready for a transformative politics of the sort that John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt represented,” he told Joe Klein, of Time magazine, that same month, a bold self-comparison. Most of the country still had no idea who he was.
Audacity was a typical political-manifesto book, with one exception: Barack had devoted an entire chapter to what his career had cost Michelle and the girls. Standing under the tent at the launch party for the book, he said it again: “I just want to talk about my family and how hard this journey has been on them,” his toast started. And there it stopped: he stood alone at the front of the tent, overcome with tears.
Though the public didn’t know it, Michelle was really the one everyone was waiting on. Barack had given her veto power over the run and she was inclined to use it. With a few more years of Washington experience, she told her husband, wouldn’t he have a better chance of success?
And a presidential race was potentially a curse upon her children, she knew. That’s what people in Washington quietly said, too: to run for president was to sacrifice the next generation. Children of candidates grew up watching their parents attacked on a daily basis, and sometimes they themselves were taunted. But she believed in what her husband wanted to do as president. The responsibility of the choice weighed on her, said Susan Sher, then her boss at the hospital. Was she really going to be the one who stopped him?
As Barack stood silent before the crowd at the party, Michelle made her way from the back of the tent and wrapped her arms around him. He had been making an offering, the grateful husband prostrating himself before his wife for all to see. The Obamas did that sometimes—they said things in front of other people that were mostly meant for each other. The guests broke into hoots and claps: most of them knew what the Obamas had been through together. And maybe this was a sign, a hint Michelle would agree to the run.
A few weeks later, she told her brother, Craig Robinson, “I guess we’re going to do this thing.” Her husband’s advisers, shocked she had said yes, joked that she was only allowing her husband to run so that he would lose and purge his presidential ambitions. In truth, she had decided that her family could handle the stress, that her husband actually might win, and that he might “be able to break through the partisanship, the gridlock that had existed for the last twenty years” to accomplish big things, her husband said later. Michelle extracted one promise in return, something she had wanted from the beginning of her marriage: Barack had to quit smoking.
For all of his bravado about transforming the country’s politics, Barack could sound surprisingly hesitant about the run, too. He was standing on the diving board, preparing to jump, realizing the water below might be very cold. “Life is good,” the candidate-to-be told friends. I’m not like Bill Clinton, he said. He meant that he was not intrinsically a politician, did not crave the contact high of strangers. “I don’t need this,” he continued. “I don’t need anything.” He announced his candidacy a few weeks later.
AS OFTEN HAPPENS OVER YEARS of marriage, Barack and Michelle Obama’s positions were no longer quite as opposed as they once had been. She sometimes thought of the world in an us-against-them way, friends said, but that no longer made as much sense. White voters in Iowa were clutching dog-eared copies of Dreams, and even the Kennedys seemed invested in her husband’s success. In June 2007, the candidate stood with Dan Shomon at a Chicago fund-raiser, both watching slack-jawed as Michelle delivered an upbeat pitch to donors. “Can you believe it?” a thrilled Obama asked Shomon.
Barack had begun fatherhood a near stranger to the rituals of family life, and initially she had to teach him basic things such as calling home every day from a trip. (Barack, so rational, didn’t see the point of phoning if you had nothing to say.) Now her concerns had more fully become his as well. “I’ve missed all this,” he told their friend Allison Davis, tears in his eyes as he watched Malia practice dance moves.
Earlier in his career, he had shown up to tiny events, shaken every hand. Now fame and demand drew him deeper within himself. When he signed copies of Dreams for friends in 1994, he had written long, heartfelt inscriptions; when Audacity was published eight years later, the same friends got a couple of words. His time and patience were shrinking, his desire for self-protection and privacy increasing. Some staffers had a word to describe the moments when he seemed unable or unwilling to connect: Barackward, a combination of “Barack” and “awkward.” The problem was psychological, he said during the first spring of the campaign in 2007, when he was having trouble answering debate questions with concision. “I’m still wrapping my head around doing this in a way that I think the other candidates just aren’t,” he said.
Sometimes Michelle, of all people, was the one to yank him back into it, focusing him in a campaign meeting with a sharp “We’re talking about you right now.” Meaning: shut up, pay attention. “Barack, feel—don’t think!” she once interjected on a debate preparation call, when he was wallowing in policy detail. He hated posing for pictures with strangers, but she did not let him off the hook. “Do your job,” she would say. The instruction carried a whiff of revenge: this is what you wanted. Smile!
