It’s an election year, and, as we’ve come to expect, political controversy abounds. In the world of investigative journalism and the 24-hour news cycle, candidates’ personal lives are more than fair game. The many mistresses of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich’s request for an open marriage, and Karen Santorum’s pre-Rick relationship with a much older abortion doctor have all been the subject of media frenzy. In comparison, it seemed that President Obama’s personal life was a model of tranquility – a likable wife and two lovely daughters, no scandals to rack his presidency. However, according to New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor’s new account, The Obamas, all is not calm on the White House second floor. Kantor reveals a tense atmosphere that has encompassed the entire Obama Administration—tension between Obama and the typical workings of Washington, DC, between the President and his staff, and between the Obamas themselves. But while Kantor’s revelations are an important addition to the political discourse, she often slips into irrelevant discussions of petty squabbles within the West Wing that render her work little more than a political tabloid.
The high point of The Obamas occurs early in Kantor’s narrative of Barack Obama’s atmospheric rise to the highest office in the country and the effects his newfound fame had on his family life. An interesting metaphor for his quick ascent is the Obamas’ two moves: from a small apartment to a brick Hyde Park mansion after then-State Senator Obama’s 2004 book deal, and just five years later into the White House. Even more notable is Michelle Obama’s reluctance to move to Washington at all – part of a broader narrative about the First Lady’s struggle to find her place in her husband’s administration. Kantor also describes Mrs. Obama’s image of the President as a Washington outsider who is above the partisanship that has plagued his presidency. The tension between the Obamas’ expectations for themselves and the reality they face is perceivable throughout the book, but is concentrated in the first few months of the administration. Although the president, his family, and his team eventually find their footing, it is not before numerous staff shake-ups.
But as Kantor’s narrative continues, she focuses more on Obama Administration infighting rather than the Obamas themselves. Kantor contrasts former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s take-no-prisoners style of leadership with Michelle Obama’s desire for her husband to rise above the nastiness of politics. She particularly demonizes Valerie Jarrett, a close confidant of both Obamas, suggesting that Jarrett was too close to the First Family to give the President objective advice. “Hometown friends often fared poorly in the West Wing,” she writes. “Jarrett didn’t have a clear place in the organization, and she couldn’t be both friend and staff at once—the two roles were inherently in conflict.” But the incident that has received the most buzz is one that may have been entirely blown out of proportion. Supposedly, upon hearing from Jarrett that Carla Bruni had revealed to the French media that Mrs. Obama once told her living in the White House was “hell,” former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs shouted an expletive against the First Lady in front of senior staff. In responses to the book from the White House and Gibbs, both denied the outburst and Gibbs insisted that his anger was directed toward Jarrett.
While the First Lady did have her legitimate disagreements with her husband’s advisers, these were mostly focused on her role in the White House. “There was no consideration of how she fit in the broader Obama narrative,” an aide told Kantor. While Kantor seems to think that Mrs. Obama had this uncertainty in common with other modern first ladies, it is unclear if the Obama Administration faced a different kind of challenge with the President’s wife. Was she asking for a bigger role than was traditionally granted first ladies? Or was Obama’s staff actively attempting to keep her out of the loop? According to Kantor, it was always Jarrett’s job to advocate Mrs. Obama’s interests, leading to discomfort between Jarrett and the rest of the senior staff.
What the White House and Jodi Kantor failed to recognize was that the arguments chronicled in such detail in the book are largely irrelevant when it comes to evaluating Obama’s first term. While it is sexier to read about the spats that go on behind the scenes in the White House, what is more important for the American people to know is the manner in which the President himself interacts with his family and his staff. Kantor tries to stir up scandal in the Obama Administration mostly to capitalize on the hysteria of the political climate—she makes it seem as though the White House were in shambles.
But the most telling details about the President’s character inspire confidence. The man would rather skip a political event than family dinner: “at the end of a meeting with advisers… he would bring up a particular event on the schedule. ‘I’m really unhappy about it,’ he would say. ‘We have an agreement I’m only supposed to be out twice a week.’” He has a close relationship with his mother-in-law, who reluctantly moved into the White House in 2009 for a three-month trial and never left. Obama and his family treat the White House residence staff with utmost respect, with Kantor going so far as to describe their relations with the staff as “warm, but awkward” due to the racial history of the building and the office. And, facing several opponents who are chronic womanizers, he is refreshingly devoted to his smart, spirited wife. The more sensationalized aspects of the book, then, seem to have been added solely to generate media attention. When asked what she hoped to add to the political discourse with this work, Kantor said:
“I wrote the book to answer a question that I thought would be on a lot of voters’ minds coming up to the 2012 elections, which is how have these two people changed since the election in 2008. When the president ran in 2008 he still led in a lot of ways the life of an ordinary person from Chicago. Part of his claim in that race was that he was kind of not a part of the Washington club, that he was not part of political culture, and of course when the Obamas stepped into the White House that has changed, so the book is really about the transformative experience of being the President and First Lady, their successes and failures, and the effect that being in power has had on both on them.”
If only the entire book had focused on the transformation of the First Family—such a discussion would have been quite welcome in a year when superficial criticism takes precedence over thoughtful analysis.
Especially when defending particularly egregious personal failures, politicians and political junkies alike will say that a leader’s personal life should have no effect on his political career. I disagree. It is of utmost importance for Americans to know about the personal lives of their elected officials because, as Jodi Kantor illustrates, a politician’s private behavior is inseparable from his actions as a leader. At its core, The Obamas is the story of the President’s stable, though challenging, family life and its tremendous effect on his leadership. Where Kantor goes wrong is in emphasizing the pettiness that is a given when so many political personalities work in a high-stress environment.
In any case, Jodi Kantor succeeded in earning a large sum of the highest-valued currency in politics—media buzz in an election year.