“Behind every successful man, there stands a surprised woman,” Maryon Pearson, wife of Canada’s 14th prime minister, once said. Pearson was the very model of the unhappy political spouse: caustic, dissatisfied, and inexorably driven into a single, confining role—humanizing her elected husband—while putting her own life on hold. Michelle Obama can be fairly described as another, according to New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor’s sympathetic portrait in The Obamas. But it’s doubtful whether Obama, on election night in 2008, would have echoed Pearson’s remark.
If there was one thing Michelle Obama believed in, it was her husband. It was the rest of the package that left her deeply mistrustful: life in the fishbowl of the White House, with its possible effects on their daughters, Malia and Sasha (then aged 10 and seven); taking a backseat in a marriage of equals; and even whether anything worthwhile could be accomplished through politics, with all its sordid horse-trading and backscratching. The Obamas’ shock at their new lives and their missteps in coming to terms with them subtly but profoundly affected the presidency and thus the lives of their fellow Americans, Kantor argues. “Barack and Michelle have been married to each other since 1992,” she writes, “but for at least another year and possibly longer, they are married to us too.”
There never was a first couple like the Obamas, and not just because of their skin colour, remarkable as that is in a White House built in part by African slaves. Barack is the first president since Gerald Ford in 1974 not to have previously lived in a gubernatorial or vice-presidential official house, something that might have warned him that life in what is at once a home, an office and the nation’s symbolic centre—a place where the chief inhabitants frequently receive requests for official portraits of their dog—could not approach normality.
But for a man who thought he could do politics differently, cleanly severing public and private, and who often longed for his wife and children during his two-year campaign for the presidency, the White House actually held out the promise of a family-friendly refuge, a place where they could be together. Obama told his political staff that he was not to miss dinner with his family more than twice a week, and he has managed to make the 6:30 p.m. meal almost as often as he hoped, although not without constant admonishments to an overbooking staff who couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe he was serious.
For all her critical, even cynical, insights into American politics, Michelle, a high-powered lawyer who was never going to take easily to the organic-gardening, worthy-cause life of a first lady, matched her husband naïveté for naïveté on White House life. Or, in her case, the hope of postponing it. In the days after the election, Michelle and Barack were debating the idea of her and the kids staying behind in Chicago until the end of the school year, five months after the January 2009 inauguration. The debate was private and turned entirely on Barack’s desire for his family to (finally) be with him and Michelle’s worry about plunging the girls into a new school mid-year. That the Obamas thought this was a private decision, something entirely up to them, is almost as astonishing as the idea itself.
First families always move into the White House on Inauguration Day. Their arrival is part not only of the pageantry but of historical continuity, a strand in the mystic bond Americans have with the office of the presidency. For outsiders, including admirers, the idea of not doing so was literally unthinkable. For the President’s fiercest enemies, those who believe he is somehow—by birth, religion or socialist ideology—un-American, it would have been red meat. Barack prevailed, by no means a given in their marriage, and the notion never became public.
So move in the Obamas did, and as Kantor even-handedly reports, they learned that at times there’s no better life than a first family’s. Perks include all the NBA stars a basketball-loving President could want for private tourneys, and Malia and Sasha’s inauguration night surprise. When the two girls showed up at their new home, Jonas Brothers posters in hand, they found the actual Jonas Brothers ready to give a private concert for them and their friends. Michelle, the most ambivalent of them all, eventually developed a habit of cheerfully crashing White House tours, slipping unseen into one of the public rooms and waiting to rattle the first tourist to come through the doorway.
High points aside, though, the whole family could feel the noose tightening. Alone among them, Marian Robinson, Michelle’s 73-year-old mother, could slip out into the city, almost unnoticed because of her low profile. Still, strangers sometimes stopped her to say she looked like the President’s mother-in-law; Robinson invariably fobbed them off with, “I get that a lot.” Barack and Michelle’s first visit back to their Chicago home in February 2009 turned into a dispiriting circus. A nervous Secret Service, which prefers its presidents in easily sealed-off rural retreats like the Bushes’ Texas ranch, draped two sides of the Obamas’ townhouse with black curtains and swarmed the neighbourhood, including the synagogue across the street.
The Obamas’ first attempt to maintain their once-sacred Friday date night mushroomed to involve an Air Force One flight to New York (with helicopter rides at either end), a motorcade, dinner, a Broadway show that started late because all the other patrons had to pass through security screens—and withering media criticism for the expense incurred in economic hard times. By the fall of 2009 the Obamas had drawn some hard lessons. Big-time Halloween fans, they were happy to have Tim Burton decorate an Alice in Wonderland-themed White House party and for Johnny Depp to attend, but they certainly didn’t publicize it.
Some of the tugs on the noose, however, were self-inflicted. The introverted President, despite his gift for oratory, turns out to be far from a natural politician. He hated schmoozing—the very raison d’être of a born pol like Bill Clinton. The Obamas spent most of their social time with two couples, Marty Nesbitt and Anita Blanchard, and Eric and Cheryl Whitaker, all of whom had a lot in common with the Obamas: sports-loving, high-achieving (doctors, business people) African-Americans from modest backgrounds who shared a suspicion that others saw them as undeserving beneficiaries of affirmative action and who worked all the harder for that. Nesbitt and Eric Whitaker were so close to the President they didn’t need invitations to the White House, but merely emailed they were coming. Often one would drop in on a weeknight and have a game of pool with Obama. Neither ever talked politics with the President, unless Obama started the conversation, which he rarely did. The two couples may have done wonders for the first family’s morale and its hunger for normality, Kantor notes, but they also help seal them in a bubble much smaller than most presidential couples inhabited.
Michelle was more affected by the harsh sniping than her husband, partly because it was directed more at her—lifestyle criticism is always directed at the first lady—and partly because she wanted the country’s first black family to display as much style and glamour as any of its predecessors. And partly because she was stuck in the arm-candy/mom-in-chief role when she wanted more direct political and policy input. There is a tradition of near-inevitable tension between an American president’s two wives—the one he married and his chief of staff. But between Rahm Emmanuel, the foul-mouthed deal-maker, and wary idealist Michelle, there was a chasm. Her relationship with press secretary Robert Gibbs, who sent her a stream of dos and don’ts—mostly of the “avoid conspicuous consumption” sort—was not much better.
Both men worried too much about preserving poll numbers and Democratic congressional seats, in Michelle’s opinion, and were too ready to deal with opponents. She urged her husband, with some success in Kantor’s judgment, to hold to principle at whatever cost in his contentious health care and immigration law reforms. “She does think there are worse things than losing an election,” Kantor quotes Susan Sher, Michelle’s former chief of staff.
Three years after the family arrived in the White House, Barack Obama has opened his re-election year in an more polarized America, with approval ratings hovering south of 50 per cent. Michelle Obama, dedicated to his cause despite her ambivalence about politics, may yet have reason to ponder the truth of her conviction.