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Tue January 10, 2012
Michelle And Barack Obama: A Powerful Partnership
Originally published on Tue January 10, 2012 6:21 pm
In late 2006, Barack Obama held a meeting with his wife, Michelle, and his advisers to weigh whether he should run for president.
"And Michelle Obama, in front of everybody, asks her husband a very dramatic question," says New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor. "She says, 'What do you think you can bring to this that the other candidates can't?' "
Her husband paused for a second, and then responded, "I really think if I became president, it would inspire people all over the world to think of new possibilities."
"What he was talking about, of course, was the fall of a racial barrier," Kantor says. "Being role models is essential to why the Obamas first decided to do this. And yet, when you're a role model, you open yourself up so entirely. You are putting yourself on the line so completely, and everything you do is open to criticism."
Kantor traces how the Obamas have dealt with that criticism — and tried to maintain their marriage and family life in the midst of a very public spotlight — in her new book, The Obamas.
"My goal was to write a book about the presidency that treated the president and the first lady as partners, which is what I truly think they are," she tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
According to Kantor, the first lady initially had serious reservations about her husband's ambitions for the White House.
"She was worried, in part, about the impact on her family. But she also had concerns that it may not be the right time," Kantor says. "Her chief of staff told me that during that time, the decision just weighed on Michelle Obama — because she really believed that her husband could accomplish great things as president, but she wasn't sure if it was the best thing for their family. And how do you make that choice between what is best for you personally versus the contribution you think you can make to the country?"
During the campaign in 2008, Michelle Obama continued to have a rough time.
"She was up against Bill Clinton, because that was Hillary Clinton's spouse," Kantor says. "In early events, she charmed lots of people ... But she also had problems. In the spring of 2008, she was accused of being 'an angry black woman.' Fox News called her a 'baby-mama.' There were a lot of ugly things said about her."
Friends and aides told Kantor that Michelle Obama was extremely hurt by the accusations.
"She thought of herself as one type of person, and to see that image so widely distorted — and it can happen so fast — it can be really disorienting for anyone," Kantor says.
So when the Obamas got to the White House, they made a conscientious effort to clamp down and surround themselves with people they already knew from Chicago — to keep some sense of normalcy.
"A lot of their instincts become very self-protected," Kantor says. "Again and again, in my reporting, I found the motif of them drawing up the gangplanks."
But recently, Michelle Obama has seemed much more comfortable with her role.
"She's really popular. She's much more popular than her husband, and that has really given her so much internal leverage because they need her so badly for 2012," she says. "She's totally key to their strategy, and if you look at her in the last couple of months, she's gone from appearing not too frequently to being almost ubiquitous. And she's become much more comfortable in public life, and much more comfortable politically. For 2012 ... she says she's all-in this time."
On Barack Obama's schedule
"His day is scheduled by 33 people. Imagine being the first lady and worrying about his sleep or if his kids have an event at school. Who does she talk to to interface with his schedule? What is the right procedure? And this is a first lady who is very aware of not being seen as a meddling spouse."
"Barack Obama has always been a real optimist about what can be accomplished. He believes that government can be used to create systemic, long-term, real change. And the first lady is more of a skeptic in the relationship, but she's also the idealist ... She said again and again [after watching her husband in the Illinois Legislature] that she didn't come to the process with a lot of faith that politics could really improve people's lives for the better."
On moving into the White House in 2008
"They discover that the place is nothing like a normal American family home. There's no private entrance or exit where they can go undetected. There isn't what we think of as a contemporary American kitchen, where the family can sit around at bar stools and make coffee in the morning. There's no way for Michelle Obama to spontaneously walk Bo, the new dog, just wearing sweats and a T-shirt without the possibility of being caught by photographers."
On the White House staff
"Many of the residential staff are older African-Americans, and they were so excited when the Obamas got there. A White House aide told me that on the night of Inauguration, the White House staff just couldn't contain themselves," she says. "So then the Obamas move into this very unusual house, they're the rare first couple not to have lived in some executive mansion beforehand ... and one of the president's best friends said to me, 'We feel so connected to this staff because they're working-class African-Americans, and that's our background too. It's strange for us initially to be waited on by these people because we feel like we know them.'"
