First lady rejects White House ‘drama’

January 11, 2012

Michelle Obama is rejecting stories of White House conflicts between her office and the president’s and says people have wrongly tried to portray her as “some angry black woman.”

In a wide-ranging interview with CBS anchor Gayle King, Obama challenged characterizations of her in “The Obamas,” a new book by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor that describes the first lady as a forceful shadow operator in her husband’s administration.

“I guess it’s more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and a strong woman,” Obama said. “But that’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced.”

Kantor objected to that inference about her book, which the first lady conceded she had not read. “There’s no suggestion of her as an angry black woman in the book,” Kantor said Wednesday.

In fact, the portrayals of the first lady as angry, which were dominant early in the 2008 campaign — culminating in a satirical New Yorker cartoon depicting her as a militant black radical — have mostly subsided in the years since. She has assiduously crafted a benign image of herself as the “mom in chief,” adopting noncontroversial causes, such as fighting childhood obesity.

Her popularity is through the roof. In a new large-scale poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 73 percent of Americans expressed favorable views of the first lady, with strongly positive impressions outnumbering strongly negative ones by more than 5 to 1. A slim majority of Republicans rates the first lady favorably, a stark contrast to the overwhelmingly negative view her husband gets from Republicans.

There is a racial gap, however, in how intensely people admire the first lady: 75 percent of blacks said they have “strongly favorable” impressions of the first lady, compared with 35 percent of whites.

Supporters of the first lady believe that her popularity is a direct result of how well she has managed her image. Obama has connected with the public by “holding herself to the highest of standards,” said Camille Johnston, a former aide to the first lady. “On the first day in the White House she set the tone for the type of first lady she was going to be, and people have responded to that and embraced it,” Johnston said.

Nearly every first lady has been criticized for meddling in political affairs — and subsequently denied it. But Obama’s remarks Wednesday were unusual because she does not typically respond directly to stories about her. Her interview with King was scheduled last year to correspond with the debut of a CBS morning show, and happened to come at a moment when she was primed to talk.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the first lady’s remarks, while provocative, were simply pointing to “an old tactic tried in the 2008 campaign.”

Asked how she deals with being mischaracterized, Obama said: “I just try to be me. And my hope is that over time people get to know me. And they get to judge me for me.”

Obama also challenged details from the book — including the notion that she did not get along with the president’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and was at odds with former press secretary Robert Gibbs, who in the book is described as cursing the first lady in a meeting.

She called Gibbs a “trusted adviser” and Emanuel a dear friend and a “funny guy.”

“I don’t have conversations with my husband’s staff. I don’t go to the meetings. I don’t have — I mean, our staffs work together really well,” Obama said. “I can count the number of times I go over to the West Wing, period.”

In the book, Kantor describes the first lady’s involvement as taking place mainly through intermediaries.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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