Obama family values

The First Couple works hard to raise their children and keep their marriage strong -- but people are still outraged

Published January 13, 2012 2:00PM (EST)

 First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama       (Whitehouse.gov)
First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama (Whitehouse.gov)

In a country unspoiled by centuries of racism and racial stereotyping, Jodi Kantor's "The Obamas" would likely be seen as a sympathetic if gossipy and theatrical portrait of the First Couple, striving to do their best for their country and their family as President Obama wrestled with a broken economy, two wars and a radicalized Republican Party determined to make him fail.

We don't live in that unspoiled world, however, so the book has become a flashpoint, with right-wingers seizing on tiny unflattering tidbits and Michelle Obama herself telling tell Gayle King that it fosters "an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day that Barack announced, that I'm an angry black woman." I'm on record (on "Hardball" Wednesday) saying I wish the First Lady hadn't felt the need to defend herself; she's one of the most admired women in America, just behind Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, a multiracial feminist troika that itself shows how far we've come. Especially when it comes to her right-wing critics, she shouldn't fight down.

Now that I've read the whole book, though, I better understand where she's coming from. I don't think Kantor set out to do this, but the book problematizes Michelle Obama. It's intended to be sympathetic, but it sometimes makes her seem difficult and demanding, even as it sympathetically explains why anyone might be difficult and demanding in her shoes. That portrait of the tough, exacting, unyielding black woman plays into a damaging stereotype in itself -- from there it's only a short trip to "angry black woman." That's not what Kantor intended, but that's the racial hall of funhouse mirrors in which the First Lady lives. Add to that the propensity of Fox, Drudge, the right-wing blogosphere and even some classless Republican legislators to cast Obama in that light, and her fighting back a little in her interview with the sympathetic King makes sense.

Kantor acknowledges that Obama was a punching bag for her husband's enemies in 2008, but she doesn't capture all the worst details: Fox News called her "Obama's baby mama," she was pilloried just for the simple statement "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback,” and she endured persistent nasty rumors (pushed by the right and even a few Hillary Clinton supporters) that a tape existed in which she hatefully denounced "Whitey." It didn't. So she has reason to see the worst in any narrative that casts her as a powerful and controlling true-believer.

I think Kantor's biggest mistake was pretending to get inside Michelle Obama's head, to explain what she thought or felt. Even with her 33 White House sources (more on them later), that was a presumptuous conceit when she didn't have an interview with the woman herself. She also reflects tiresome Beltway thinking (I know she lives in Brooklyn, but it's a state of mind) in her depiction of the forces arrayed against President Obama. Kantor gives way too much credence to the notion that the Tea Party was a spontaneous, populist revolt, when we've known for a while they were just the traditional Republican base dressed up in colorful costumes, aided and abetted by Dick Armey, the Koch brothers and Fox News. She casts Rick Santelli as some kind of populist truth-teller, when his nasty February 2009 CNBC rant stigmatized people who lost their home as "losers." She seems to see wisdom in the ranting of the Tea Party, and regularly chides the president for "not listening" to them.

Kantor's Beltway mindset causes problems from the book's opening anecdote, as she describes the First Lady-elect's desire to minimize disruption to her two young daughters. For a little while, she considers the notion that she might stay behind in Chicago so they can finish out the school year, rather than move to Washington as a family right away. It was a bad idea, so she rejected it pretty quickly, but it's not insane; I can imagine the thought crossing a lot of mothers' minds, including my own. Kantor makes it seem a bizarre symbol of Michelle Obama's disconnect from the expectations of the world in which she lives.  That breathless tone hurts the book.

"The Obamas" made me realize the extent to which many Americans and the media put the First Couple in an impossible bind: We elected Barack Obama at least in part because he was a relative newcomer who wasn't yet steeped in Washington culture ("I haven't had the hope boiled out of me," he used to say on the campaign trail.) We thrilled to his family because they seemed like regular middle class people (even if the president's book earnings had made them newly rich) who wanted to live their values. But then they're criticized when they act normal and try to maintain their own lives – because they take date nights, for instance, or because the president tries to eat dinner with his family five nights a week.

