Former White House press aide: Michelle Obama’s office is ‘the Worst Wing’


U.S. first lady Michelle Obama speaks to students at the Chengdu No7 High School in Chengdu in China’s southwest Sichuan province. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Cherlin, a former White House press aide, has written a critical look at the first lady’s office in the current issue of the New Republic.

Entitled, “The Worst Wing: How the East Wing Shrunk Michelle Obama,” the piece consists primarily of unnamed former aides complaining about her “leadership style” and their inability to cultivate a good relationship with her.

Cherlin, now a journalist, writes:

The “first lady’s office can be a confining, frustrating, even miserable place to work. Jealousy and discontentment have festered, as courtiers squabble over the allocation of responsibility and access to Mrs. Obama, both of which can be aggravatingly scarce. Fueling these sentiments, according to former East Wing insiders, is the exacting but often ambivalent leadership style of the first lady herself.”

“… Former staffers describe a high-stress, high-stakes workplace, in which Mrs. Obama scrutinized the smallest facets of her schedule. Aides in both wings of the White House say she insists on planning every move months in advance and finalizing speeches weeks ahead of time — a rigidity nearly unheard of in today’s chaotic political environment.”

“All of this led to a culture of harsh internal judgment. Invitations to meetings with the first lady, in her office above the Jackie Kennedy Garden, became a vital status symbol, a way for staffers to measure their worth. ‘Every meeting was like an identity crisis, whether you got invited or not,’ one former East Winger told me. Casual face-time with Mrs. Obama was coveted as a badge of insiderdom.”

“’Everyone sort of stands at attention in a different way, or they try to make the joke, or they try to be the one noticed, or they try to get the smile,’ says a former employee. ‘And that’s in part a yearning for acknowledgment that you’re part of this, something bigger, and that she knows who you are.’ Another former employee put it more bluntly: ‘They don’t want to work for her; they want to be friends with her.’ Few have succeeded. Mrs. Obama has consistently shown a strong preference to be surrounded by aides with whom she has long-standing ties.”

Cherlin worked in the 2008 Obama campaign and  was an assistant press secretary in the White House until March 2011.

Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
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