The presidential campaign supported Michelle’s highest hopes about politics but also validated some of her worst fears. The question of where she fit in her husband’s operation became more confusing than ever. She learned that the advisers who were supposed to protect her sometimes could or would not do so, that the public could decide to believe the worst with chilling speed.
To introduce her to the public, the original plan was, as everyone put it, to “let Michelle be Michelle.” She had no national campaign experience, but she was a hit—warm and confiding in Iowa and New Hampshire living rooms, instantly familiar to the African American voters who delivered her husband’s crucial South Carolina victory. Her frankness buttressed her husband’s image as refreshingly honest, and her toughness became the subject of affectionate jokes: “Everyone in our family is afraid of her,” Craig Robinson said in an early interview. Asked how his brother-in-law planned to fulfill his promise to quit smoking, Robinson chortled, “Michelle Obama, that’s one hell of a patch right there!”
This time around, the frictions between her and some of her husband’s advisers grew more intense. David Plouffe, the campaign manager, was frugal, a quality that ultimately earned him wide praise, and she was only campaigning two days a week. But she had no speechwriter and only two staff members, and, as during the Senate campaign, she had trouble getting the daily talking points. And, in her lawyerly way, she would ask the advisers challenging questions, sometimes via email, sometimes in person. (Friends affectionately called her “The Taskmaster.”) Why weren’t they doing more to recruit women and minority voters? What if Plouffe’s electoral strategy failed; what was the backup? The thrust was always that her husband and his team were too improvisatory and insular, with the same tiny group making all decisions.
In the mornings she exercised while watching Morning Joe, the political chat show on MSNBC, and emailed advisers queries: Do we have a person on this problem? What’s our argument in the face of this? The missives were a “nightmare,” one adviser said, the last thing the exhausted team needed.
The advisers were learning a key difference between the Obamas: Barack was unusually tolerant of staff failures, and Michelle was not. After the campaign fumbled its strategy for the Texas and Ohio primaries in March 2008, prolonging the contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton, the candidate was diplomatic with his team. “After blowing through twenty million dollars in two weeks, I could yell at you,” he told them. “But I’m not.” Michelle was so angry she would barely speak to the advisers or her husband, “giving them only uninterested, monosyllabic responses” as they attempted to cheer her up, Plouffe wrote later.
It was a classic campaign standoff, a candidate’s anxious spouse versus advisers who felt criticized, and it resulted in a very visible casualty: Michelle Obama’s public image. Her belief in her husband’s specialness, the same faith and vision Barack had praised in Hawaii, could make her sound strident: “Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual—uninvolved, uninformed,” she said in one speech. In another, she made the remark that would be played and replayed: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” she said, talking about the hope that her husband’s campaign had created.
No one inside the campaign told her she might be sounding a wrong note. They were avoiding her, one adviser said. When she learned that, Michelle was furious but guilty. “She could not live with that idea: what if he doesn’t become president because of something I said or did?” one adviser said. As the general election began in June 2008, she refused to campaign until her image problems were under control. “I’m not going to go out there if the consensus is that it’s a net negative,” she said. She had never done this before, she told aides; they just needed to tell her what to do.
That was the beginning of the new Michelle, carefully edited for public consumption. The campaign scrapped a frank documentary it had commissioned about Michelle to “put it all out there,” as an aide put it. Instead she appeared on morning shows where she talked about bacon (which she liked) and pantyhose (which she didn’t). “We went into a little fluff,” another adviser admitted, “a much more traditional woman’s role,” showing that Michelle was “like the mom on The Cosby Show.” There were so few models of warm, accomplished black mothers that the campaign had to turn to a two-decades-old fictional one. The era of the Obamas openly debating each other about politics was over, too; from now on, their discussions would remain private.
For Barack, the autumn of the 2008 race was marked by the dawning realization that he really was going to win, and the strangeness of passing from one world into the next. His elderly grandmother died in Hawaii, but he barely had a moment to mourn. The economy slid from crisis into paralysis, and Obama threw himself into the problem, supporting Bush’s unpopular emergency efforts to bail out financial firms and absorbing obscure details of the subprime mortgage problem. He wanted to learn as much as possible as soon as possible, he told aides, and no wonder. He had run to lead one country, and he was about to take over a far more troubled one.
