The world’s most fascinating marriage is no longer the 72-day wonder of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, nor the 36-year (melo)drama of Hillary and Bill Clinton, nor even the 64-year marathon of the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the 19-year odyssey of Michelle and Barack Obama – a partnership, to be sure, but also a struggle: between colliding ideas of duty and family, conflicting notions of ambition and responsibility, clashing conceptions of public and private life.
Theirs, more even than the Clintons’, is the modern professional marriage, with all the usual tensions about being home for supper magnified in a White House marriage, especially when a terrorist threat intrudes or when Iran announces a new development in its nuclear project or when the Chicago Bears (beloved by the commander-in-chief) are in the middle of a goal-line stand. The Obamas are an object of fascination – imagining their lives is the world’s guilty pleasure – and Jodi Kantor has produced a portrait of a marriage unlike any other, with the possible exception of Joseph P. Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Obamas is out this week after a classic New York campaign – embargoed manuscripts, non-disclosure agreements, a splashy excerpt in The New York Times, where Kantor works – to develop buzz about the book, which you might think of as a reader’s companion to a reality show. Lash’s portrait of the Roosevelts was published a quarter-century after the couple left the White House. Kantor’s volume was published the very week Obama’s Republican rivals were jockeying in New Hampshire to succeed him as he seeks a second term.
Much of the juicy stuff has leaked out: that Michelle thought hard about not moving the kids to the White House until they finished the school year, that the first lady bristled at the cavalier way the boys’ club in the West Wing brushed her off as an irrelevant irritant, that both Obamas resented their lack of privacy, even their lack of control over their own lives. It turns out that the president of the United States is not the most powerful person on Earth. The White House scheduler is.
Kantor leads us to the uncomfortable but unmistakable conclusion that while the Obamas care passionately about policy, this is an administration of ambivalence, peopled by figures at the top who often wish they were someplace else.
But the fact that Michelle objected to other people drawing up the guest list for the Super Bowl party, or that her mother, who is bunking in with the Obamas during their White House years, insisted on doing her own laundry, isn’t really the point – not of the book, which aims higher, nor of the Obama conundrum, which speaks to the isolation of leaders in a democracy.
For this book is a meditation on balance, and not only between the personal and the professional but also between a high-flying husband and a hard-driving wife. A third of the way into her book, Kantor poses several haunting questions: “Could Barack Obama’s attempts to make his wife happy – to compensate for his decision to pursue politics, to run for president – hurt his work as president? What if his attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable – Michelle and politics, but also many other issues – were impossible; what if the attempts themselves came with their own costs?”
Kantor doesn’t answer these questions, in part because the Obamas haven’t answered them, but they send out a cascade of other issues – the tension between scrutiny and security, for one, or the burden of being the highest-octane black role models in American history – that smoulder just beneath the shimmery surface of White House life.
The reader will be forgiven for wondering why these concerns, which you might think of as the plaints of plenty, are such a preoccupation of the Obamas, who after all are hell-bent for re-election and hungry for four more years in the crowning jewel of the federal penitentiary system, when Bill Clinton, but perhaps not his wife, and both George Bushes, and both their wives, would have signed a lease renewal had they been offered one. Maybe it’s this: The Obamas aren’t ingrates. They just wish they could close the blinds every once in a while.
Like all presidential administrations, and perhaps more than most, the Obama White House is a struggle for domestic priorities, but this domestic struggle is not so much over health care (though Michelle had some ideas on that, and she prevailed while the chief of staff did not) as a struggle over personal matters and family time.
Kantor did not interview either of the Obamas for this volume, but instead conducted what business schools call a 360 study, speaking with every conceivable person around them, which of course leaves her vulnerable to the inevitable insider claims that the people she talked with didn’t know what they were talking about.
But her portrait of the Obamas’ world – the senseless palace intrigues, the usual debates about whether to spend money redecorating the executive mansion while millions are out of work, the unique Obama circumstances of realizing that the bricks of the White House were fired by slaves – rings true.
So does the notion that the Obamas have come to peace with so many of these irritations. “Amazingly enough,” Kantor writes, “living in the White House was something they could get used to, sort of.”
Now comes the question of whether the American people have grown comfortable with the Obamas in the White House. On Nov. 6, the country will have to produce an answer with more clarity than “sort of.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and former Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1995 for his coverage of Washington and American politics.