The Making of a President and First Lady
Author Jodi Kantor explores the first couple’s evolving partnership in her book, The Obamas.


As her new book depicting clashes between first lady Michelle Obama and some of President Obama’s closest aides became fodder for this week’s talk shows and news headlines, the author of The Obamas told The Root that her tome aims to spotlight the first couple’s partnership in a fashion similar to that of a lauded book on the entwined White House lives of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Though the first lady, in an interview with CBS’ Gayle King, bristled at what she characterized as the book’s suggestion that she is an “angry black woman,” New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor countered that the caricature was not her intent but that the book, among other highlights, grapples with some of the race-infused pressures the first black president and first lady have confronted.

“Mrs. Obama made several comments that I assume must be in response to the coverage of the book, since she said she didn’t read it and also because there’s no suggestion or depiction in The Obamas of her as a stereotypical angry black woman,” said Kantor, whose book is based on interviews with more than 30 current and former aides.

No interviews with Michelle Obama or the president are contained in The Obamas, which Kantor said departs from existing narratives in a deliberate bid to focus less on the first lady’s personal style than on the evolving partnership between President Obama and a first lady who has expressed ambivalences about her husband’s political life and whose Washington trajectory has been marked by its ups and its downs.

“I’ve really watched her evolve [largely] by trial and error,” said Kantor, who has covered the Obamas since 2007. “It’s important to remember the stakes … [In spring 2008, the first lady's] advisers did an image makeover. I quote an aide in the book: ‘We decided to make her more like the mom on The Cosby Show.’ ”

That fixation on a black first lady’s public appearance fueled Obama’s pre-existing knowledge that being black — and first — would draw extra scrutiny from those inclined to dwell on racial distinctions. “We have so few models, as a country,” Kantor added, “of warm, accomplished, successful black women that we have to run to Phylicia Rashad who, A), played a fictional character and, B), did that [almost] 30 years ago.”

Being micromanaged didn’t sit well with Michelle Obama, Kantor writes. She re-emphasized that assertion to The Root and characterized Obama’s arrival in Washington as a “rocky start,” a proverbial “stranger in a strange land” existence.

Though Obama is a Harvard-trained lawyer and former hospital administrator who wanted to weigh in on health care reform, President Obama’s aides precluded that, Kantor writes. The Democrats had taken a lesson from the flak former President Clinton received when his own wife, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, inserted her bona fides into that era’s health care debate.

President Obama’s protracted dip in public opinion polls has prompted Michelle Obama to insert herself more boldly in the shaping of her husband’s image and message, said Kantor, for whom Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II served as an inspiration.

“The power dynamic in the White House starts to shift. As the president’s popularity drops, her popularity becomes all the more important. She is the one American people love. She’s in demand for events,” Kantor said.

Obama believes, Kantor writes, that her husband’s aides have been more focused on winning the next election than on promoting the policies that undergirded his campaign pledge of “change.”

Now “she really is a force … not in the sense of her marching into West Wing meetings .. but in terms of her monitoring the greater Obama mission,” Kantor said. “There is a strong sense that the Obamas share a larger view of what they’ve accomplished. [My] book’s last chapter is called ‘What We Came Here to Do.’ That sensibility still undergirds their time [in the White House].”

As she tracks Obama’s evolution to this point, Kantor notes that the first lady’s guardianship of her husband’s image and espoused beliefs also imbue her with a certain caution. Kantor said that the first lady has not forgotten the mostly white backlash over the black nationalistic preaching of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas’ former Chicago pastor. “It’s interesting that the first lady has not had that kind of public gaffe [regarding] race,” Kantor said. “But she will say things about race that are very clear … That this problem of childhood obesity applies to everybody, but it disproportionately affects black and Latino families. Her statements on race are very understated and very clear.”

An equally pivotal and positive moment in the first lady’s own way forward, Kantor said, involved her 2009 visit to a London girls’ school heavily populated by nonwhite, poor and immigrant students from asylum-seeking families.

“The way her advisers told me the story later [suggests] that this is when she really began to understand her potential first lady-hood,” Kantor said. “The way they describe this … She starts to choke up. It was almost like she could kind of see herself through their eyes … She’s talking to these girls about what they offer to society. She is hugging them; they are swooning. The Secret Service guys are getting nervous, but she keeps going and keeps going. She continued struggling for a while in the White House after that, but that moment kind of planted the seed for who she would become as first lady.”

Katti Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.