Forgive me for being cynical, but I have a hard time believing that the White House and Michelle Obama are really all that upset by the portrayal of the first lady that emerges in Jodi Kantor’s new look at the president’s marital union, “The Obamas.” In the annals of irregularities that first ladies have been justly or unjustly accused of, sparring with a chief of staff, particularly one as combative as Rahm Emanuel, hardly registers as shocking or unexpected.

Dancing on a Cabinet Room conference table (though, of course, people loved that in Betty Ford), firing longtime White House staffers, consulting an astrologer about the presidential schedule, tolerating marital affairs, winging a book at a Secret Service agent, succumbing to substance abuse, engaging in a same-sex relationship, suffering from mental illness, secretly running the country after the president was felled by a stroke — now those are salacious tidbits and charges, some of them fictional, maybe, but many of them moments of real, even operatic drama in the narrative of presidential marriages.

This one? Michelle Obama should be congratulating herself on her good fortune.

Reading Kantor’s book, I found myself reflecting on something other than the burning question of whether the inevitable standoff between Loyal First Lady and Trusted Professional Staff did or did not (but probably did) occur. I found myself thinking about how atavistic and constricting and bizarre the office of first lady is, what an impossible position these women are put in, and how it will be a good thing for all of us if and when a first lady is permitted to get a part-time job, maybe telecommuting from the East Wing — okay, probably not blogging or anything, but somehow finding a separate domain into which to direct all that productive energy.

I found myself thinking about marriage — the real topic of Kantor’s book — and how the Obamas embody the latest trends, yet the White House imposes an outdated marriage model, almost Victorian, really, which is why we always come back to this conversation about meddling. What other choice does a first lady have but to meddle, since she really can’t do anything else?

’The Obamas’ by Jodi Kantor. (Credit: Little, Brown and Company) (Little, Brown and Company)

When Barack and Michelle Obama married in 1992, they reflected the evolution of marriage in the United States. At that time, the postwar model — in which a woman married up, if she could, to a man who had more education and more earning potential — was giving way to a model in which men and women married, if they could, a spouse with the same level of educational achievement. Nowadays, as sociologists have shown, what men and women want is to marry somebody with the same degree set. This was true of the Clintons, and the Obamas are also a perfect example: both Ivy League grads, both Harvard law degree holders, both ambitious and full of potential.

But after her husband’s big convention speech and successful Senate campaign in 2004, segueing quickly into his presidential bid, Michelle found herself teleported back to a 1950s kind of marriage: a model in which a woman with intelligence, education and an overabundance of administrative energy was obliged to content herself with living through her husband and devoting herself to his advancement.

This is what we saw as Michelle cut down her work days, eventually leaving her job with the University of Chicago Medical Center and jumping into the campaign fray, figuring that if she was going to do this thing, she might as well do it — becoming a confident public speaker and a brand-name fundraiser in her own right.

Then, just as she had learned to live with the feminine-mystique model of wifedom, she landed in the White House and was transported further back in time, to an almost 19th-century version in which the wife is supposed to be the happy helpmeet to her husband, a reservoir of domestic replenishment. What the president’s aides wanted, Kantor writes, was for her to be a partner who welcomed tour groups and “buoyed the president’s spirits.” What you see in Kantor’s narrative is the extent to which husbands and wives in the White House are obliged to inhabit separate spheres, in which the world of work belongs to the man, and home and hearth to the woman.

In the White House, there is a special retreat, a sitting room where first ladies can gaze at the exterior of the Oval Office, wondering what in the world their husbands are doing. Laura Bush showed it to Michelle, having been shown it by Hillary Clinton. Catapulted into this separate-spheres version of marriage, it’s hardly any wonder that Michelle struggled with questions: What is my role? Can I have any sort of broader impact?

“She was a strong asset, she felt; she wanted to help, and the male advisers at the other end of the building just didn’t see it,” Kantor writes.

