‘The Obamas’: Jodi Kantor White House book paints personal portrait of Barack and Michelle Obama

Opinion

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The newly-released book The Obamas by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor, has already stirred controversy with its mix of political and personal revelations about Barack and Michelle Obama and their family.

From claims that the first lady didn’t mesh with former top White House aides like Rahm Emanuel, to passages that suggest the president and the White House are overly insulated and at times out of step with the American people, the book’s intrigue and political fodder arrive just in time for the 2012 election cycle.

The book has 360 pages of dialogue and intimate details, giving the impression of being inside the minds of the first couple and other players. Yet the White House has been critical and dismissive, highlighting the fact that Kantor didn’t actually interview the Obamas, who declined repeated requests.

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Mrs. Obama recently told CBS anchorwoman Gayle King that she has not read it. The Harvard-trained lawyer added that she that wasn’t too keen on books that present conjecture as fact.

Kantor has countered that she interviewed some 200 sources, including administration staffers, friends and key Obama insiders like Valerie Jarrett. (theGrio sent the author a series of questions, via a publicist, but they were not answered by press-time.)

One thing is for certain: there is ample information here to absorb. The author delves into the personal and professional lives of the Obamas, uncovering alleged incidents some may find unflattering: Mrs. Obama purportedly cursing at an aide over a scheduling conflict, and the president reportedly cutting off an old friend who’d criticized his early staffing decisions.

That said, the book also highlights in many ways the Obamas’ intelligence, fortitude and humanity. Both are portrayed as extremely hard-working, with the president often taking work upstairs into his private office at night and on weekends.

We see a married couple who flirt (“You look good,” he told her at a function) and seem deeply in love, yet like everyone else, have challenges in their relationship. At one point in the book, Mr. Obama is giving a toast at a book launch party, noting the sacrifices his wife and children have made for his ambition and career.

“And there it stopped: he stood alone at the front of the tent, overcome with tears,” Kantor writes.

We see examples of affectionate parenting, as the Obamas raise daughters Malia and Sasha in a public fish bowl, while striving to maintain normalcy.

“On a snowy day… the president and his advisers were conferring when high-pitched peals of laughter drifted in from the Rose Garden. Obama and aides gathered at the window to see the president’s wife and daughters chasing each other across the snow covered lawn,” Kantor writes.

Readers also learn that the first lady is extraordinarily close with her mother, Marian Robinson. The author notes that she, along with Mrs. Obama’s beloved late father, sacrificed greatly to help educate their offspring.

In a matter-of-fact tone, the book recaps the many seminal events that have confronted Obama’s presidency from the day he entered the Oval Office and beyond: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the banking and housing crises, the killing of Osama bin Laden, tensions in the Muslim world, health care reform, and partisan battles with Congress, just to name a few.

Mrs. Obama has also had a full plate. The book says that she feared appearing meddlesome early on and fretted over what her role should be. There were missteps, but she has now centered her direct forays into politics around an initiative to help military families and an anti-obesity campaign.

Through it all, the book asserts, there has been internal drama about her outfits, vacation choices, friendships ending and staff firings. Yet even these accounts make Mrs. Obama seem earnest and real.

Readers are offered a behind the scenes glimpse of the Obamas as two confident, highly-competitive and driven individuals, with a passion for service. Yet the author suggests they’re often conflicted about how to balance their idealism with the political process and the demands of public office.

“Every day, he [President Obama] met with advisors 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 the political noise, to be bold,” Kantor writes.

Woven into the narrative, are semi-gossipy, occasionally-revealing anecdotes about those whose worlds intersect with the Obamas: a chatty Brad Pitt suddenly turning shy when he meets the commander-in-chief, Oprah at a private White House bash on
election night. Various celebs and assorted power brokers make brief appearances in the book as well.

A host of interesting tidbits that are less about the Obamas, and more about presidential protocol and culture, are included too.

For instance, the White House private residence apparently has only a singular land line. And did you know that military valets take care of the president’s wardrobe, launder his clothes, pack for trips and even make sure the slacks in his closet are hung with precision?