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Americas

New book details Michelle Obama’s rocky evolution as first lady

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2012-01-10

A new book by a New York Times political reporter portrays First Lady Michelle Obama as a fiercely protective, somewhat controversial presence, who has competed with high-profile cabinet members for influence over her husband.

US news headlines these days are dominated by the gallery of Republican candidates vying – and recently clawing at one another – for the chance to unseat President Barack Obama in 2012.

But there’s an even juicier political story on the sidelines: a new book called “The Obamas”, by The New York Times’ Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor, goes on sale Tuesday, with initial leaks promising an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the first couple and the occasionally explosive impact of their marriage on the administration.

Kantor did not interview the Obamas themselves for the book (her last interview with them was for an article in 2009), drawing rather from conversations with 30 current and former aides to the president and his wife, as well as with some of their closest friends.

“The Obamas” is attracting particular attention for what has been touted as a revealing portrait of Michelle Obama, the widely admired first lady who consistently polls as one of the most popular figures in her husband’s entourage.

Since moving into the White House, Obama has been known mostly for her casually elegant style and down-to-earth warmth. But the first lady depicted in Kantor’s book is a fiercely protective, somewhat controversial presence, who has competed with high-profile cabinet members for influence over her husband.

Though the White House has pushed back against the portrayal, calling it “an over-dramatisation of old news”, the book is being taken more seriously than the usual tell-alls about elected officials. Kantor, after all, is a seasoned political reporter who built up a roster of sources from the Obamas’ professional and personal inner circles while covering them for The New York Times since 2007.

Here are some of her key revelations.

A tough adjustment

According to Kantor, Michelle Obama bristled at the prospect of moving to Washington in January 2009, initially considering staying in Chicago with daughters Sasha and Malia until the end of the school year. Once she arrived at the White House, she voiced discomfort with some of the more ceremonial obligations on her agenda – such as the annual luncheon for Congressional spouses.

Obama also struggled to adjust to the intense security and attention whenever she stepped out to take her daughters to school or attend one of their soccer games. She much preferred the woodsy Maryland presidential retreat, Camp David, because of its isolation from photographers.

Kantor writes that clothing quickly became Obama’s “compensatory pleasure” to offset the stresses of life in the spotlight. An avid online shopper, the first lady allegedly told friends of one White House event: “If I have to go, I’m getting a new dress out of it.”

Pressures of being the first black first lady

One source says the first lady was determined to exhibit flawless taste and sophistication in decorating the White House and planning its receptions, since she felt “everyone was waiting for a black woman to make a mistake”. Some of Obama’s advisers worried that the first lady’s focus on shaping a refined image for herself, her family and her new home would alienate Americans angry about high unemployment and a stagnating economy.

The result was a series of debates over matters like whether the White House should announce the hiring of a new florist or the first lady should appear on the cover of Vogue. The administration also allegedly decided not to publicise a 2009 Halloween party held for military families and thrown by filmmaker Tim Burton and movie star Johnny Depp, out of fear the Obamas would appear frivolous during a time of recession.

Clashing with the cabinet

The book details Michelle Obama’s allegedly tense relationships with some of her husband’s closest advisers. “Michelle and [the president’s former chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel had almost no bond; their relationship was distant and awkward from the beginning,” Kantor writes. “She had been sceptical of him when he was selected, and now he returned the favor.”

A main point of contention between the first lady and Emanuel was policy-related; Obama wanted her husband to push through left-wing initiatives like healthcare and immigration reform, whereas Emanuel was more cautious, mindful of slipping poll numbers and staunch opposition from congressional Republicans.

In Kantor’s account, the first lady’s frustration was the catalyst for a staff reshuffle following the special election that resulted in the loss of Senator Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown. “She feels as if our rudder isn’t set right,” the president allegedly confided in his advisers.

There was also no love lost between Michelle Obama and the president’s then-press secretary Robert Gibbs, according to the book.

When Gibbs learned at a meeting that the first lady did not approve of his handling of a rumour in the press that she had told French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House was “hell”, he cursed her and stormed out.

Growing into her role

According to Kantor, Obama eventually began to flourish in her role, and is now eager to capitalise on her popularity in campaigning for her husband’s re-election. If anything, Kantor writes, the first lady’s experience in the White House, despite bumps along the way, has been smoother than her husband’s: “She had entered with her expectations low and then exceeded them; he had entered on top of the world, and had been descending to earth ever since.”

 

Date created : 2012-01-10

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