Like most couples, the Obamas have exchanged roles, says Frances Wilson, reviewing The Obamas: a Mission, a Marriage by Jodi Kantor.
Jodi Kantor is The New York Times Washington correspondent, and The Obamas is as tense, tight and intimate a portrait of life in the White House as an episode of The West Wing. The result of four years of research and interviews with hundreds of people, including the Obamas themselves, their friends, relatives and staff, Kantor takes each stage of the Obama presidency and anatomises it. How was Barack “connecting” to the American public? How was Michelle connecting to the White House staff? How was the power oscillating between them?
Kantor’s interest is in the dynamics of the Obama marriage and the ways in which, as she puts it, a once private relationship “can stretch out, accordion-like” to contain within its span public events, policy decisions and parts of the federal government. The address the Obamas moved to in 2008, with their two daughters and Michelle’s 73-year-old mother, Marian Robinson, is a symbol of this all-embracing intimacy.
At the same time as serving as a private home, the White House is a public museum, the President’s office, and a 132-room palace with a staff that could rival a European court. There are no separate entrances or exits, so when the family come in or out they have to duck behind screens in order to avoid being seen by sightseers. Sometimes Michelle will join in with the official tours and give the visitors a hug. At other times, she inhabits the East Wing of the building like a “virtual prisoner”.
At the heart of the book is the strangeness of being black and living in the White House. The man who before he was elected was “not black enough”, after his election became “blacker than ever before”. An observer who was used to standing outside himself, Obama was now constantly observed while the outside world in which he had been so engaged was sliding away. Barbara Bush had kept 5,000 index cards of new relationships forged during her husband’s presidency, but the social life of the Obamas “was on the extreme side of introverted”, increasingly restricted to a tight circle of their old friends.
The First Lady’s misery in the early stages of her new life is one of Kantor’s revelations. She describes in detail Michelle’s attempts to enliven the décor of their private quarters, the inevitable national uproar at the cost, Michelle’s image and often difficult relationships with her husband’s aides, and the division of the building between West and East Wings.
For the first year of the presidency, the Obamas lived like a couple “in exile”, but it was also the first time, due to his campaigning, that they had lived properly together as a family. A child who grew up without a father, and for the most part without a mother, Barack’s need for a close and settled home is striking and he makes a point of not missing more than two family suppers a week. “When Barack’s home he is going to be part of this life,” Michelle said in 2008. “He doesn’t come home as grand poobah.” Nobody in the first family has ideas above their station: Marian, who insists on doing her own laundry, refused to go on the Oprah Winfrey Show because she wanted to continue to browse the discount racks in the local department store without being recognised.
In public and in private, Kantor argues, it is Michelle’s own standards that Barack tries to live up to. She is his moral centre, the person who reminds him that his purpose as President is to make the fundamental changes they have both believed in all their lives. Michelle is Barack’s rock, Marian is Michelle’s rock, and both parents are determined to be rocklike for their daughters.
The sketches of Obama off-duty are utterly believable. Competitive to his roots, the aim of every activity, even Scrabble, is self-improvement and his desire to win each round of golf and game of basketball makes him, his friends and aides admit, “occasionally insufferable”. When he read aloud his memoir, Dreams from My Father, for the audiobook, Obama “mimicked every character’s voice perfectly”, not because it came naturally to do so but because he painstakingly practised every accent and inflection. He won a Grammy for the recording.
During the past four years the Obamas, like most married couples, have exchanged roles. She entered the White House with low expectations, and he entered with high. It is now Michelle who is confident, at peace with herself, and able to engage with American people, and Barack who is overwhelmed by his position and “the limits of what can be accomplished through politics”. What will happen next? The Obamas, timed to coincide with the run-up to the US presidential election in November, leaves you gripped for the next episode.
The Obamas: a Mission, a Marriage by Jodi Kantor is out now