In the days after the election, he was not in the mood to entertain doubts or dissent; he needed to move fast. In his first major decision, he asked Emanuel to be his chief of staff. Emanuel had the Washington experience Obama did not, and, unlike the president-elect, he was combative, unafraid to push or even insult.
Emanuel stood for the idea that Democrats, stereotyped in the past as ineffectual do-gooders who were weak on national security issues, could stand tough and get things done. (His father had fought with a militant Zionist group before Israel’s founding, and the idea that Jews, contrary to stereotype, could fight and win wasn’t far from his idea that Democrats could do the same.) He was a Clintonian who absorbed the lessons of that White House—avoid symbolic issues and ideological battles—and put them to work as an Illinois congressman and House leader. He was restless, sly, casually abusive, and almost always willing to cut a deal. He could yell at you and eat a brownie off your plate at the same time, and a phone call from him might involve thirty seconds of profanity followed by a cooed “love you” and a suddenly dead line.
Not everyone in Obamaland was happy about the choice: the pensive, reformist new president would have a White House run by an impatient dealmaker? Michelle had doubts about Emanuel, according to advisers. But the nature of her debates with her husband was about to change. Her husband was about to deal with issues from appointments to the Federal Reserve to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was a hospital executive who had never held office; what did she really know about those? And she was already confronting the essential dilemma of first ladyhood: was it better to be frank with her husband about potential mistakes or to keep criticism to herself? The consequences of a presidential misstep were enormous, but so was the need for unwavering support from their wives for men who were constantly picked apart by everyone else.
Besides, others who protested Obama’s choice paid the price. The day after the election, when word of Emanuel’s appointment began to circulate, Obama’s old friend Christopher Edley, the dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, sent him a note about it. During the campaign, Obama had tolerated, even welcomed, Edley’s critiques and that summer Edley had warned Obama away from Emanuel, calling him “a tactician unencumbered by value commitments.” Now, Edley did not directly criticize Emanuel but suggested how to organize the White House to reinforce what he saw as Emanuel’s strengths and compensate for his weaknesses. Soon after he sent the note, the phone rang. It was Jarrett, warning Edley of a very angry phone call to come.
“Why would you do this today, of all days?” Obama demanded of Edley. He wanted to savor his moment of victory free of any criticism, Edley concluded; he did not have much tolerance for seeing his judgment doubted.
The old friends never spoke again.
THE WEEK AFTER THE ELECTION, the Obamas flew to Washington to meet with the Bushes in the White House. While the men talked about economic stimulus, Laura Bush showed her successor her soon-to-be home. They lingered in a sitting room on the southwest side used by first ladies as a dressing area and private retreat. One window looked across the Rose Garden and over the exterior of the Oval Office. During her husband’s critical meetings and long days at work, Laura Bush would stare out the window of her hideaway and feel somehow more connected to him. This is what Hillary Clinton showed me, she said, according to Anita McBride, her former chief of staff. Before that, Barbara Bush had shown it to Clinton, and when Michelle Obama left the White House, Laura Bush said, she should show it to the new first lady, too.
It was hard to think of a better symbol of the true duties of first ladyhood than that window: Keep a close eye on your husband. Do it quietly. There will be things about the presidency that only you will be able to see. Don’t expect to be at the heart of the action.
The Bushes invited Michelle to return with her daughters, who immediately slid down the banisters of their future home. The girls visited and liked Sidwell Friends, the prestigious Quaker school that Chelsea Clinton had attended; it reminded them of their school in Chicago. Relocating to Washington immediately had begun to make more sense to Michelle: drawing out the move now looked like “six more months of stuff we couldn’t control,” an aide said. And like her husband, Michelle wanted her family to be together. Over the next weeks, the notion of lingering in Chicago receded until it was just a blip in the Obama story, a road not taken.
Besides, hadn’t Barack finally won their larger debate about whether change could be accomplished through politics, about whether political life could be livable? They had made it: through the lower ranks of politics and childbearing, the challenges of sudden success and the presidential campaign, and the years of living apart. Obama had addressed his wife’s objections about the failings of politics in the most dramatic way possible, by getting himself elected leader of the free world. Systemic change was what they had always dreamed of, from the beginning of their relationship, and now the new president would have his chance. Their running debate was part of what had driven him so far forward, and now he had won it for good.
