Jodi Kantor, a reporter from the New York Times, talks to the editorial board about her meticulously researched book about U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. She covered the Obamas during the 2008 presidential campaign and conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 200 people for the book.
Q: What has been the reaction to the book?
I fact-checked the whole book so I was very surprised by the [negative]reaction from the White House last week. I think it was in part because there was definitely a tabloidization of the book. There was en embargo of the book and so people couldn’t read it in advance. And that didn’t stop them from opining on it on television, and really exaggerating it. For example, the Huffington Post described Michelle Obama and [chief of staff]Rahm Emanuel clashing in the hallway.. which is not what my reporting indicated at all. So the White House had an exceedingly harsh response.
And Michelle Obama goes on TV without having read the book and said the book tried to portray her as some kind of angry black woman. It’s a mystery why she said that because she hasn’t read the book. She is not portrayed that way but as a strong, impassioned woman.
Q: Why are people so focused on the First Lady?
Part of the confusion is nobody can even say whether First Lady-hood is a job or not. It comes with tremendous responsibilities but you can’t get hired for it, you’re not elected to it and you’re not paid for it. So the nature of this role remains so undefined. It really is an empty vessel and every first lady has to find a way to make it meaningful.
First Ladies are incredibly influential in a way that is not really supposed to be acknowledged. We have stereotypes of First Ladies versus the reality. They often present a beaming image to the public. But in private they have a lot of steel in their spines. The role lags behind the real status of American women. A First Lady can never work or hold a paying job so she is never going to be up-to-date with the reality of what it means to be an American woman.
Q: What does the book reveal about managerial style?
Internal management has been a real issue in the presidency. This stems from fact that President is not an organization man and didn’t have a lot of executive experience. And he was never really a believer in traditional hierarchies and really was an outsider. He brings in a group of advisers. And the cliche is not true that they are a tight, insular group of Chicago advisers. This group is not unified and there was a lot of tension and disagreement within this group about what sort of president he should be and how he should do things.
Q: Is there a certain elusive quality to the President?
He is so introverted and she is really clear about with aides about where she is on any given issue. And so in a way in my reporting I often felt there was a little bit of a Plato’s Cave I had to look at the reflection, at Michelle Obama in order to see what was really happening. because the president himself is so hard to read. She is willing to be more vocal in her criticisms and tougher on his staff than he is. Hillary Clinton was not dissimilar.
Q: This is a person who wanted to bridge divides, yet it has been very difficult for him. How has power changed him?
Everybody truly does treat him differently now that he is president. He knows it and there is not that much he can do about it. There is a funny scene in the book with Brad Pitt. He comes to the Oval Office and he is pushing low-cost, environmentally sustainable housing in New Orleans... but even he is totally star-truck. The White House advisers couldn’t understand why he was so quiet in the meeting. Even a guy as confident and famous as Brad Pitt becomes overwhelmed when he meets the President.
This is a guy who came to power based on a speech in 2004 in which he said there is no conflict between Red and Blue America. That is the podium on which his reputation and candidacy is built. By the end of book we are in the debt ceiling crisis. Things have become so polarized in Washington he can’t get even in Republicans and Democrats to sit down and agree to a reasonable solution and has to capitulate to the Tea Party.