On Sen. Daschle pressing President Obama to hold more parties
"Sen. Daschle really, really urged it, and I think it's been really hard for the president to do for a couple of reasons. One is [his] family time, which is extremely important to him. And the other is the Republican strategy really has been one of total opposition. So what a lot of people in the White House said to me was, 'Look, this is their strategy. It's total opposition. A little canape and cocktail frank is not necessarily going to break down the wall of mistrust we have with Republicans.' That said, Sen. Daschle's point was that you just have to keep trying. You just have to keep hammering away. Interestingly, that's not at all what the president is doing now. If you look at his strategy for 2012, he's basically been really honest about the fact that he's going to be attacking the Republican Congress right and left. This era of Barack Obama trying to be this bipartisan uniter seems to be over, at least for now."
The "No New Friends" rule in 2004
"They established a 'no-new friends' rule. [The first lady's brother told me], 'Look, we don't know what other people's agendas are. We're essentially freezing our friendships where we are now.' [The first family] basically decided, 'We're not here in Washington to make new friends.' They wanted to spend their time with the same group of people.'"
On the president's close friendships with Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt
"They both said to me that they make the point of almost never challenging the president on anything, and in fact, don't talk about work with him — they wait for him to bring it up. So, on the one hand, they're certainly doing the job of keeping things normal by playing pool or basketball with him. But on the other hand, if there are things that your friends are not willing to raise with you, is that total normality either? The whole question of what is or isn't normal in the White House is just something that keeps coming up again and again."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Imagine taking on one of the toughest jobs in the world and trying to do it while living in a combination office building and museum while every aspect of your life is subjected to intense public scrutiny, from what sneakers you wear to where you go on vacation.
That's what the president of the United States and his family face, and our guest, New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor, has written a book about how Barack and Michelle Obama have managed their lives and roles in the White House.
It's not an account filled with scandalous revelations, though some staff disputes she describes have gotten attention. In the main, Kantor offers insights into the Obamas' relationship and how they've adjusted to their enormous responsibilities and the challenges of trying to raise a family on Pennsylvania Avenue. Jodi Kantor's new book is called "The Obamas."
Well, Jodi Kantor, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I'm sure that one reaction to this book among some people will be: Can't you just leave these folks alone? They get so much attention already. I mean, you're not a paparazzi or a celebrity journalist, and I'm sure you must have kind of had a conversation with yourself about why you wanted to write about the first family's relationship. Why is it important?
JODI KANTOR: Well, I was very inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "No Ordinary Time," which is a wonderful book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. And what I wanted, my goal, which nobody else was doing, was to write a book about the presidency that treated the president and first lady as partners, which is what I truly think they are.
I've been covering the Obamas for five years for the New York Times, and one of the things that I've learned about the Obamas is that they've spent their entire relationship asking two questions and really debating them back and forth between each other. One: How much change is really possible within the political system? And two: Is political life even livable?
And as I started to cover them in the White House, I saw that they were facing these questions on a more dramatic scale than ever before, and these questions are important for all of us. They have to do with the future of the whole country.
DAVIES: OK, so let's talk a little bit about life in the White House. Now, when they were elected, when it was clear they were going to win, they knew they would be living in this, you know, bubble of celebrity and media scrutiny, in a house that's anything but normal.
But one of the interesting things about it for them was that it would give them an opportunity to live in the same city for the first time in many, many years, right?
KANTOR: That is part of what is so dramatic about the president's situation at the start of the administration. Not only is he coming to Washington with not so much managerial experience or economic experience or national security experience; it's the first time he's living with his family full-time under the same roof.
DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about the White House itself. I mean, it is a home, but it's also a huge office and a museum. Describe the layout a little bit and, you know, just how the first family gets in and out of the building, how it affects their daily lives.
KANTOR: Well, the Obamas show up in the White House in January 2009, and they've done a brief visit or two when the Bushes were still living there, and they checked it out, and they discover that this place that they're going to live is nothing like a normal American family home.