She wasn’t qualified to weigh in on things like foreign policy, but there was a relevant area in which she did have expertise: health care. Familiar with the travails of a previous Democratic president’s wife, she never intended a Hillary Clinton level of involvement, Kantor says, but she did ask the president’s team to figure out how to “use me effectively.” They didn’t; ironically enough, she had made herself so popular, working out and mom in chiefing, that to be associated with the president’s health-care program might bring down her poll numbers and thereby hurt him. She was damned if she did and driven crazy if she didn’t.

All of which is not to say that Kantor’s portrait of Michelle is sympathetic; if the first lady is unhappy, maybe it’s because she emerges as She Who Must Be Appeased, a wife who never wanted this gig to begin with (again, nothing new here: Zachary Taylor’s wife is said to have prayed for his defeat) and must be placated by a president who “felt perpetually guilty about what his wife had given up for him.” Kantor does not portray her as an angry black woman, as Michelle has claimed, but she does come off as an occasionally irritated first helpmeet.

She has faults, according to Kantor: She is materialistic and forceful in her displeasure. Hypocrisy seems a fair charge. She lectures congressional spouses about the virtues of volunteerism but works at a food bank wearing Lanvin sneakers that cost more than $500.

To me, one thing that was surprising was the extent to which Michelle orchestrated the transformation of her public image. I’d always assumed that her evolution from professional woman to fashion icon was something the president’s campaign staff forced upon her, and was intrigued by the implication that she engineered it herself. In one instance, she is quoted as saying that if she has to accompany the president to a political event, “I’m getting a new dress out of it.”

With her sarcastic humor, who can know whether she was being ironic, serious or — probably — both? Like Sarah Palin, she did seem to need a lot of new outfits, and that got her into trouble. But in part this is because women tend to disagree with Thoreau’s advice to beware of any endeavor requiring new clothes. I think many of us take the opposite view: If I get some new shoes for this job interview, and I don’t get the job, at least I’ll have the shoes, and that’s some consolation.

The challenge for anybody who writes about the Obamas is that they are hard-working, disciplined people with highly effective habits who have purged their White House and marriage of obvious drama. Like many working parents, at the end of the day, they like to have dinner with their kids, and they don’t do much in the way of lively socializing or riotous drinking. This is not the generation of parents who end a party wearing lampshades on their heads. In that respect, they are boring. So are their friends. Up to now, I thought the Obamas surrounded themselves with people who had so much self-control that they refrained from saying anything profound or arresting, but increasingly I think that the people they are friends with aren’t that introspective.

In this book, what we also see is that anybody with a flair for drama or self-promotion — paging Desiree Rogers — fell out of favor. There is none of the Southern Gothic, living-large Clinton White House, none of the excesses of the younger Bush.

At the same time, I would have liked this book to give a fuller sense of what kind of moral impact Michelle has had. For example, when the Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested by a white police officer, and the president was quick to criticize the police, what role did Michelle play in influencing his reaction? What sort of conversation did they have? These two lawyers — the wife with a hard-won understanding of race in America, having grown up in a Chicago South Side neighborhood transformed by white flight, the husband with a more cosmopolitan upbringing but a man’s sense of what black men, in particular, go through when they hail a cab — what did they say to each other? In what way did she shape his later, more temperate response? And how has she shaped other debates, aside from confirming his focus on health care as well as his exalted sense of himself?

I came out of the book looking forward to the day, if it ever comes, when the office of first lady is handed over to staffers and the spouse of the president is allowed to find a real channel for her energies. To me, Jill Biden has always been a more transformational figure: Without fanfare, the second lady has been able to continue teaching at a local community college, in her spare time doing her official duties — often, people who see her say, toting a bag of papers to be graded. Of course, this is easier for Biden because she doesn’t have young children on top of everything else, but I’ve wondered if a first lady could follow the same model. Until this is permitted, we’ll continue having the meddling conversation. It may take a first husband for us to envision a truly new mold. And you know what? That would be okay, too.

Liza Mundy, a Washington Post staff writer on leave, is a fellow at the New America Foundation. She is the author of “Michelle: A Biography,” and “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family,” which will be published in March.


By Jodi Kantor

Little, Brown. 359 pp. $29.99