The Obamas: from ‘Yes we can!’ to ‘No we can’t!’
Jodi Kantor’s gossipy account of America’s first couple reveals their struggle to adjust to the anti-climatic reality of government.
No sooner had the New York Times published a 3,300-word excerpt from Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas than the White House declared the book an ‘overdramatisation of old news’. The first couple would not be reading it, apparently. Cue tweeting, newspaper headlines, talkshow segments, error lists circulating online, rebuttals – and the book had barely even hit the stores.
The Obamas chronicles the ups and downs of the pair’s presidency and first ladyhood. Kantor, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, wanted to examine not just how America’s top power couple has grappled ‘politically and psychologically’ with their mission, but also how the American people have been affected by it. She set out to explore the impact of ‘their partnership – their debates and differences, shared ideas about themselves, and deep hesitation about politics – on the presidency, the job of first lady, and the nation’. To achieve this, Kantor relied on 200 interviews, which included talking with 33 White House aides. Although she met the Obamas in September 2009 for a New York Times Magazine piece about their marriage, Kantor did not interview them for her book.
Understandably, Michelle Obama has questioned Kantor’s ability to get inside her head (although it’s hardly unusual for biographers to try to do so). In a CBS interview with her friend Gayle King, the first lady asked: ‘What third person can tell me what I feel?’. She also downplayed some of the biggest talking points of the book – such as the alleged tensions between her and the president’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel (Kantor describes them as the president’s ‘first and second spouses’, with different visions of what kind of leader Obama should be). She wouldn’t read Kantor’s book, Michelle Obama said, but still complained that it presents her as ‘some kind of angry black woman’.
The White House’s aggressive reaction to the book has surprised many of those who have actually read it. Because, ultimately, it is a largely forgiving account of Obama’s presidency and a largely sympathetic portrait of the first lady and the marriage of the ‘POTUS’ and ‘FLOTUS’.
Yes, the image of Michelle Obama firing off emails to the president’s advisers during her morning workout sessions could rub people up the wrong way. After all, the American people elected Barack Obama, not his wife. Yet Michelle Obama is also described here as a key political asset, with approval ratings that have been a lot higher and more stable than her husband’s, and as someone who, time and again, rescues his career. Yes, she comes across as strict and demanding, but also as an aspirational, inspirational, ambitious and strong-minded woman who cares greatly about her image, her family and her country.
The book is chock-full of inferences about the Obamas’ feelings and states of mind. Often these passages are at least as cringeworthy as that moment when the first lady told a group of English schoolgirls, ‘I do hugs’, and then embraced them one by one.
For instance, Kantor describes Michelle Obama’s reactions to an emotional speech that her husband delivered in honour of the victims of a shooting in Arizona, an incident which left congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a coma. The president spoke about Giffords’ recovery – she had opened her eyes for the first time that day. ‘Michelle closed her own eyes briefly, pantomiming her husband’s speech a little. She did that sometimes, acting out the words he was saying during his speeches, as if she could give them some of her animation and propel his message across.’ At the end, ‘the expression on Michelle’s face was one of deep satisfaction. He had given the kind of speech she knew he could give. The look on her face said: This is the president I wanted you to be.’ You can almost hear the dramatic strings and pounding drums setting in.
Unsurprisingly, though, it is the gossipy titbits of The Obamas that have drawn most attention. There are recaps here of some well-known outcries – like that time when Michelle wore a pair of $540 sneakers to a Feeding America event. There are also some new revelations about White House conflicts – like the time when former press secretary Robert Gibbs cursed adviser Valerie Jarrett. Carla Bruni had claimed that Michelle Obama thought life in the White House was ‘hell’. Jarrett told Gibbs, falsely, that the first lady was unhappy with the way he handled the situation. Gibbs bandied the f-word around and then stormed out.
Then there are the anecdotes about the Obamas’ reluctance to move to Washington, about how they feel like outsiders there and have isolated themselves socially, all the while missing their more laid-back pre-presidency life. Apparently, after the election in 2008, Michelle Obama considered staying behind in Chicago with her children until the end of the school year.
Kantor also relays stories of White House extravagances – like a lavish Alice in Wonderland-themed Halloween party in 2009, organised by Tim Burton. At this time, 10 per cent of Americans were jobless and Tea Partiers were going on about Washington’s excesses. Inside the White House, children of administration officials and military servicemen mingled with Chewbacca, who had been personally dispatched by George Lucas, and dined with Johnny Depp, who was dressed as the Mad Hatter.
