First lady Michelle Obama’s tough personal criticism of her husband and protectiveness of his public image have routinely irritated, and at times outraged, President Obama’s top advisers as they compete with her for influence inside the West Wing, according to a new book.
The tension provoked Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to offer his resignation after determining the president had decided, with his wife’s prodding, to go for broke on passage of the landmark health care reform law. And it led former press secretary Robert Gibbs to unleash a profanity-filled tirade when he thought, mistakenly, that the first lady had criticized him.
In “The Obamas,” New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor describes the first lady as transforming herself from a skeptical Washington outsider, who at first did not want to move into the White House after her husband’s historic victory, into a formidable presence who occasionally bests his staff in policy debates and often makes decisions without regard for political consequences.
On Friday, White House officials strongly disputed the characterizations made in the 329-page book, which will go on sale next week and was excerpted in Saturday’s New York Times. The Washington Post independently obtained a copy Friday.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said the book reflected Kantor’s “own opinions” and called it “an overdramatization of old news . . . about a relationship between two people whom the author has not spoken to in years.”
Kantor interviewed the Obamas in 2009 for a New York Times magazine cover story about their marriage, but she did not speak to them again for her book, Schultz added.
“The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the President and First Lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts,” he said, referring to the anecdotes as “second-hand accounts.”
In her end notes, Kantor states that the work is a product of hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 200 people, including 33 current and former White House officials and cabinet members, friends and relatives, former neighbors, employees and colleagues, as well as the Obamas. Some spoke for attribution, others on the condition of anonymity, Kantor discloses.
In an interview with Chicago Magazine this month, Kantor said: “I wouldn’t trade that for a quick interview with the president, because I’m not sure he’s at liberty to discuss the real questions I asked in this book. In a way, it goes to Barack Obama’s own predicament as president: He’s such a gifted storyteller. Yet can he really tell his own story anymore?”
White House officials had been grumbling about the Kantor book for months, expressing concern that it would dwell on internal conflict and expose rifts between the West Wing and the First Lady’s operation. As with the publication of previous works – most recently a book by Ron Suskind – they complained that their colleagues, especially former colleagues, would air their grievances to a reporter so freely. And they rolled their eyes at what they described as the “pop psychology” nature of a book billed as an inside look at the Obama marriage.
Once Kantor’s book became available in recent days, however, several Obama officials played down its impact, saying it appeared to deliver much less controversy than advertised. And as the author began to conduct publicity interviews related to the book, Obama officials scoffed at her claim that she has an “intense relationship” with the first couple, who did not participate in the work. Kantor earned a reported seven-figure advance for the book.
“They know exactly who I am. We have an intense relationship,” Kantor told Chicago Magazine of the Obamas. “They really care about the Times, they read the Times. I’ve seen them at the [White House] Christmas party every year.”
The book casts the Obamas as loving partners and parents whose relationship, at times rocky, is tested by Barack’s political ambitions to make grand, sweeping change and Michelle’s skepticism that such change can best be achieved through a career in the messy world of politics. The first lady’s rigid adherence to the larger cause her husband’s presidential campaign aspired to clashed with the more practical political realities and compromises that the presidents advisers, especially Emanuel, urged him to accept in the name of advancing his agenda with smaller-scale successes, according to the book.
Perhaps the most explosive moment comes during the bare-knuckle fight between the White House and Congress over Obama’s health care reform legislation. During the heat of that tussle, voters in Massachusetts chose Republican Scott Brown to assume the Senate seat vacated by the death of liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy. The result is interpreted as a direct rebuke of Obama’s progressive agenda and deprived the president of a critical Democratic vote in the Senate.
Kantor writes that the outcome served to propel “the Obamas’ long-standing disagreements about politics, suppressed in the glow of the 2008 victory, back to the fore, vindicating Michelle’s accumulated anxieties and doubts. The health care situation epitomized everything she disliked about politics, everything she had been arguing about with her husband for going on two decades: her skepticism about whether true change could be accomplished through the legislative process, the way serious ideas devolved into craven horse trading, the way you could risk and give so much and end up with nothing.”
In the end, “she took the failure much harder than he did,” Kantor asserts. Michelle’s criticism of the president and his aides angered Emanuel, who thought the White House must “avoid finger-pointing” to be effective. And when the president elected, in the aftermath of the Brown victory, to again pursue his health care overhaul rather than a scaled-down compromised favored by Emanuel, the chief of staff felt betrayed.
Obama “once more rejected his chief of staff’s vision of the presidency. . . and instead pursued one more in line with the one he shared with the first lady,” Kantor writes.
Eventually, after stories in the press embarrassed the White House by making clear Emanuel was unhappy and casting him the good guy, Emanuel went to Obama and offered to resign, according to Kantor. But Obama declined to accept the resignation. (Emanuel stayed on but later resigned to run for mayor of Chicago, a job he now holds.)
“What’s being portrayed in this book is just not an accurate reflection of how well the East Wing and West Wing worked together on a regular basis,” said Camille Johnston, Michelle Obama’s former spokeswoman who has left the White House. “From the first meeting she had with staff during the inauguration, she explicitly said: ‘There’s nothing on my agenda that’s more important than what’s on his. Our job over here is to do everything we can to support them.’”
Yet Kantor describes other top aides as being unhappy, including Gibbs, who at one point is said to have erupted in a curse-filled rant after he is told that the first lady was unhappy with his handling of a potentially damaging story (even though he appears to have defused the potential fallout).
That it turned out the first lady probably had not been critical, according to Kantor’s account, appears to have done little to mitigate Gibbs’s relationship with Michelle Obama. Her repeated missteps on White House protocol, such as taking expensive trips abroad and wearing pricey clothing, forced Gibbs to play an “unenviable role” as “internal enforcer of the rules of the political world, issuing a steady stream of warnings and nos.”
The president “who felt guilty about the sacrifices his wife was making, was unwilling to tell her what she could not do. . . so Gibbs took on the task.”
Kantor also tells of sweet moments between the Obamas, who share moments on the dance floor and sit together on the favorite spot at the White House on the Truman Balcony to talk about Obama’s grand plans.
The pair talked about “their joint idea that the president’s career was not about pursuing day-to-day political victories but the kinds of fundamental changes they had sought since they were young,” Kantor writes. “This was Michelle’s most profound influence on the Obama presidency: the sense of purpose she shared with her husband, the force of her worldview, her readiness to do what was unpopular and pay political costs.”
Staff writer Ned Martel contributed to this report.