Jodi Kantor’s Book ‘The Obamas’: Tensions Between Michelle and the White House and More

Jodi Kantor’s new book The Obamas shows tensions between West Wing and Michelle Obama. Read excerpts.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s book The Obamas doesn’t come out until January 10, but the juicy look into the Obamas’ marriage—not to mention frictions between the East and West Wings—has set the political world abuzz. The White House has already pushed back against the book, calling it an “overdramatization of old news” and claiming it is based off interviews with “people who the Obamas have not spoken to in years.” Kantor reportedly interviewed 33 White House staffers for the book, but not the president or the first lady. Here are some of the most provocative bits.

Obamas Threw ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Bash

The Obamas are Tea Party members after all! Maybe they should have thought about this before they allowed Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to throw an Alice in Wonderland costume ball at the White House in Halloween of 2009, in the depths of the recession. According to The Obamas, the mad tea party was so over the top that George Lucas sent the original Chewbacca to mingle. Burton turned the State Dining Room into the Mad Hatter’s tea party—Depp was in full costume—to peg to the release of his Alice film. Meringue cookies were bone-shaped, fruit punch was served in blood vials, and there was a magic show in the East Room. But the gossip invites serious scrutiny, since the White House anticipated the controversial nature of the bash and moved—hitherto successfully—to cover up the event. “White House officials were so nervous about how a splashy, Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans—or their representatives in Congress, who would soon vote on health care—that the event was not discussed publicly and Burton’s and Depp’s contributions went unacknowledged,” the book says. But the White House was apparently not shy about making sure more humble Halloween festivities earlier that day were well reported.

Michelle Obama vs. the West Wing

While the president’s senior advisors agree that Michelle Obama, according to David Axelrod, “has very much got [the president’s] back,” the relationship with Michelle and the senior advisors has not always been smooth. A Harvard-trained lawyer, she gave up her career to be the first lady, and tried to avoid the ceremonial aspects of the job—a running joke in the White House was how difficult it was to get Michelle to attend any event. In the summer of 2010, Michelle was reportedly so angry that former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had said she would campaign at an event for the 2010 midterms—the Democrats were facing a bloodbath—that she then refused to do any campaigning, and in the end, only came out for a few events.

Robert Gibbs Curses Out the First Lady

The book details one particularly nasty incident when former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was so enraged by Michelle that he cursed her out in a staff meeting. Gibbs, who Kantor writes was obsessed with not letting the Obamas become “caricatures,” was enraged over a French book that claimed Michelle told Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that life in the White House was “hell.” Gibbs tried to find out if the remark was true, but received no reply from the first lady’s staff and eventually got Champs-Elysee to issue a denial about the book. At the next morning’s 7:30 meeting, advisor Valerie Jarrett—a close friend of Michelle’s and someone who acted as her advocate—said Michelle had concerns over the White House’s reaction to the story. Gibbs became so enraged that Emanuel warned him “don’t go there Robert, don’t go there,” but Gibbs went on an tirade anyway, eventually cursing Michelle. Gibbs later acknowledged the outburst and said he had misdirected his rage, when he was really angry at Jarrett—someone who he “stopped taking at all seriously as an advisor to the president” after the book incident.

Rahm Emanuel Offers to Resign

Not all the book’s juiciest parts have to do with Michelle. While she and Emanuel had run-ins in the past, he had decided to steer clear of the her after his experience in the Clinton White House. But Emanuel had his own problems—even the president had questioned Emanuel’s managerial skills, despite depending on him heavily to deal with Congress. By early 2010, Emanuel had said openly that he thought the time-consuming health care overhaul had been a bad idea. Senior White House aide David Axelrod said Emanuel “understood that the stories were an embarrassment and felt like he owed it to [the president] to offer his resignation.” According to the book, when Emanuel went to the president to offer his resignation, Obama refused to accept it and instead said Emanuel’s punishment would be to stay and push through the health care measure and other major legislation.

Difficulty in Carving Out the First Lady’s Role

The book claims that Michelle did not have a clear idea about what role she wanted to take when the Obamas first arrived in Washington in 2009—even considering waiting to move to Washington until after the school year was out, rather than on Inauguration Day. In contrast to many in the White House, the first lady “does think there are worse things than losing an election,” said Susan S. Sher, the first lady’s former chief of staff. “Being true to yourself, for her, that is definitely more important.” Sher says she remembers talking to Michelle in the early days of Obama’s presidency about his reelection, and Michelle said that if her husband lost in 2012, “I know we’ll be fine.”