Kantor tries to make a political point: that their yearning for normalcy is a political liability that keeps them insulated from supposedly genial Washington culture, isolated with friends and family from their Chicago days. I'll allow that's possible, but given the scorn and disrespect that greeted the new president, I don't think more cocktail parties with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would have gotten the health care bill passed sooner. But then, I think the Villagers are largely a corrupting influence, so I'm happy to know the Obamas hang with their oldest friends.

There's another political angle Kantor explores regarding those old friends, a question she says was not uncommon about the First Couple: Why were all the Obamas' closest friends black, anyway? I flinched at her even asking that – why were all the Bushes' closest friends white? (Don't count Condoleezza Rice.) Sadly, most adults still live in worlds where their genuinely close friends come from the same race. But if the Villagers are genuinely asking about that -- and I bet some people are -- Kantor provides a sympathetic answer. She works earnestly to explain the almost-familial bonds between the Obamas and the two couples they're closest to, Marty Nesbitt and his wife Anita Blanchard, and Erik and Cheryl Whitaker. As young black standouts in an upper class white milieu, most of who had jumped from the black working class into the elite white worlds of medicine, law and business, they were solace and sanity for one another. I enjoyed learning more about those friendships, but it had never occurred to me that there was anything to question about them.  It made me realize the extent to which we racialize issues that don't require it.

Another minor controversy that took on a racial tinge is Michelle Obama's observation, while working for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (the son of the man who ruled Chicago for decades), that three local families, including the Daleys, wielded inordinate power. All three happened to be Irish Catholic. Predictably, a blaring Drudge headline announced that Obama had complained about "white Irish Catholics" – Drudge is always declaring Race War! -- but she herself made no mention of race or ethnicity; the words "white Irish Catholics" came from Kantor. As a white Irish Catholic, let me go on record saying that white Irish Catholics, including the Daleys, continue to have disproportionate power in American cities and government agencies to this day. Obama's statement was simply fact.

Yet Kantor makes a diligent effort to examine and explain the tensions the first couple faced as they struggled with the symbolism and imagery of living as our first black First Family. Those image questions hit Michelle Obama hardest. Members of Obama's inner staff circle almost obsessively questioned her choices in clothing, home decorating and vacations, given the backdrop of the worst economy since the Great Depression. The image questions could be particularly divisive: Kantor details the way a debate about whether the First Lady should pose for the cover of Vogue magazine broke down along racial lines, with the white staff arguing it could make her look like a glamorous materialist indifferent to the nation's suffering.

But Mrs. Obama and her African American staff wanted to take the opportunity, as they always did, to present a positive, inspiring image of black womanhood. (They did the Vogue cover, and it was widely praised.) An open-minded reader could come away from the book with new understanding of the values that drove Michelle Obama's quest for elegance and sophistication, rather than seeing it, the way the right and even some in the media do, as materialism. And you also can understand a tinge of frustration with calls to cut back on redecorating: Why does the first black First Family have to be the one that scrimps? Certainly double standards hemmed in the First Couple from the first day of Obama's presidency.

Progressives will thrill to stories (I know I did) of Michelle Obama being fed up with the White House's inadequate efforts to sell her husband's programs and his success, and some of its disappointing deal-making and compromising. From the stimulus onward, she believed Obama's staff failed to tell a coherent story about his goals and achievements -- and she was right. She was particularly frustrated about the protracted health care standoff, concerned that the White House was losing the messaging war as well as chagrined by the deals cut with the healthcare industry to win support. (There is no evidence that Rahm Emanuel called her objections "fucking retarded," however.) She was horrified when Scott Brown captured Ted Kennedy's old Massachusetts Senate seat. She began to tell the president he needed a new team, Kantor reports.

He did need a new team, and he gradually got one. After Emanuel clearly served as the central source for not one but two fawning Washington Post profiles in early 2010, both depicting him as the only voice of reason in the White House, he offered the president his resignation, but Obama refused to take it until the healthcare bill was passed. Emanuel eventually left, and so did Robert Gibbs.