There's no private entrance or exit where they can go undetected. There isn't what we think of as a, you know, contemporary American kitchen, where the family can just sort of sit around at barstools and make coffee in the morning and talk.
There's no way for Michelle Obama to just spontaneously walk Bo, the new dog, just wearing, you know, sort of sweats and a T-shirt, without the possibility of being caught by photographers.
So the way one White House aide described it to me is that the house within the White House is really like - it's like the world's most prestigious executive apartment. It's not a real house.
DAVIES: Now, the residence is on the second floor of the White House. Are there staff around all the time up there? Do they - can they swear when they stub their toes? Do they have any private moments at all?
KANTOR: Well, every first family makes rules about how much residence staff they want in the residence at any given time. And the Obamas have tried to keep it pretty much like a normal family home. But the residence staff also has to do their work. There are carpets that have to be vacuumed and things that have to be dusted, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
It's a big, old-fashioned house that almost demands staff and a lot of upkeep.
DAVIES: Right, but are they or Secret Service agents literally around the corner all the time?
KANTOR: Well, it depends. Like for family dinner, there's some help with prep and then the – and bringing the food, and then the family is basically left alone. So I think they've tried to find a balance between, you know, sort of letting this house be what it will be on the one hand but then also creating some private space.
You know, one of the things that really struck me about learning about the Obamas' relationship to the residential staff is that the residential staff, many of them are older African-Americans, and they were so excited when the Obamas got there.
A White House aide just told me that, you know, the night of the inauguration, the residence staff couldn't contain themselves. So then the Obamas move into this very unusual house, which is nothing like anyplace they've ever lived before.
They're the rare first couple not to have lived in some sort of executive mansion like a governor's residence beforehand. And not only that, but they have this staff, and Marty Nesbitt, one of the president's best friends, said to me, you know, we feel so connected to this staff because they're working-class African-Americans, and that's our background too.
We don't - it was kind of strange for us initially to be waited on by these people because we sort of feel like we know them. When I was reporting the book, what I was really looking for were - I wanted to know more about being the first African-American president and first lady, but not in like the sort of abstract, ceremonial sense of, you know, OK, it's MLK's birthday and we're going to do some sort of ceremony honoring him, but really in the more day-to-day sense of going where nobody like you has ever gone before.
So there's another really fascinating thing I discovered, which was the debate on the first lady's staff over whether or not she should do the cover of Vogue. Vogue had invited Mrs. Obama. This is around the time of the transition. And her advisors were split.
And they were split by race, which was a little bit uncomfortable for the group because it's a very close group. The African-American women in the group really wanted her to say yes because there haven't been that many African-American women on the cover of Vogue, and to them the role model potential, what it sent in terms of reversing negative stereotypes of African-American women, was just so positive.
The white advisors were a little bit more leery because Vogue is such a pure luxury magazine, and at a time of recession and economic suffering, they were really worried about the effect it would have. Mrs. Obama felt very strongly. She wanted to it. She went ahead and did it, and in fact there was almost no criticism of it.
DAVIES: Right, but that does sort of raise one of the issues that confronts any first lady, which is, you know, their appearance, their clothes, are constantly commented upon and interpreted. And this is something that she struggled with a lot.
KANTOR: Yeah, and you know, I think it's especially complicated for the Obamas because being role models is so important to them. When the president was deciding whether or not to run for the presidency in late 2006, there's a meeting in Chicago with him and Michelle Obama and the advisors, and they're weighing whether or not to go for it.
And Michelle Obama, in front of everybody, asks her husband a very dramatic question. She says: What do you think you can bring to this that the other candidates can't? And it was a good question because at that point John Edwards's agenda and Hillary Clinton's agenda looked pretty similar to a Barack Obama agenda.
And he paused and he said: I really think that if I became president, it would inspire people all over the world to think of new possibilities. And what he was talking about, of course, was the fall of a racial barrier.
So being role models is essential to why the Obamas first decided to do this. And yet - and yet and yet - when you're a role model, you open yourself up so entirely, right? You are putting yourself on the line so completely, and everything you do is open to criticism.
DAVIES: All right, before we get to the first lady and her role in the White House and its political agenda, a couple more things about family life there. This president decided he was going to commit to dinners with the family several nights a week, right?
