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. The Obamas had never lived together full-time as a family until they moved into the White House — and that’s where their political and personal lives became inextricable. The first 1,000 days of the Obama White House is the topic of New York Times’ reporter Jodi Kantor’s tell-all “The Obamas” (Little, Brown and Company; $29.99). Released this week, the purported intimate look at Obama, and more pointedly his wife, Michelle, has drawn the ire of the first family. In the book, Mrs. Obama is said to have occasionally bristled at some of the demands and constraints of life in the White House.
In a strongly worded posting on The White House blog, Eric Schultz, White House Associate Communications director, stated “The book is about a relationship between two people whom the author has not spoken to in years.…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.”
The Kantor book portrays a White House where tensions developed between Mrs. Obama and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and former press secretary and presidential adviser Robert Gibbs. The book describes Mrs. Obama as having gone through an evolution from struggle to fulfillment in her role at the White House, while labeling her an “unrecognized force” in pursuing the president’s goals. Kantor has covered the world of Barack and Michelle Obama since the beginning of 2007. She is the author of “First Marriage,” the now famous 2009 New York Times Magazine cover story that examined the partnership between the president and first lady. When the couple refused her interview request for this book, Kantor worked around them and interviewed over 35 other White House staffers who work closely with the first family.
Mrs. Obama challenged the book’s assertions she’s forcefully imposed her will on White House aides in an interview broadcast Wednesday with CBS’ Gayle King. “I love this job. It has been a privilege from day one,” said the first lady. “I do care deeply about my husband. I am one of his biggest allies. I am one of his biggest confidants.” But she sought to put aside “this notion that I sit in meetings.” “I guess it’s just more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here,” she said. “That’s been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some kind of angry Black woman.”
Mrs. Obama said that when questions or conflicts arise involving her and the White House staff, her East Wing staff resolves the issue with her husband’s staff in the West Wing. “If there’s communication that needs to happen, it’s between staffs," she said. “I don’t have conversations with my husband’s staff.” Asked specifically about an assertion of dissension between herself and Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, the first lady said she has “never had a cross word” with him. The same, she said, applies to Gibbs, whom she described as “a good friend, and remains so.”
“I’m sure we could go day to day and find things people wished they didn’t say to each other,” Obama said. “And that’s why I don’t read these books. ... It’s a game, in so many ways, that doesn’t fit. Who can write about what I feel? What third person can tell me what I feel?
“There will always be people who don’t like me,”Mrs. Obama added, and said she could live with that and that she’s “just trying to be me, and I just hope that over time, that people get to know me.”
New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor will appear at the National Constitution Center on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 6:30 p.m. as part of Election 2012, the Center’s yearlong programming series on the key issues facing Americans during this important election year. Reservations are required and can be made online at www.constitutioncenter.org or by calling (215) 409-6700.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.