Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas chronicles America’s First Couple during the first three years of President Obama’s administration. Unsurprisingly, there has been a bit a controversy over the New York Times writer's portrayal of Mrs. Obama as a meddling wife who bumped heads with high-level West Wing staff, including Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs. The First Lady directly responded to the claims in the book telling CBS News, “I do care deeply about my husband. I am one of his biggest allies. I am one of his biggest confidants…I guess it's just more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here," she said. "That's been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I'm some kind of angry Black woman.”
Though that interview led to a number of conversations about the stereotyping of African-American women, I was surprised to find that the book did not paint Mrs. O with the notorious ‘mean Black lady’ brush. Kantor clearly has a high level of affection for the President and First Lady. She seems to admire them and chooses to detail anecdotes that largely show them in a favorable light. The problem is that she does so in a manner that seems to require a large amount of projection. Furthermore, it appears that for all of Kantor’s appreciation of the Obamas, she doesn’t really seem to understand what makes them tick…a grand failure for someone who has dared to pen the first major ‘insider’ look into their lives.
At the beginning of the book, we learn of a debate over whether the First Lady would move to the White House on Inauguration day: “Only a handful of friends and aides knew what Michelle was considering: staying behind in Chicago with her daughters for the rest of the school year while the new president moved to Washington alone.” (p. 12) To Kantor, this incident illustrates how Mrs. Obama is vastly different than her predecessors and doesn’t understand the sacrifices that come with her position. “Outsiders would have found his wife’s hesitation shocking: wouldn’t living in the White House be a matchless experience, filled with moments and opportunities of which most people could dream?” Kantor asks. Not if you recognize Michelle Obama's efforts at being a good mother who cares deeply about her young children and puts their well-being first. This is but one example found in the book where Kantor tries very hard to make normal human behavior into some revealing moment about Michelle Obama’s innermost thoughts.
Kantor also casts Michelle Obama as being very unhappy with her husband’s White House team, suggesting that the First Lady shares the frustration of many liberals who feel that the “change” President Obama famously touted in 2008 has come too slow. Kantor’s Michelle is a human being with an observant eye on her husband’s tenure because she believes in his ability to transform the country. And when his staff isn’t sufficiently suiting his needs and communicating his successes to a frustrated country, Mrs. Obama vents that frustration. “Michelle Obama could be a hard figure to understand: both more charming and more cutting than her husband, his most ardent supporter on the outside and his most devastating critic in private, more idealistic but also more cautious than he was, far less sophisticated politically, but also quicker to sense problems.” (p. 13-14) These are the claims that led news outlets to run with the idea that the book reveals the First Lady to be meddling and mean, largely because Kantor fails to illustrate (or, most likely, understand herself) how easy it is for an African-American woman to be disenchanted with the political climate of the United States.
The book effectively illustrates what makes Barack and Michelle unique as a political power couple: the fact that they seem so equally yoked. Both of them are from humble beginnings and strive for excellence; they are matched in intelligence and determination. Yet the book makes these qualities seem undesirable in Michelle. Kantor doesn’t seem to understand how African Americans often need to be considered much better than White counterparts in order to even be seen as adequate.
Both of the Obamas seem acutely aware of their place in history as the first African American family in the White House and they make choices that reflect that. Michelle Obama’s desire to appear on the cover of Vogue, despite internal unease, was motivated largely by what it would mean to young Black women to see a face like their own on that iconic magazine: “There are young black women across this country and I want them to see a black woman on the cover of Vogue,”(p. 91-92) Michelle Obama is quoted as saying to a group of advisors reluctant to have her appear on the glossy fashion Bible. Kantor recounts tales that illustrate how seriously the Obamas take their role as the first Black First Family, yet it doesn’t feel like she herself understand the weight, the pressure and the significance of that title.
My favorite anecdote from the book details President Obama practicing his bowling game. Obama got a lot of flack during the campaign for bowling a lot of gutter ball; he’s been quietly practicing ever since: “After an embarrassing low bowling score became public during the presidential campaign, he practiced in the White House basement alley, his wife poking fun at him for wanting to stay for just a few more frames.” (p. 119) President Obama, like his wife, is on a continual quest for excellence in everything. The First Couple both expect those around them to perform at a very high level- Mrs. Obama more so than even the President-and there are times in the book where this feels misinterpreted. This is not a revolutionary concept but it is indicative of how they rose to their position in the first place. Many Black folks struggle with needing to be just a little bit better than White counterparts to simply be treated as equals, something that seems to be completely lost on Kantor. As she can't adequately speak to what it means to be the first two people on the planet to do what Barack and Michelle have done, her attempts to get to the heart of this couple simply misses the mark.
Overall, The Obamas isn't a slanderous account of the First Couple; however, the heavy reliance on editorial license and lack of recognition for certain core Obama values render it a less-than-essential look at history that is still in the making.