KANTOR: Yes, more than several, more - he states it in even stronger terms. He - barring extenuating circumstances, like a foreign trip or an emergency, he doesn't want to miss dinner more than two nights a week with his family, and...
DAVIES: Has he maintained that, as far as you know?
KANTOR: He - well, there have been times when you can't, right? I mean, if you - if midterm elections are coming up, or if there - you know, if the Arab spring happens and there are literally national security issues that need to be taken care of, I mean, of course he's going to address them.
But he is pretty serious about the rule. You know, aides told me that he would pull people aside after meetings, and if he didn't like the schedule, he would say, you know, you, you and you stay here, I need to talk to you, you know that I'm really serious about not missing more than two dinners a week with my family.
DAVIES: Our guest is Jodi Kantor. Her new book is "The Obamas." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor. She's covered the Obamas in the White House for many years. She has a new book about the first family and their relationship and life in the White House called "The Obamas."
Now, Washington is, of course, full of receptions and dinners and fundraisers, which, you know, presidents take part in because it advances their agenda, typically, and the first ladies often do too. Did the Obamas do more or fewer of these than their predecessors?
KANTOR: Well, it depends on which predecessors you're talking about. The real contrast is between the Obamas and the Clintons. You know, Bill Clinton is famously a people person and can't get enough of them, and I think the interesting contrast is the way the Obamas entertained in the residence upstairs. because people who worked for both administrations said to me that, you know, if you were invited up to Bill and Hillary Clinton's residence, things could go very, very late into the night.
You know, they were the kind of parties where you'd sink into the couch, and everybody would have a few drinks, and you'd be trading stories and confidences often until the wee hours.
The Obamas have entertained very, very little upstairs. There was one exception, which is the night the president won his health care victory, and he invited his whole team upstairs. Now, what's interesting about that is that the first lady and the kids were on a trip to New York, and I've always thought the reason he invited everybody upstairs was because, you know, his family was gone, so it was sort of safe.
But when the Obamas have had the occasional reception, like they had a goodbye party for Rahm Emanuel upstairs, and guests at that party, what they said is, you know, OK, if you're invited to that kind of thing at the Obamas, you show up on time, and you leave on time. And there's a certain formality to it.
DAVIES: It's interesting because the extent to which the president entertained in the residence and invited congressional leaders and members over for, you know, breakfast and dinners and lunches at the White House relates to some extent to this whole issue of whether he could build, you know, a bipartisan approach to governing, which was a really important goal of his when he came into office.
Now, it's - of course the Republicans have not made this easy, by refusing to cooperate with so much of his agenda, but you - it's interesting that you write that Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, frequently advised President Obama to do more of that, to keep inviting these folks over for lunch and dinner. He was kind of reluctant to, right?
KANTOR: He - yes. Senator Daschle really, really, really urged it, and I think it's been really hard for the president to do for a couple of reasons. One is the family time we discussed, which is extremely important to him. And the other thing is that the Republican strategy really has been one of total opposition.
So what a lot of people in the White House said to me was: Look, this is their strategy. It's total opposition. A little canape and cocktail frank is not necessarily going to break down the wall of mistrust that we have with Republicans.
That said, Senator Daschle's point was that you just have to keep trying. You just have to keep hammering away. Now, interestingly, that's not at all what the president is doing now. If you look at his strategy for 2012, he's basically been really honest about the fact that he is going to be attacking the Republican Congress right and left. This era of Barack Obama trying to be this sort of bipartisan uniter seems to be over, at least for now.
DAVIES: Yeah, I guess what - the interesting thing to me about this is that as you describe it, it isn't just that, it might - that it wouldn't work to have folks over for drinks who are out to get you, but that Obama in some sense sort of fundamentally didn't believe that this is what he ought to be doing, that people ought to be doing the right things for the right reasons, not because they're friends with somebody.
And I guess what's interesting to me about that is that I always thought of President Obama as somebody who is a master of the kind of relationship-building that politics is built on.
KANTOR: Right after the Obamas got to the White House, they held their first Super Bowl party, and they - first they invited personal friends, and then they decided to include a couple people from Congress and some officials. They included some wounded veterans, and the president got to the party, and he wasn't at all unfriendly, he greeted everybody, but as soon as the game started, he went up to the front of the room, and he sat in a chair that was labeled for him, and he watched the game.
And what his aide said to me was: Look, it's a point of pride for him that he's going to be a regular guy and watch the Super Bowl like a normal human being and not, you know, sort of be on and be schmoozing at every moment.
But on the other hand, Washington is a culture where you do work the room and you do make people feel good, and there's the art of finessing all of these relationships. And so part of - you know, I think the theme we're really talking about, right, is what is public and what is private. What is this party?
Is this party a chance for him to watch the Super Bowl like a normal person, or is it a chance for him to build relationships and create good will and build up political capital?
DAVIES: I want you talk a little about their relationship with these two couples from Chicago who they were very close to, the Whittakers and then Marty Nesbitt and Anita Blanchard(ph), both African-American professionals who they had a lot in common with. And it seems they really clung to those relationships to sort of keep some sense of their former selves.
KANTOR: I think this is about two things. First of all, the thing you can never forget when you're writing about or talking about or thinking about the Obamas is the speed of their rise. It's dramatic for Barack Obama, as we all watched, but it's more dramatic for Michelle Obama, because she goes almost overnight from being a hospital executive in Chicago to being this incredibly famous woman - and by the way, the rare, rare, rare African-American woman in her position. And so when the Obamas are undergoing this unbelievable rise from 2004 to 2008, a lot of their instincts become very self-protective. Again and again in my reporting I found the motif of kind of drying up the gangplanks - you know, saying no. There are all these limits that the Obamas are constantly placing, right?
DAVIES: No to outsides, no to the demands of a political life, you mean.
KANTOR: Well, right, or just sort of rationing them so carefully. I mean, look at even all the numbers that jump out of this book. Michelle Obama says to her team: I'm only working two days a week. Barack Obama says to his team: I'm only willing to miss two dinners a week with my family.
So it's like they're trying to preserve and create this private space that's rapidly, rapidly disappearing. So one of the things they do is that around 2004, when the president becomes this political celebrity very quickly, is they establish a no-new-friends rule. Craig Robinson, the first lady's brother, told me that years ago.
You know, he basically said something like, look, we don't know what other people's agendas are. You know, we're essentially freezing our friendships where we are now. And they did it again when they got to the White House. They basically decided that they were not in Washington to make new friends, that they wanted to spend their time with the same group of people.
Now, the interesting thing is that the president early on, around inauguration, basically stakes these friends to a really important job. He says these are the people who are going to keep me normal and keep me grounded. And you can totally understand why he says this.
These two guys, Marty Nesbitt, Eric Whitaker, really regular Chicago guys, very successful, very much like the Obamas in that they're African-Americans from modest backgrounds who have done really well - Marty Nesbitt is a businessman, Eric Whitaker is a doctor.
But Marty and Eric take a pretty interesting approach to being first friends. They're very, very protective, and they both said to me on the record when I interviewed them for the book that they make the point of almost never challenging the president on anything.
They said, in fact, don't really talk about work a ton with him and that they wait for him to bring it up. And so on the one hand they're certainly doing the job of kind of, you know, keeping things normal by playing pool with him or playing basketball or whatever.
But then on the other hand, if there are things that your friends are not willing to raise with you, is that total normality either? The whole question, I think, of what is and isn't normal in the White House is something that just keeps coming up again and again in my reporting.
DAVIES: Jodi Kantor is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times. Her book is called "The Obamas." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor, who's written a book about Barack and Michelle Obama's relationship and family life - how they've adjusted to life in the White House and how their relationship affects the presidency. The book is called "The Obamas."
You write that Michelle and Barack Obama brought differing views about politics and government to their relationship. What's the difference?
