If there are two words that are most often used to describe life inside the White House, they are probably “lonely” and “isolating.” Those are sentiments Barack and Michelle Obama have become quite familiar with since moving to their new, very public home, according to veteran New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor. Though her book, The Obamas, lacks recent interviews with her two principal subjects, Kantor talked with 33 of their aides to piece together how the couple have managed their meteoric rise.
Their marriage, like all marriages, has had its ups and downs. The Obamas, who wed in 1992, have grappled with maintaining their relationship in Washington—a tough feat considering even their date nights are scrutinized by the international press. The Daily Beast speed-reads The Obamas to bring you the best parts.
Washington or Bust
Even though she loathed the idea of living apart, Michelle did not want to uproot her daughters to move to Washington in January 2009. She, Malia and Sasha would attend Barack’s inauguration, but would remain in Chicago until they had time to finish up the school year and gradually transition to D.C. Michelle would commute back and forth as needed. But Barack, who had been on the road for two years running for president and had never lived full-time with his daughters, didn’t want to be separated for another six months. It wasn’t until the Obamas visited the Bushes in the White House—and the girls slid down the banisters of their new home—that Michelle changed her mind.
Friends, family, and acquaintances had been telling Michelle for years that Barack was destined for great things. People who saw him speak at his sister’s wedding in December 2003 prophesized that he would one day be president. But it was hard to reconcile that idealism with the everyday grind of politics, and Michelle would often remind her husband exactly how human he is. Even after he won the 2008 election and they moved into the White House, she still at times had trouble believing Barack was the president. Seeing him seated behind the desk that John F. Kennedy used in the Oval Office seemed to surreal to Michelle, who would say, “What are you doing there? Get up from there!”
The Obamas' marriage hit a rough patch around 2000, when Barack hastily decided to challenge Rep. Bobby Rush for his House seat. The move was ill-advised—he lost handily—and Michelle felt it showed how self-absorbed her husband was. He was taking on too many things: running for Congress, serving in the state legislature, teaching law, and trying to be a family man. She wanted him to have a more stable career, but if he was going to be a politician, she also wanted him to at least accomplish something. His tenure in the statehouse was marked by him complaining that the work wasn’t serious enough. Michelle didn’t think it was worth having a commuter marriage.
“I don’t have to be on the cover of Vogue wearing something that costs $20,000,” she said. “There are young black women across this country and I want them to see a black woman on the cover of Vogue.”
Vogue had invited Michelle to pose during the transition, and she accepted because she felt there were too few black women on the covers of fashion magazines. But the rest of the White House staff wasn’t so sure it was a good idea to have the first lady model for a publication that pushed expensive merchandise in the middle of an economic crisis. Michelle wouldn’t back down. “I don’t have to be on the cover of Vogue wearing something that costs $20,000,” she said. “There are young black women across this country and I want them to see a black woman on the cover of Vogue.”
Upset in Massachusetts
With the Democrat’s supermajority in the Senate on the line, the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s former seat was an important one for the White House. Massachusetts’ entire delegation was made up of Democrats until Republican Scott Brown scored one of the biggest political upsets in decades. Michelle was angry with both the president and his staff for not taking Brown seriously or planning for the worst-case scenario. But even more than that, she saw Brown’s victory as a rejection of her husband, and it caused her to question whether her family’s sacrifice was worth it.
Michelle vs. the West Wing
From the time she arrived at the White House, there was friction between the first lady and the president’s staff, which isn’t exactly shocking. (See: Hillary Clinton.) But Kantor details some of the more trying episodes that left the two camps at odds with each other. There was the time that Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff, scheduled her for a campaign appearance in Florida without letting her staff know. There was the time her chief of staff asked to be included in the 7:30 a.m. planning meetings but was rebuffed. Then there was the time when former press secretary Robert Gibbs lost it over Michelle’s reaction to a French book that said she hated living in the White House. Said Gibbs: “Then f—k her, too!” For her part, the first lady wasn’t thrilled with the way her husband’s advisers were serving him or utilizing her. She felt they were making mistakes, especially with messaging, and was frustrated by the fact that the administration wasn’t crafting clearer messages to promote its priorities. As the health-care bill negotiations began to unravel and the president’s favorability ratings dropped lower, she volunteered to be an ambassador for her husband’s signature legislation. But his aides called her off. Polls showed she was well liked across the country, and they didn’t want her tarnished by association.
Speaking of health care, it was Michelle’s prodding that essentially helped Barack move forward with comprehensive reform. Emanuel had been arguing for months that the president should scale back his goals and shoot for smaller legislative victories. Michelle had other ideas. She and her daughters hadn’t given up the relative calm of their life in Chicago for Barack to back down from his lofty campaign goals. “This was Michelle’s most profound influence on the Obama presidency,” writes Kantor. “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.”
Offer of Resignation
Rahm Emanuel figures heavily in Kantor’s reporting. The former chief of staff who later became the mayor of Chicago has many memorable moments. During his time in the Clinton White House, he often locked horns with Hillary, who didn’t appreciate his willingness to schedule her for political events when she already had private plans. She tried to fire him, but he wouldn’t go until the president asked for his resignation, which never happened. Eight years later, he couldn't get the president to let him leave. With the health-care debate getting away from them, many within the administration began questioning Emanuel’s leadership skills. He openly complained that the reform effort was a bad idea, which led to negative stories in the press. Emanuel offered to resign, but according to the book, the president wouldn’t accept. Instead, Obama told Emanuel that his punishment would be to fix the mess he created.