Jodi Kantor, a New York Times correspondent, says she got the idea for The Obamas back in 2009, when she interviewed the couple in the Oval Office for a piece about their marriage. “After the article was published, I couldn’t stop thinking about the subtle tension I had felt in that room,” she writes. Although she never interviewed either the president or his wife again, she went on to talk to 33 White House staffers. The book that resulted isn’t, as advertised, about the Obamas’ marriage – not just because Kantor never spoke to them again, but also because the Obamas lead a cloistered life in Washington, going out even less than George and Laura Bush, who were famously private. The Obamas doesn’t tell us more than we already know about Barack Obama, either. It’s really a portrait of Michelle – and it’s not a kind one.
The press has always liked to pillory strong First Ladies with political agendas (Hillary Clinton comes to mind), and Kantor continues the tradition here. Sure, the stories are titillating, and you’ll gulp them down like salted peanuts: Michelle once wore $515 sneakers while stuffing bags at a food bank! She micromanages every aspect of her husband’s decisions! Even the -president has admitted, “My staff worries a lot more about what the First Lady thinks than they worry about what I think, on a full range of issues.”
Kantor, who seems almost obsessed with Michelle’s fashion, takes special delight in painting her as a spendthrift. She writes at length about her designer clothes, her private trip to Spain, the lavish Halloween party she threw for the family’s first Halloween in the White House (complete with decorations by Tim Burton), and especially the redecoration the First Lady commissioned in the private quarters of the White House (in part because “the Bush-era carpets had stains from their pets”). Kantor calculates, sometimes to the last dollar, Michelle’s expense to taxpayers. (In comparison, when describing the new rugs and furnishings the president himself ordered for the Oval Office, Kantor does not mention cost and says only that “some people did feel the president had used too much taupe.”) The Michelle Obama in these pages “fumes” a lot, especially when the president’s aides bungle the health-care legislation and the midterm elections. She has “a harder time brushing off criticism than the president.”
Oh, there are glimpses of a nicer Michelle in the last few chapters of the book – when she delivers a lovely speech at West Point, for example, and when she makes an impromptu surprise appearance during a White House tour – but they’re few and far between. You come away with the distinct feeling that Kantor, having failed to deliver a book about the Obamas’ marriage, has employed a sort of diversionary tactic, implying that many of the Obama administration’s failings lie at the First Lady’s feet.
Yet the truth is that although Michelle Obama’s ratings have fluctuated, just as her husband’s have, she is well liked by the American public – 63 percent had a favorable opinion of her last October. When Americans see her, they see someone real: a strong woman who knows her mind, puts her family first, and believes in her husband, even as she’s struggled with defining her own role. Sure, making her the scapegoat for her husband’s problems makes for salacious – and delicious – reading, at least at first. It’s fun gulping those salted peanuts, but after too many handfuls you get thirsty – and after that, you start to feel a little sick. C+