KANTOR: I would say that Barack Obama has always been a real optimist about what can be accomplished. He believes that government can be used to create systemic, long-term, real change. And the first lady is more of a skeptic. She's an interesting combination because on the one hand she's the skeptic in the relationship, but she's also the idealist, because her view, especially when he served in the state legislature in Illinois, she watched again and again how really good legislation either got torn apart for political reasons or it was turned into something that wasn't supposed to be or it didn't happen at all. She said again and again that she didn't come to the process with a lot of faith that politics could really improve people's lives for the better.
DAVIES: And yet she supported the bargain, in a way of him pursuing politics and government.
KANTOR: Well, you know, the moment that they're contemplating whether or not to run for the presidency is so dramatic because everybody wants him to run. Think back to late 2006 and his star was on the rise and there was all this buzz and Democrats were whispering to him, you can beat Hillary Clinton, and people are telling him your time is now, this is your window, this is your opportunity, you may lose it. At the time Barack Obama looks like an appealing contrast to George W. Bush. And so there's all this pressure on him to run and there's one person, who happens to be his wife, who thinks it's a really bad idea. And she's worried in part about the impact on her family, but she also has concerns that it may not be the right time. The president has given interviews where he's says, you know, she was worried about attacks from the Clintons, she thought maybe he needed more time, and so there's all this pressure on her.
And Susan Sher, a very close friend of the first lady's and her chief of staff, told me that, you know, during that time the decision just weighed on Michelle Obama, because she really believed that her husband could accomplish great things as president, but she wasn't sure that it was the best thing for their family. And how do you make that choice between what is best for you personally versus the contribution you think you can make to the country?
DAVIES: Well, you know, she's also a tremendous political asset. I mean she's smart and she's attractive and she is well spoken. But she's also, as you said, I mean she is a wife and a mom and a professional in her own right. How did she reconcile herself to, you know, the needs and demands of being a political wife, of assisting him in the political side of his world, campaigning?
KANTOR: She had a rough time in the 2008 campaign. On the one hand she did very well. She was a novice. And when you think about it, she was kind of up against Bill Clinton, right? Because that was Hillary Clinton's spouse, so what a formidable match. And in early events, you know, she charmed a lot of people; people saw the Michelle Obama warmth we know so well now. But, as listeners probably remember, she also had problems. In the spring of 2008 she was accused of being an angry black woman. Fox News called her a baby mama. There were a lot of ugly things said about her. And her friends and aides say that it was really painful for her. She thought of herself as one kind of person and then to see that image sort of so widely distorted and it can happen so fast, it can be really disorienting for anyone.
DAVIES: So when the Obamas go to the White House, we have the situation where, you know, the first lady has a staff located in the East Wing of the White House, the president's crew is in the West Wing. How did Michelle Obama find her place? For example, how did she get along with the president and his staff - particularly the chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel?
KANTOR: It was tough. They had a very distanced relationship. And some of the sort of sensationalistic coverage of this book has implied that they were fighting and, you know, even suggests that there were clashes, you know, erupting in the hallways. None of that is true. This was a very cool and very distanced relationship and they basically avoided each other. Rahm Emanuel was really open with people in the West Wing. He had had some serious battles with Hillary Clinton when he worked in the White House and she was first lady and he said I learned the hard way to avoid the first lady. And Michelle Obama was very skeptical about Rahm Emanuel as well. She wasn't sure that he was going to be the right chief of staff for her husband, and so they had very little contact in some ways. But what ended up happening over the presidency is that they really became philosophical foils. Rahm Emanuel cared much more about political wins and Michelle Obama has this kind of loftier idea of her husband. She really wanted to see him take risks. She felt the responsibility of what he had been elected to do very, very heavily.
DAVIES: There were some particular points of dispute. Like for example, there was the moment when Rahm Emanuel wanted Michelle Obama to do a favor of I think paying a visit to a Florida congressman whose vote had been critical on an energy bill. But I guess he hadn't consulted her beforehand?
KANTOR: Exactly. And this is, you know, it's funny because something similar had happened to Rahm Emanuel with Hillary Clinton in the Clinton White House. But the energy bill was on the line and Rahm Emanuel really wanted the vote of Allen Boyd, who was then a congressman from Florida. What nobody ever told Michelle Obama is that Allen Boyd down in Florida had a potential black challenger who he was trying to head off. So getting Michelle Obama down to Florida, even getting like a picture with her, was a really big deal for him politically, and he was expressing doubts about whether he would vote for the energy bill. And Rahm Emanuel secured the vote by promising that Michelle Obama would go down there and appear with him at an event. And the problem is he never told Michelle Obama and she was really frustrated when she found out about it.
