January 21, 2013
The Obama family
The Obama family (Paul Beaty / AP)

Jodi Kantor’s story in yesterday’s New York Times has an admirable mission. How have four years at the White House impacted President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama?

It’s a story that would have benefited quite a bit from some direct input from President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. ‘Cept they didn’t give any, leaving Kantor to piece together a look at their changing personalities and viewpoints through the observations of “current and former White House and campaign aides, donors and friends from Chicago friends and advisers.” The result is meagerness.

We learn, for example, that the president was heard using the word “impact” as a verb. That’s the highlight of the story. Low lights are far easier to spot, including the observation that “personal changes [Barack and Michelle] have undergone can be hard to detect” (not surprising for a middle-aged couple), the observation that they are “more confident but more scarred” (not surprising after he won reelection), the observation that President Obama “never wanted to be an ordinary politician” (not surprising given that no politician has ever harbored such a desire) and the observation that Obama “knows now that he is not fully in control of his fate” (not surprising given the long-standing existence of Congress).

Though the piece is titled “Change Comes: After 4 Years, Friends See Shifts in the Obamas,” Kantor makes something of an anti-case: These people don’t appear to have changed that much, save for, perhaps, becoming a bit more cynical about politics — a change that most non-presidents and non-first ladies have likely experienced over the past four years as well.

Whatever the mixed signals sent out by the story, it all would be a bit more digestible if it were relieved of the author’s attempts at broad-stroke genius. Like this line about the first lady: “Though many surrounding the Obamas say she has changed far more than her husband, mastering a role she initially found uncomfortable, she still treats the job of first lady like a dangerous country through which she must navigate safe passage.” Another: “Mrs. Obama cannot wait too long to set out on a new course: the Obamas will soon have more time behind them in the White House than in front of them. The rituals they introduced are now matters of tradition instead of innovation.”

Those passages feel like large stretches of Kantor’s 2012 book “The Obamas,” which also suffered from a dearth of fresh material from the subjects. Kantor directed an interview request to a Times spokeswoman, who later wrote that “Jodi is not able to accommodate an interview.” New York Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt issued this statement on access questions: “Neither the president nor the First Lady has given The Times an interview since 2010. The White House is well aware that we would like to speak with them. We have standing requests to do so, but we do not make separate requests for each article about them.”

Could be time for a new White House petition. Please, please take an interview with Jodi Kantor. We can’t take this much longer.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.