My Notes on Jodi Kantor’s The ObamasPosted: January 21, 2013
In marvelous timing, I finished reading Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, a book documenting the marriage of Michelle and Barack Obama and their lives in the White House from 2009 to 2011. The New York Times reporter shows superb meticulousness in her narrative. The book is dotted with never-before-heard stories and anecdotes.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reading a number of books on the Obama presidency and posting the key lines.
Here are some of Kantor’s best lines:
The first lady was the worrier, with little trust that government could create lasting change and fear that political life was inherently corrosive. “I didn’t come to politics with a lot of faith in the process,” she had said years earlier. “I didn’t believe that politics was structured in a way that could solve real problems for people.”
Chapter One: FALL 2008
Only a handful of friends and aides knew what Michelle was considering: staying behind in Chicago with her daughters for the rest of the school year while the new president moved to Washington alone. They would all attend the inauguration, of course, but Michelle wasn’t sure the rest of the family had to relocate so soon. Perhaps they could take the rest of the year to research school options, slowly move homes.
Unbeknownst to them, he was running for U.S. Senate. He had made a deal with his wife: it would be his last run, and if he lost, he would leave politics forever.
Chapter Two: JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2009
The Obamas were so young, Michelle like a bride in her long white dress, and what they had accomplished was so monumental. They had arrived, African Americans had arrived, the country had arrived.
The White House was still foreign, a museum, but Chicago was not the refuge they had imagined.
Chapter Three: FEBRUARY–MARCH 2009
The irony was that in those early days, Obama countered his disappointment with Washington with his faith in the country and citizens beyond it. The presidential campaign had left him feeling extremely optimistic about voters: at the end of the day, they were serious-minded, and even if Washingtonians didn’t always understand him, people beyond its borders would, he believed.
Chapter Four: APRIL 2009
Openly influential first ladies like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton were deemed meddlers, unelected figures who held unearned power. That was the contradiction of the job: presidents made it to the White House in no small part because of their hardworking, canny wives, but once they arrived, the women were exiled to the East Wing and recast solely as helpmeets.
[Michelle] envisioned a White House that was inclusive, diverse, attractive, and chic, showcasing the best of American culture and style. She found Washington stodgy, and she “wanted to push the envelope,” one former aide said, making everything as sophisticated as possible.
Chapter Five: MAY-AUGUST 2009
This was Michelle’s most profound influence on the Obama presidency: the sense of purpose she shared with her husband, the force of her worldview, her passionate beliefs about access, opportunity, and fairness; her readiness to do what was unpopular and pay political costs.
Obama was elected to lead “a rational, postracial, moderate country that is looking for sensible progress. Except, oops, it’s an enraged, moralistic, harsh, desperate country,” one White House official said later. “It’s a disconnect he can’t bridge.”
Chapter Seven: OCTOBER–DECEMBER 2009
FOR THE FIRST SEVEN YEARS of Obama’s political career, he had felt underappreciated, struggling over whether voters beyond Hyde Park would understand him: whether he was too lofty a thinker, whether his name was too foreign and his background too unusual, whether he was too Harvard to win on the South Side. Now, during his presidency, he was experiencing a slow descent back into feeling misunderstood. Later in the first term, there were points when the American public seemed to be giving up on Barack Obama.
Chapter Eight: JANUARY–MARCH 2010
The health care situation epitomized everything [Michelle] disliked about politics, everything she had been arguing about with her husband for going on two decades: her skepticism about whether true change could be accomplished through the legislative process, the way serious ideas devolved into craven horse trading, the way you could risk and give so much and end up with nothing.
Barack tended to analyze failure in systematic terms, avoiding personal judgments, Michelle was much quicker to lay blame.
Chapter Nine: MAY-JUNE 2010
As president and first lady, the Obamas led a social life that was circumscribed in the extreme. They ate at home with their daughters most nights, avoided Washington dinner parties and most galas, and rarely even went out on date nights anymore. Instead the Obamas burrowed ever deeper within a tiny, preexisting circle. Their behavior was on the far side of introverted, Washingtonians noted; even when the Bushes retreated to Crawford they entertained there a lot. Any first couple were isolated by definition, but this was something different, more like self-imposed exile. If the presidency is often referred to as a bubble, sealed off from the rest of society, the Obamas and their closest friends created an even smaller bubble within the bubble—an intimate, alternative world in which the president and first lady could count on total understanding, constant sympathy, and unconditional love. Around the Nesbitts, Whitakers, Jarrett, and select others who were sometimes allowed into the fold, the first couple had a remarkable ability to let the presidency fall away—indeed, the Obamas wanted it to disappear, the friends said.
Chapter Thirteen: NOVEMBER–DECEMBER 2010
The administration’s failure to showcase what it had done, even on relatively narrow issues like water quality, had hurt them, the group agreed; if the administration had been highlighting its accomplishments, they would have had better tools for combating attacks.
Chapter Fifteen: APRIL–MAY 2011
Her husband’s new West Wing team had helped to effect this change. When Bill Daley arrived in the White House, one of the first calls he paid was to Michelle Obama, just to let her know that he was eager to take her needs and concerns into account.
Chapter Sixteen: APRIL–AUGUST 2011
He was more at ease with the exercise of power than the exercise of politics.
In their nearly three years in the White House, the Obamas had changed positions with one another. After all of Michelle’s protests about politics, all the suspense during those first few months in the White House about whether she would find her way, she was going to emerge from the presidency stronger and more at peace, aides predicted.
Except the Obamas were not the same people who had entered the White House in January 2009. How could they be? Power had transformed Barack and Michelle Obama, for better and for worse. They were far savvier and more seasoned than they had been a few years before—their learning curves among the steepest for first couples in recent American history.
But as the Obamas grew more fluent, they also surrendered some of the qualities that had made them so compelling in the first place: their shared mistrust of politics, their reluctance to go the usual routes.