DAVIES: Well, I suppose a lot of people would be upset if someone scheduled their time without speaking to them, right?
KANTOR: Well, part of her story in the White House is a quest for some control of her own. First ladies, you know, we look at Michelle Obama and we look at most first ladies and they seem like they have it all. You know, they live in the White House, they go to state dinners, they ride on Air Force One, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But first ladies do often feel that they are given short shrift or forgotten or left at the margins. And so this is just a classic thing with political spouses. They just want the staff to consult them before they commit them to things. And so that's one issue.
But then the other issue is that Michelle Obama has a larger critique of what's going on in the West Wing. She's pretty clear about the fact that she doesn't think it's organized enough, she doesn't think it's strategic enough, she doesn't think that they're telling a clear enough message about what her husband's doing. And by the way, a lot of people on the outside eventually begin to feel that way too without ever knowing that the first lady is saying some of the same things on the inside. So she does something very interesting, which is that this is the point at which midterm elections are still about a year away and she withholds her agreement to campaign for midterms. She doesn't say I'll never do it, but she says I'm not saying yes until there is a much clearer plan in place. And then in turn that's very frustrating to Rahm Emanuel, because he cares passionately about these Democratic congressional races and he wants to see them have a lot of support from the White House.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jodi Kantor. Her book is "The Obamas." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor. She's written a book about the first family and their relationship and their time in the White House. It's called "The Obamas."
You know, it was fascinating as I read about some of these skirmishes that happened among the staff - the first lady's staff, the president's staff - and you know, in most marriages couples talk or they don't, about their issues, but it's between them. Imagine that in your marriage both you and your spouse had these big staffs that were constantly interacting. It just seems like a situation that is inevitably going to produce misunderstandings and miscommunications. And I'm wondering how the White House staff dealt with the fact that sometimes that it seemed the first lady might be disagreeing with either what the president was doing or what the president's staff was doing.
KANTOR: It's pretty awkward. And I hope when readers read the book they'll really ask themselves: How would I do in this situation? How would my husband or my wife and I handle this, because it's really perplexing? I'll give you another number that I say speaks volumes. How many people do you think are on the president's scheduling staff?
DAVIES: Half a dozen?
DAVIES: Wow. So Barack Obama's day is constructed by 33 people. And imagine you're the first lady and, you know, you're worried about him getting enough sleep, or the kids, you know, have an event at school, or you want to interface with your husband's schedule, as all spouses do? Well, you know, what is the right procedure for doing that? Who does she talk to? And especially, this is a first lady who is very aware of not wanting to seem like a meddling spouse. Part of the sort of dramatic tension in her story is that she is always veering from on the one hand having the attitude of I'm going to stay out of this, this is his administration, I'm going kind of create my own separate world and, you know, not engage with what's happening in the West Wing. And then at other times she gets drawn in because she's impassioned about what's happening, she's a worrier, she's very concerned.
KANTOR: Another example is these emails about the television show "Morning Joe." So during the campaign she watched "Morning Joe" a lot and she was often concerned by what she saw there. You know, they're saying this about us, you know, what's our response to that, etcetera, etcetera. And she would send emails to campaign aides and ask him those questions. And some of those advisors, the way they described them to me is, you know, look, this was hard to deal with because it's a presidential campaign and I'm dealing with a thousand different things and I just don't know what to do with the candidate's spouse, you know, wanting me to somehow do something about something that was said on "Morning Joe" three hours ago. So in the White House what's interesting is that she continues to send those emails, but she doesn't send them directly. She mostly sends them to Valerie Jarrett, who is a senior advisor in the West Wing and a close friend of both Obamas, and what Valerie does is that she takes Michelle Obama's name off the email and she forwards it to other aides. And so what we're seeing is a first lady who is trying to find her place, right, who is trying to find a way to talk this stuff she's worried about, but it's not so clear who she should talk to and when she should raise it and how.
