New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor released a new book yesterday about the Obamas titled, appropriately, The Obamas. It’s clear from promotional materials and Kantor’s own interviews that what’s different about this book is its positioning of first lady Michelle Obama as the pivotal character in the unfolding drama of this presidency. In doing so, The Obamas takes a hard look at the adaptations and transitions required when a partnership of equals suddenly becomes a scrutinized hierarchy. Kantor also 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.
Political book sales rise and fall on the same sensational rhythms as our political media, so it’s not surprising that the marketing buzz leads with a handful of dramatic anecdotes about friction between the new first couple—especially Michelle—and their staff. Even Kantor’s own chosen excerpt in the Times hypes the most incendiary and oft-repeated story: one where press secretary Robert Gibbs blows up after being admonished by Valerie Jarrett for being slow to respond to a leaked conversation in the French press in which Michelle Obama confides to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House is “hell.”
The result is preliminary reporting full of predictable media Sturm und Drang about unrest and hurt feelings in the East and West wings. In reaction mode, the White House press shop sent Politico’s Mike Allen the requisite push-back memo listing nit-picky inaccuracies in an attempt to undermine the core charge. The list includes quibbles about a particular outfit choice by Michelle Obama and the nationality of a family visiting the White House. (If you enjoy media one-upmanship, here’s Ben Smith from his new perch at Buzzfeed finding the inaccuracies in the White House list of inaccuracies.)
Still, by centralizing the marriage as core to the narrative of the Obama presidency, Kantor is on to something important. Alongside policy concerns, people are hungry to understand the character of the people in charge of our country. Voters don’t expect calmness to prevail in the pressure cooker of politics, and it’s not news to anyone that staffers sometimes lose their tempers or use foul language in the West Wing. But in voters’ never-ending quest to discern the substance and values in a political world littered with gossip and posturing, insight into family relationships provides a critical indicator of integrity, of authenticity, of that intangible quality of character that matters to three of four voters.
The way a candidate approaches marriage serves as one window into the equation of shared values. It’s no accident that GOP opponents have focused as much time attacking Newt Gingrich for his string of divorces and for his decision to leave his second wife while she was hospitalized for cancer as they have on his toxic political record as Speaker of the House. Most Americans cannot picture themselves doing anything similar. Nor is it surprising that Americans have been fascinated by the union between Michele Bachmann and her enigmatic husband, Marcus. From her pronouncement of her own submissiveness in their marriage to his decision to spend the day before the Iowa caucus shopping for dog glasses, the bizarre story of their marriage added to a series of stumbles that ultimately sank her.
In contrast, Kantor portrays the Obamas’ marriage as not only filled with mutual respect and joy but also as reflective of the modern complications and challenges that many Americans face juggling two careers and family concerns. Covering the 2008 election made Kantor aware of how hungry voters—especially coveted women voters—were for this kind of story.
“I was inspired in part to write this book when talking to women voters on the trail in 2008," she told me in a phone conversation. "I would try to ask them questions about candidates, and they would want to talk about the media. They felt Hillary Clinton was being treated in a very sexist way, and I wasn’t sure that I agreed with that. There’s a kind of nastiness to politics and they were seeing a woman subjected to it for the first time. Still, I could tell there was not enough out there to speak to them and their needs and lives. There was a huge underserved market of readers out there who were perhaps looking for different kind of story [about our leaders].”
Kantor answered these concerns with The Obamas, an honest portrayal of people who are put under unprecedented scrutiny with unusual rapidity. Neither of them had the experience of being from political and wealthy families, like the Kennedys who shared their youth as first couple. Nor had they the practice of presenting their modern marriage to the public like the Clintons had from living in the Arkansas governor’s mansion. The added strain of being the groundbreaking African-American first family would take most people—and marriages—to the breaking point. Instead, Kantor’s story is one of balance and grace, a couple who navigates an almost impossible situation with not only their relationship but their noble aspirations intact.
For a president who has been criticized for holding the public at arm’s length, the portrayal of him in the book can add texture to his humanity at a time voters are looking to reconnect to the incumbent. And while pundits speak of a potential enthusiasm gap among women voters, the story of the First Lady’s influence over her devoted husband’s agenda can help give confidence to a coveted demographic that can secure margins of victory in tight races.
Ms. Kantor writes in the book, “Every day, he met with advisers who emphasized the practical realities of Washington, who reminded him of poll numbers; he spent his nights with Michelle, who talked about moral imperatives, aides said, who reminded him again and again that they were there to do good, to avoid being distracted by political noise, to be bold.”
Rather than protesting, the White House should embrace the book as one that admirably depicts the first couple as thriving partners, even as they struggle against the constraints of antiquated roles in leading the country into a new millennium.