So, yes, there is plenty to satisfy exposé-hungry readers as well as those who see the president and his wife as aloof and out of touch. There is a voyeuristic feel to the book, too – the inside covers have plans of the White House, showing the layout of the private and public quarters. Yet, overall, The Obamas comes across as a feelgood counterweight to Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men (reviewed here), which described Obama’s inner circle as highly dysfunctional and claimed that turmoil in the White House hampered his response to the economic crisis. That account avenged those who warned of Obama’s inexperience and said his insistence on uniting Washington through non-partisan politics was naive.
Kantor, however, is a lot more generous. In many ways, she salvages the image of the Obamas as a harmonious couple, as progressive, grounded and too principled to succumb to the wheeling and dealing Washington ways. Yes, The Obamas is a reminder of the disappointments and failures of the current administration, which held out such big promises in 2008 but was already in a shambles by the time of the disastrous midterm elections of 2010. Yet the book also strikes some apologetic and positive notes, reinforcing the image of Obama as an embattled leader whose every attempt to unify Washington, eradicate inequality and defend liberty has been shot down by hostile Republicans.
The book also gives the impression that the Obamas are on a rebound, that they are more experienced now, have accepted the White House as their home and realise they must be prepared to schmooze and cut deals now and then. With the administration re-shuffled, tensions between the East and West wings have been smoothed out, apparently. Michelle Obama has found a satisfying mission in her Let’s Move campaign to eradicate childhood obesity. Barack Obama has started listening to the public rather than seeing himself as a misunderstood lone ranger.
Instead of being so defensive about the book, the White House would have done better keeping schtum and being grateful that some people are still happy to be matter-of-fact about, or even gloss over, the administration’s failings.
There are two instances, in particular, in The Obamas which reveal just how anti-climactic the current presidency has been. The first is the description of the president and first lady’s trip to Oslo where Barack Obama accepted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. At the time, he was facing great obstacles to his proposed healthcare reforms, on which he had staked the success of his presidency, and he had bitterly disappointed those on the left who had hoped his presidency would herald a new dawn of liberty and tolerance.
The trip to Oslo, however, was like ‘a brief, happy fantasy for the president’, Kantor writes, ‘a Nordic alternate reality where citizens were learned and pensive, discussions were thoughtful, and everyone was a fan… For one day, the Obamas lived the dream version of his presidency instead of the depressing reality.’ The Scandinavian members of the Royal Academy ‘asked the same question the president had asked Congress: how could a country as rich as the United States not provide healthcare for its citizens?’ Outside, thousands of Norwegians took part in a torchlight parade in Obama’s honour.
In other words, not a year into his presidency, Obama had to travel abroad to get the kind of reception and evoke the kind of excitement that had electrified the air on his inauguration day. In Europe – where he wasn’t putting anybody’s personal health, finances or liberty at stake – his saviour image was still pretty much intact. But far from leading him to try to reignite this excitement in the US, judging from the comments of advisers cited in Kantor’s book, all this just confirmed to Obama that America was too unsophisticated for him.
The second revealing instance in The Obamas gives a clue as to the kind of message we can expect from the administration during the 2012 elections, at a time when public confidence in the president has been deflated and Democrats seem to want a second term for Obama mostly because the Republican candidates freak them out. Kantor describes Michelle Obama’s speech at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia on the day before the midterm elections. ‘”I know change has not come fast enough”, she said. “It takes a lot longer than any of us would like.” But together they had come too far to stop, she told the audience, shaking her head no, almost as if she were rejecting her own impulse to give up.’
Two years into the presidency, then, at a key event, the first lady of the United States was not speaking of hope and sweeping change, but acknowledging defeats and urging supporters to be patient. Kantor writes: ‘My husband could not do it alone, she declared, speaking for herself and for them. Like her, the audience had no choice. “Yes we must”, she said…’
It is no secret that the Obama administration has suffered from a loss of confidence – even the White House’s strong reaction to the publication of The Obamas shows that they are lashing out from a position of weakness. To a strong administration with great support, a book that is mainly a gossipy, melodramatic and empathetic summary of the Obamas’ stay in the White House would not be a big deal. Yet, surely, replacing old, boisterous and vague slogans with new, humbled and vague ones won’t get the Obamas very far?
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