DAVIES: Time is short here and we can't talk about everything that Michelle Obama and the Obamas have done together. But where does the first lady now stand, do you think, with the White House staff and with, you know, her own role in the president's re-election?
KANTOR: In a totally different place. The change has been so dramatic. I can't tell you in how many interviews aides were almost kowtowing to Michelle Obama. She has so much power now, in part because she's done a very effective job as first lady and she's really popular. She's much more popular than her husband has and that in turn has given her so much internal leverage because they need her so badly for 2012. She's totally key to their strategy. And if you look at her in the last couple of months, she's gone from appearing not too frequently to being almost ubiquitous. And at the same time, she has become much more comfortable in public life, much more fluent politically, and also 2012 is the last race these two people who have a very complicated relationship with politics are going to run. And she says she's all in this time.
DAVIES: You interviewed the Obamas in the White House in September 2009, nine months into their first year in office and wrote a cover piece for The New York Times Magazine about it. From the book does not appear that they spoke to you again, at least about their relationship - and I have to believe you made considerable efforts. Did you get an explanation or a sense of why they didn't want to come back to this subject with you?
KANTOR: Well, the reporting in the book is mostly based on interviews with the Obamas' top staffers and aides. The White House kind of - they kind of took a compromise position with me, I'd say. Their basic message was we're not going to give you the president and first lady in part because you had this huge interview with them in 2009, but what they said is that we will share stories with you that we feel we can.
So, you know, the people I probably spent the most time with are people like Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Susan Sher, Robert Gibbs – those are all current or former White House aides – as well as the president's two best friends, Marty Nesbitt, Eric Whitaker. But I was also careful to speak to other people as well because you never want to concentrate your reporting on too small a group of people. So it ended up being about 200 people who were interviewed.
DAVIES: As bits and pieces of the book kind of trickle out and people respond to anecdotes – I mean, the White House has been responding to certain stories of conflicts among the staff and one of things that was said by White House spokesman Eric Schultz was, quote, "the emotions, thoughts, and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the president and first lady, reflect little more than the author's own thoughts," unquote. Any response to that?
KANTOR: Well, let me describe, for example, an interview I did with Valerie Jarrett that I think will give you some demonstration at how it was possible to capture the Obamas' reactions in this book. We were sitting in her office in the West Wing and we were talking about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and Valerie had dinner with the Obamas the night of that shooting.
So, you know, I've been covering these people for a long time and their fears about safety have always been a theme. And Valerie and I were talking about the meaning of that shooting for the Obamas, and, you know, the short version is that this is the thing they had feared for so long and instead of happening to them it was happening to somebody else and somebody they really liked and cared about and a nine-year-old girl who was the same age as their daughter.
So, anyway, Valerie and I sat there and we had a conversation and I asked her very carefully about the Obamas' reactions and the way they acted that night and the way they interpreted the incident and its personal significance for them. And then I wrote based on what Valerie Jarrett said. So Valerie is one of their closest friends. She's a senior advisor in the West Wing. She's a top source. And so I felt that her credibility was high enough that if she was describing the Obamas' reactions she could describe them accurately.
DAVIES: Let me ask you one other thing. You know, we began by discussing why it was important to write about the Obamas' relationship, why there's a, you know, there's an important public purpose to the project. As you did the reporting, did you discover some things which you were convinced were true which would have made interesting conversation but you felt simply didn't belong in the public domain?
KANTOR: Well, every reporter learns a lot off the record, you know, first of all. People will always tell you things off the record and, you know, I'm sorry to say that I can repeat none of those things on your show. But, you know, the one function they do serve is that in a way you can kind of check your reporting against them because they tell you that there are things people are not willing - your sources are not willing to let you share but they're telling you those things for a reason and they're helping you really understand the story. So I would say there was a certain amount of off the record reporting that took place.
DAVIES: Well, Jodi Kantor, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
KANTOR: My pleasure.
DAVIES: Jodi Kantor is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times. Her new book is called "The Obamas." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new revamped CBS morning show. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.