book report

The Best Tidbits From Jodi Kantor’s Obama Book

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama make their way to board Air Force One January 2, 2011 at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On a day that brought news of Bill Daley’s resignation, the Internet is still abuzz with gossip about Barack Obama’s last chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Specifically, his clashes with Michelle Obama, which New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor chronicles in her new book, The Obamas, out tomorrow. The book, dishy and deeply sourced though without access to the First Couple themselves, has already gotten push-back from the White House and Rahm Emanuel.

The 2009 costume ball the couple hosted has drawn attention from the New York Post and other tabloids, and there are other fun details Kantor reports — for instance, hip Instagram user Obama used an AOL e-mail address as recently as his time in the Senate — but what the White House is really worried about is the portrait Kantor paints of Mrs. Obama. It’s actually not an unflattering one, if you’re inclined to be okay with First Ladies who have opinions and voice them, but the administration is clearly concerned that to some, Michelle’s surprising level of engagement with policy, and skill at getting her way,  will scan as meddling. Or maybe it’s just that her husband looks even less good at getting his way, politically, when compared with his wife.

That wasn’t the case when the administration began: Emanuel refused to let one of Mrs. Obama’s top aides into the crucial 7:30 a.m. meetings he ran, and she wasn’t given a speechwriter for quite some time. Staffers apparently nicknamed her office “Guam,” “pleasant but powerless.” But Michelle apparently wasn’t content to remain in Guam.  For instance, there’s this run-in with Emanuel — who had clashed with Hillary Clinton, too, in the nineties, and whom Kantor describes as Obama’s “other” spouse.

[I]n exchange for a key vote on an energy bill, Mr. Emanuel, without asking the first lady’s permission, promised Allen Boyd, a Florida congressman, that she would appear at an event. Annoyed, she attended the event, but registered her broader disapproval by refusing to commit to campaigning for the midterms. She eventually withheld agreement for nearly a year, according to former East and West Wing advisers. Instead she focused on an agenda of her own.

Emanuel wasn’t the only high-level staffer with whom Michelle clashed — and surprisingly, it’s not the foul-mouthed Chicago mayor that Kantor quotes spewing epithets in her direction.

Jarrett announced that the first lady was dissatisfied with the White House’s handling of the situation. All eyes turned to Gibbs. ‘Don’t go there, Robert, don’t do it,’ another aide remembered Rahm Emanuel saying. Years of tension between Gibbs, Jarrett and an absent Michelle Obama exploded. ‘Fuck this, that’s not right, I’ve been killing myself on this, where’s this coming from?’ Gibbs yelled. He calmed down and tried to probe, according to a half-dozen people who witnessed the exchange. ‘What is it she has concerns about?’ he asked Jarrett. Jarrett said something about the reply not being fast enough. Gibbs blew up again. ‘Why is she talking to you about it? If she has a problem she should talk to me!’ David Axelrod was trying to soothe Gibbs. It was the calm of Jarrett’s tone that finally undid Gibbs, others said later. He looked so frustrated one colleague thought he was going to cry. ‘You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,’ he hurled back. ‘The first lady would not believe you’re speaking this way.’ ‘Then fuck her too!’ He stormed out as the rest of the group sat stunned.

Or, for those less inclined to ascribe quite so much agency to Mrs. Obama, there’s the theory that Barack was using Michelle as a mouthpiece:

But that spring, Mrs. Obama made it clear that she thought her husband needed a new team, according to her aides. When the president decided to deliver a lofty speech about overhauling immigration laws in June 2010, even though there was no legislation on the table and the effort could hurt vulnerable Democrats, Mr. Emanuel objected. Aides did not produce the speech he wanted and the president stayed up much of the night rewriting — but the address drew a flat reception. Mr. Obama was irritated, two advisers said, and told Ms. Jarrett to keep an eye on other top staff members to make sure that they delivered what he wanted.

Several West Wing aides said they had heard secondhand that Mrs. Obama was angry about the incident. Later, they said they wondered: was the president using his wife to convey what he felt?

Kantor also reveals that Michelle batted around the idea of staying with her daughters in Chicago after her husband moved to the White House, and joked about her reward for being a good sport on the trail. “If I have to go, I’m getting a new dress out of it,” she supposedly told neighbors. Seems fair to us!

The Best Tidbits From Jodi Kantor’s Obama Book