The Obamas: a Mission, a Marriage

The Obamas and the silliness of regal Washington.

Michelle and Barack Obama. Credit: Getty Images

The Obamas and the silliness of regal Washington.

The Obamas: a Mission, a Marriage
Jodi Kantor
Allen Lane, 368pp, £20

During Barack Obama's battle with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, I was assigned to cover Obama on a detour to attend a service in Illinois for five students killed in a college shooting. We were running late as our jet landed and the waiting SUV sped us across snow-covered fields. But the drive gave Obama a chance for his nightly call home to Chicago. As he murmured through routine chit-chat with his wife and daughters, I was reminded that the celebrity candidate I'd been watching deliver speeches to 15,000-people arenas was not unburdened by the mundane responsibilities of a man with two young children and a wife less than fully enthusiastic about the turn their life was taking.

It has been even easier to lose sight of this aspect of Obama's life since he and his family have been swallowed up by the White House. Obama's every public move is scrutinised, yet Americans know little of what passes within the stately prison of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This helps explain why Jodi Kantor, a New York Times reporter, has gained so much notice for seeking to provide the personal view of the first family's time in Washington. Her account is imperfect but valuable, for it captures how disorienting has been the transition of this remarkably normal and well-grounded Chicago family into the surreal realm of official Washington.

With a writerly touch, Kantor conveys the oddly regal universe of the White House through the eyes of a couple who, just a few years earlier, had been living in a mid-sized apartment and had "campaigned in 2008 as being citizens of the real world". Now, the Obamas "were supposedly in charge, but they had surprisingly little control over the world around them", Kantor writes of their highly regulated and cosseted new existence, in which the president was dressed by two valets and in which an aide insisted on travelling all the way to South Dakota to find a suitable swing set for the girls:

Part of the very idea of the United States was that its leader should be a regular citizen . . . yet 23 decades later, European monarchies had mostly faded away, while the Obamas stepped into new lives that seemed in many ways to belong to 19th-century regents, with a circle of staff whose size and degrees of specialisation seemed to rival that of a royal court.

Adding to the strangeness was the dynamic of their being the first black family to inhabit this house built by slaves, where the portraits on the walls presented white faces and where the staff was mostly black. "Behind the closed doors of the North Portico," writes Kantor, "there was going to be another, more private experience of being the first African American president and first lady, one that was less about the historical dimensions of the role than the simple, day-to-day experience of going where no one like you had ever gone before."

Kantor describes this experience mostly along two tracks - the days of Barack and the days of Michelle. This structure is inherently imbalanced - Barack's half amounts to telling in cursory form the familiar and high-stakes story of his topsy-turvy first term, from the tribulations of the health-care overhaul to the triumph of Osama Bin Laden's killing. Michelle's half naturally consists of less weighty matters - the social obligations that try her patience and the "policy initiatives" she takes on - and Kantor's inflation of their relevance, to justify Michelle's co-starring role, is occasionally strained.

But because the Michelle material is also more novel, it is what has attracted the most attention. The book's promoters have played up Kantor's accounts of strife between, on the one hand, Michelle and the long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, and, on the other hand, aides such as the former spokesman Robert Gibbs and the former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago. As Kantor tells it, Michelle made plain her displeasure over the lack of co-ordination behind her husband's efforts, while the staffers fretted about Michelle's new-found fondness for high-end fashion. Michelle has decried this account for making her out to be "some kind of angry black woman".

This was rather overheated - the book's overall portrait of Michelle is positive, as a fierce protector of her husband finding her way in the fairly ridiculous role of first lady, who managed to improve her own image with voters even as her husband's began to tarnish. Still, her reaction should not be surprising - the Obamas have long expressed disdain for the media's fascination with insider mini-drama, and this book is chock-full of it.

If there is a charge to be made against Kantor's account, it is less that it lays bare dirty linen - good reporting will do that - but that it assumes a prevailing inside-the-Beltway view of the Obamas' challenges. Kantor captures well how bewildering the Obamas found the resistance that the president encountered so soon after his electoral triumph; one nice passage describes the solace that Obama and his close friends from Chicago took in his warm reception at the 2009 Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo.

Underlying such accounts, though, is the judgement, common around Washington, that the Obamas were naive to expect otherwise and that the president would be in better shape if he'd played along more with convention - hobnobbed more around town, even if it meant missing his cherished family dinners; taken more care to avoid cable-news kerfuffles over, say, his and Michelle's 2009 date night in New York.

Some of these accounts have merit - it is curious to what degree the Obamas have relied on their Chicago circle, shutting themselves off to new relationships. But there is also something admirable in their attempt to skirt what the president has called the "silliness of Washington"; rather than delving into whether the Obamas' critique has merit and explaining why their effort has often failed, Kantor accepts the punditocracy's score-keeping - that what matters is how things appear, regardless of how they ought to be. In one jarring example, Kantor gives tacit approval to the declaration by the TV pundit Mark Halperin that Obama had come across as a "dick" in chiding intransigent Republicans during last summer's debt-ceiling stand-off - with nary a mention of how richly that chiding was deserved.

Kantor's account ends at a low point, Obama's drop in public approval following the debt-ceiling fiasco. But she concludes on an up note, the heartfelt toast that Michelle delivered at his 50th birthday party, in the midst of these troubles. What comes across above all in this account is the fact that this couple has managed to come through the past few years as untouched as it has. Obama's numbers are now inching up in tandem with the economy; a new viral video shows him at utter ease crooning a few Al Green lines at a New York fundraiser. If he rebounds in the coming year, it will be in no small part thanks to the stranded yet well-adjusted first family that has sustained him. And if he doesn't, one suspects the Obamas will survive the defeat - not entirely sorry to be back in Chicago.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic