By Jodi Kantor
Little, Brown & Company. $29.99
Review by CONNIE SCHULTZ
The Obamas were at the University of Arizona in Tucson to honor the six people who were killed in shootings that had left Representative Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life. Jodi Kantor describes Mrs. Obama’s reaction as the president spoke:
“She was following every word, nodding a little, her eyes flickering with his words.” When President Obama described Ms. Giffords opening her eyes for the first time, “Michelle closed her own eyes briefly, pantomiming her husband’s speech a little, showing the relief her husband was expressing. 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 help propel his message across.”
By the end of the speech, Ms. Kantor writes: “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.”
Cue the groans. What kind of journalist presumes to know Michelle Obama’s mind?
In lesser hands “The Obamas” would be an act of astonishing overreach, but Ms. Kantor, who covered the Obamas for The New York Times during the 2008 presidential campaign, and is currently a Washington correspondent for the paper, has earned the voice of authority. A meticulous reporter, Ms. Kantor is attuned to the nuance of small gestures, the import of unspoken truths. She knows that every strong marriage, including the one now in the White House, has its complexities and its disappointments. Ms. Kantor also — and this is a key — has a high regard for women, which is why hers is the first book about the Obama presidency to give Michelle Obama her due. In the process we learn a great deal about the talented and introverted loner who married her, and how his wife has influenced him as a president.
“The Obamas” is full of gossipy tidbits that fuel a narrative about their marriage and how it has shaped the presidency. Public glimpses of their intimacy portray a genuine bond forged by an ambitious man and his equally driven wife. He can be arrogant and self-absorbed, but he strives for her approval. She is his champion and critic, and a fierce guardian of their mutual mission.
Ms. Kantor retires wooden stereotypes of the political wife as a prop or a problem and instead explores what it means to be a modern first lady, one with her own opinions and an expectation that she will be heard. The book offers concrete examples of how Mrs. Obama, even as she wrestled with self-doubt, bolstered her husband as only a wife can and kept him grounded in ways that had nothing to do with the tired story of her ordering him to pick up his dirty socks.
She helped him recalibrate when his public approval rating tanked, urging him to alter wonky speeches with personal stories that could close the distance between cool-headed him and a suffering public. She also was the driving force behind an eventual staff shake-up that led to the departure of senior advisers after Scott Brown won Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts. Mr. Brown’s victory cost the Democrats their supermajority, and Mrs. Obama was furious with the president, and his staff, whom she saw as insular and disorganized, and failing to prepare for the worst possible outcomes.
“She feels as if our rudder isn’t set right,” Mr. Obama told aides. Eventually he agreed.
“This was Michelle’s most profound influence on the Obama presidency,” Ms. Kantor writes, “the sense of purpose she shared with her husband, the force of her worldview, her passionate beliefs about access, opportunity, and fairness; her readiness to do what was unpopular and pay political costs. 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, aides said, who reminded him again and again that they were there to do good, to avoid being distracted by political noise, to be bold.”
Sometimes they were too much alike. They shared a disdain for Congress, which crippled Mr. Obama’s ability to broker deals. They clung to old friendships, which further isolated them in a town they already distrusted. They also shared a relentless belief that the president was misunderstood and underappreciated by the people he serves. As the wife of a United States senator, I know this to be a common and all-too-toxic affliction in political families. No good comes of it.