Jodi Kantor’s “The Obamas” ($30, Little, Brown and Company) was embargoed until Jan. 10. That didn’t stop politics junkies from buzzing about it weeks in advance. Kantor, a New York Times correspondent, began covering Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007, and in 2009 interviewed the president and first lady Michelle Obama in the Oval Office. Kantor conducted further research for the book through interviews with 33 former and current White House aides, and many of the couple’s friends (the Obamas declined her requests for additional interviews).
What was it like conducting an interview in the Oval Office?
It was extremely intense. One of the themes of the book is adjustment and how people adjust to a place as unusual as the White House. And the Oval Office is a particularly hard place to adjust to. You walk in and there’s sort of sensory overload because you have the living, breathing president and the first lady, and you’ve also got John F. Kennedy’s desk and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
Have the Obamas stayed grounded since they moved into the White House? Is that even possible?
Trying to do things like regular people is sometimes not worth the effort. Also, we wouldn’t want the president and first lady to remain completely their old selves, because anyone who is just a regular person wouldn’t be able to handle the extraordinary demands and scrutiny of that job.
I think their relationship is fundamental to who both of them are. These are two people who were born into pretty modest circumstances and moved to a totally new place in the world. And they really did that together. There’s no way the president would have ever been elected without her. Throughout his career, she has connected him to other people.
Do you think that Michelle’s fashion icon status has played a role in the presidency?
I think that, unlike her husband, she is really attuned to the power of images. Barack Obama sometimes resists the visual power of the presidency. He’s not somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about how to achieve iconic photos that will reflect his power, whereas we see again and again that Michelle Obama is really savvy about photos.