Michelle wasn’t exactly overjoyed to move to the White House, an aide said, but she was determined. This was what they had decided to do, and failure was not an option.
THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL HOUSE
On the afternoon of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the forty-fourth president of the United States, as over a million celebrants streamed through the streets of Washington and the Obamas pumped hands at a congressional luncheon, a stray aide quietly made his way through the inner sanctum of the presidency, the two-story suite inside the White House where every president had resided since 1801. He wanted to check out the place where the new first family would actually live. Their brief peeks with the Bushes aside, the Obamas did not know the place themselves.
The Bush moving vans had already departed, and for the moment, the place seemed to belong to no one, a series of rooms with high ceilings and polished floors that had the frozen-in-time quality of a museum and the blankness of a high-end hotel lobby. Since the Obamas had not arrived yet, anyone with a White House pass could walk right in.
In private, Laura Bush’s staffers raised eyebrows at the adjustment that the Obamas would face. When George and Laura Bush moved into the White House, it was a familiar place from his father’s terms as vice president and then president. They had spent the Fourth of July at the White House many times and bonded with the staff. Nearly every other modern president had lived in some sort of state residence, either a governor’s home or the vice president’s house, before moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Until four years before the presidency, the Obamas still lived in the apartment they bought after they were first married, a narrow condo with aging fixtures and a dark master bedroom with an improbably tiny closet for Michelle. Only after the 2004 Senate victory, and an ensuing book deal that made them instantly wealthy, did they move to the kind of house Michelle had wanted for years: a $1.65 million historic brick mansion.
But if the Obamas’ first two homes represented the speed of their rise, nothing quite matched the White House for symbolic weight. With 132 rooms, 6 levels, 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, and 3 elevators, it was an executive mansion for a man who had never been an executive and a fortresslike setting for a first lady who had always prided herself on leaving elite settings—Princeton, Harvard, Sidley Austin—to return to the South Side. The marble- and chandelier-bedecked house, its Disneyland perfection, also underscored the contrast between the splendor of the Obamas’ new lives and the mounting economic dread experienced by the rest of the country. The house was at once the nation’s museum, the president’s office, the commander in chief’s secure compound, and the first family’s home. With the White House, as with the presidency, it wasn’t always clear where professional life ended and personal life began, whether the Obamas’ lives would now belong to them or the nation.
In the hours before the Obamas moved in, cleaners were scouring the place top to bottom because Malia had allergies and her parents did not want her sneezing from the recently departed Bush pets. As they did so, Michael Smith, the Obamas’ new decorator, was moving furniture around, and the residence staff were opening boxes, arranging mattresses and sheets, making sure the bathrooms had soap. According to tradition, the new president and first lady were supposed to arrive in the late afternoon and find all of their things unpacked and in order.
In phone calls to prospective interior designers a few weeks before, asking them to audition for the job of redecorating the residence, the first lady’s staff had stressed that the Obamas wanted to make the high-ceilinged, imposing rooms feel like a family home. They would bring their African art collection along, and they might decorate with the same hunter green color they had used in their Chicago home. The kids’ rooms would be the most urgent task. Designers would have to find a way to make Malia and Sasha’s posters of teen pop idols the Jonas Brothers work in bedrooms with towering ceilings and layers of intricate molding.
No matter what could be done superficially, the presidential residence hardly resembled an American home, even a lavish one. It did not have a private entrance or exit, meaning there was no way for the first family to come and go without detection. Coming in from the outside world, they generally entered through the ornate gold-and-blue Diplomatic Room at the back of the White House. From there they proceeded into the wide central hallway of the ground floor, where they ducked behind some dull brown screens—the kind you might see dividing a church social hall—in order to hide from staff and tourists. (White House regulars could usually tell when the president was behind the screen, because of all the feet—belonging to Secret Service agents and aides—that shuffled around his.) From there the president and his family could either stride up a private stairway or slip into a small wood-and-mirror-paneled elevator. Its doors slid closed, and when they opened a few seconds later, a different world materialized: the quiet of the presidential residence, maybe a housekeeper finishing the daily vacuuming, the Lincoln Bedroom just feet away. In other words, the home part of the White House was not a house at all. It was a box within a larger box, the world’s most prestigious executive apartment.
