Incurring the wrath of the White House can be an unexpected blessing for book sales. This week Jodi Kantor, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, caught flak from political blogs after the Obama administration criticized her reporting in The Obamas. This is odd, since her work is an empathic profile of the U.S. first couple. (But Ms. Kantor shouldn't be too upset: The book is already in the Top 30 on Amazon.)
The only direct access you had to the Obamas was a 38-minute interview in 2009 for a magazine article; they refused your requests after you began to write this book. What are the challenges in doing a write-around?
I confront this in my work all the time because of what's happening in the U.S. Basically, candidates and politicians are restricting their access more than ever. We're covering the 2012 campaign now, and very few of the candidates have sat down for what we think of as a real New York Times interview. You know, not two seconds, back and forth, but a serious discussion of the issues, candidacy, biographical interviews etc. But does the fact that these people don't give interviews mean that I shouldn't write about them? One of the reasons I was able to write my book is that so many people close to the president and first lady gave me access – you can see in the acknowledgments a lot of their top aides and friends. Also, people write great biographies all the time of dead people. There's no access there, either, and the biographer has to be both very resourceful and very accurate.
There was one other problem: You're a Washington correspondent, but you're based in New York.
It was a challenge for this book, because White House people are incredibly busy and they change interviews 16 different times before they happen. So it was not uncommon for me to be, you know, on the runway at LaGuardia and get a message saying: “Actually, [Obama adviser]David Axelrod can't see you today.”
The Obamas seem acutely aware that marriages are hard work, that they're not the happily-ever-after fairy tale that (at least unmarried) people think they are. Many Obama voters expected his presidency to be a glorious happily-ever-after fairy tale. Do you see the Obama marriage as something of a metaphor for the Obama presidency?
In a way, as a country, we're all married to the President. Michelle Obama has complained about her husband not communicating well with her. And, you know, he hasn't always communicated well with the country, as President. I think we experience our presidents very intensely, and we experience their strengths and we experience their weaknesses, and that's not unlike a marriage. And there's a re-election analogy there too, because if America re-elects Barack Obama, the country will essentially be saying, “Okay, okay, okay, there are issues, there are issues, there are issues, but at the end of the day I trust this person and we're gonna stick together.”
The Obamas in your book begin their time in the White House with such high hopes, even though Michelle Obama is deeply skeptical of whether politics can actually bring meaningful change. By the end, of course, she's all-in.
It really is a story of transformation, and it's especially dramatic with Michelle Obama. The Michelle Obama you meet in the first few pages of the book is not even sure she wants to move to the White House immediately, she is so kind of mistrustful of this world and genuinely concerned about what it will mean for her kids. You know, she says to herself and her husband and close friends, “Maybe we should stick it out in Chicago for the rest of the school year and not move to Washington right after inauguration.” And then in the end we see her so much more comfortable in a political environment.
The book tracks the evolution of their attitude toward marketing their marriage to burnish the brand of the Obama presidency.
The key story here is about the Oval Office meeting the Obamas have before the 2010 midterm elections, where advisers really make it clear to them how much Democrats like seeing them together. It's not a new idea, but it takes on new significance in light of the President's diminished popularity. So the images of them campaigning for midterms together are used for campaign posters and whatnot, and we're just going to see more and more and more of that in 2012.
Simon Houpt is The Globe and Mail's senior media writer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.