Yet Michelle is sometimes made a hero at the expense of her husband. One story involves her and the president pushing to make immigration reform a higher priority, at a time when Emanuel and Gibbs thought it was a futile provocation to the GOP. Obama made a big speech about it nonetheless, but his staff didn't really promote it or link it to an agenda, so it went nowhere, to the First Lady's dismay. Kantor reports that the president wanted to try to end the Bush tax cuts for the rich before the ominous 2010 elections, while he still (maybe) had the votes, but Emanuel told him he was crazy to think about raising taxes, on anyone, before an election, and it went nowhere. Such stories in "The Obamas" echo the theme of Ron Suskind's "Confidence Men" (which was even more harshly criticized by the White House): that a smart and principled but young and inexperienced president was being thwarted by his cynical, centrist staff.

Certainly his staff talks too much. This book is more transparently sourced than "Confidence Men" (though Suskind's book had White House participation) with telling quotes from David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, the First Lady's chief of staff Susan Sher, as well as Obama confidantes Marty Nesbitt and Eric Whitaker, among others. Despite the White House's pushback, it does seem like some of those folks unburdened themselves rather freely, in an effort either to promote the misunderstood First Lady, grind their own axes or polish their own reputations. Post-publication, David Axelrod confirmed what may be the most shocking anecdote in the book: that Robert Gibbs publicly cursed out Valerie Jarrett as well as Michelle Obama (though she wasn't there) in a staff meeting, in frustration with what he perceived as their constant fault-finding. So I think White House criticism that makes Kantor's book sound like unsourced fantasy is unfair.

I watched Jodi Kantor on CNN with Piers Morgan Thursday night. She seemed wounded by the criticism, though her initial pushback was tone-deaf. "The real book," she told Morgan, a little pompously, is "a sensitive, nuanced, textured portrayal of the Obamas in the White House." That's the stuff you let friendly reviewers say. But she defended her sourcing – "The Obama administration really let me in for this book," she said -- and apart from the First Couple, that seems accurate (if bewildering). Kantor appeared genuinely confused, and a little pained, about why Michelle Obama found the book (or at least what's been reported about it) so unflattering. She insisted the First Lady came across as a "strong" admirable advocate of a "transformational" view of her husband's presidency.

And she did. But maybe too strong? Parts of the book make her seem strong at the expense of the president, who by contrast seems weak. The strong woman/weak man is another corrosive racial construct, and I don't think Kantor intended that depiction, but it's part of the world in which her book landed.  Kantor makes Michelle Obama seem uniquely powerful; we need more context about how First Ladies are often perceived that way. Though she occasionally talks about the struggles of Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, she leaves the impression that Michelle is more unusual, in both her influence and her discomfort, than in fact she is.

On the other hand, Michelle Obama is a strong woman with deep values and passionate opinions, who wants very much to help her husband change the world. It would be hard to tell this story and have her come off very differently. I would love to read a take on the Obamas by a black writer -- and I look forward to Michelle Obama's memoir -- but I think Kantor's struggles with the story are part of our journey as a nation. Barack and Michelle Obama are our First Family, all of ours. Through their story, we are all getting to know one another a little better. There will be misunderstandings, and hurt feelings, on all sides.

In the end, though, the book made me an angry white woman. Reading about the many ways the Obamas strive to be good parents and partners, as well as president and First Lady, I found it even more disturbing that they're treated so poorly, and depicted as so terribly "other," by so many on the right. They are everything the right purports to believe in: The products of families who struggled to do right by them; people who studied and worked hard and played by the rules; good citizens and seemingly great parents. Even Michelle Obama's own First Lady project, childhood obesity, focuses less on government than on how children and families can take responsibility and improve their own health. It's what Republicans preach.

I'm not sure this is what she intended either, but Kantor's book makes many of the president's opponents seem like racist hypocrites.



By Joan Walsh

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