Some of the rooms looked like historical exhibits. Laura Bush had redone the Lincoln Bedroom with strict fidelity to the 1860s, with elaborately carved wood and shiny gold fabric. A six-foot-tall headboard, swagged in purple cloth, loomed over the bed, topped with a gilded, crown-shaped canopy. Across the hall, the Queens’ Bedroom had a similarly rococo look, in bubble-gum pink, with rose-and-green prints running riot over the bed canopy, drapes, and wing chairs. The living spaces were imposing, too: the West Sitting Hall, with a spectacular Tiffany window through which the afternoon sun streamed, and the Yellow Oval Room, with Louis XVI–style furnishings, open shelves of decorative porcelain, and gilt edges everywhere.
It was a house for people with a fleet of help, with a small kitchen for finishing meals that had been prepared in the main kitchen downstairs, a station for linen inventory, and a beauty salon where the first lady could have her hair and makeup done. The household staff were often so deeply dispersed through the nooks of the house that on September 11, 2001, well after the White House had been officially evacuated, butlers were still emerging, according to Walter Scheib, a former chef there. The residence was such a world of its own they had no idea what had transpired.
The third floor was not as grand as the one below, with lower ceilings, an exercise room and pool table, and slightly less formal bedrooms, including one that would belong to Marian Robinson. The Obamas planned to decorate her room immediately, because she was moving with great reluctance from the little Chicago bungalow where she had lived for decades, and they wanted her to feel at home. In a family of unlikely White House residents, seventy-three-year-old Marian Robinson was the least likely of all.
She never told her life story publicly; during the campaign, she did not give a single speech and hardly ever spoke to the press. Her difficult, modest life stood in quiet contrast to the splendor of the home in which she would live. The daughter of a factory worker turned house painter who had moved to Chicago from the South looking for work, Marian Shields met Fraser Robinson at a city swimming pool, where he was working as a lifeguard. Around the time they married, he dropped out of college because he could not afford the tuition and was afraid to borrow it, according to his brother, Nomenee Robinson. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years later.
The Robinsons kept his illness a secret from their children until they were teenagers, and he still went to his job at the city pump station every day. They lived in a small apartment inside a house, where the Robinsons gave their children the sole bedroom and slept in the living room. Marian was a determined mother, volunteering at her children’s school so she could keep an eye on their educations. Fraser was stubborn, dignified, and persistent. Later, he used to drive all the way from Chicago to Princeton to see Craig play basketball, despite his disability. Once he stared in quiet dismay at the arena parking lot: it was gravel, meaning he could not traverse it in his wheelchair. Even when he could not walk unassisted, he insisted on fixing drinks for guests himself.
Marian returned to secretarial work when Michelle left for college, in part to pay her ailing husband’s medical expenses. (The Robinsons had paid for their share of Craig and Michelle’s Princeton tuition with credit cards, leaving them with high-interest debts for years.) In his final years, things got very bad. One day he fell in the snow and lay there for hours before anyone found him, his brother said. Later Michelle said that her father’s condition explained why she was an obsessive planner: when you were trying to maneuver around Chicago with a disabled father, avoiding embarrassment or emergency, you left nothing to chance. When he died in 1991 after mysteriously collapsing, Marian and her children had to make the decision to take him off life support. Barack was still just Michelle’s boyfriend then, and he was far away in Cambridge, but he flew in to be by the family’s side.
During her son-in-law’s climb, Marian remained an outsider to political life, pining like a schoolgirl to meet Hillary Clinton, her heroine, during the 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. At the start of the presidential campaign, she still woke up every morning in the same house where she had lived with her husband, stopped into a McDonald’s downtown for coffee, and then took her seat as an executive assistant at a downtown bank. She had the same blunt but proper quality as her daughter, and she taught her granddaughters to call adults “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and to thank everyone politely. But when campaign staffers first tried to film her for commercials, they had to scrap the footage because she was too outspoken.
In a rare interview early in the race, a reporter from O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, asked Robinson if she would move to the White House if her son-in-law won.
“That I can do without,” Robinson said. “When you move in, you just hear a little bit too much.”
The reporter pointed out that the White House was big. “It’s never big enough for that,” Robinson shot back.
Excerpted from The Obamas by Kantor, Jodi Copyright © 2012 by Kantor, Jodi. Excerpted by permission.
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