Books: New Review: The Obamas by Jodi Kantor


Will Obama manage to cling on to the presidency when the results of the US elections are announced later this evening? If Jodi Kantor is anyone to go by, Michelle will power him through, says Lucy Holden.

During the 2009 Presidential Elections the Obamas told us they were different from others in political life. Barack is a Jay Z fan, he loves basketball and the Superbowl; Michelle used to shop relentlessly in shoe sales and knew her way around a McDonalds drive-thru menu. They vowed to remain normal in the White House and to change the nation’s capital without letting it change them. But The Obamas asks if, despite their public-ease and the ambition they showed in pursuing the presidency, they are entirely comfortable with the sacrifices they have made?

The first time the Obamas lived together full time as a family was in the White House, but this family home just happens to also be the centre of American political power. Barack and Michelle are the perfect-seeming couple we see on important public stages waving to the nation but it is also their most personal of matters that are discussed in these official settings and they are a couple married not only to eachother, but to the nation.

Kantor first interviewed the couple in the Oval Office in 2009 for an article about their marriage that was to appear in the New York Times Magazine. She recognised then that the Obamas were still grappling with the very fact of being president and first lady, and has gone on to interview everyone from their closest advisors to their family and friends in order to gain psychological insight into the elusive members of the White House.

According to Kantor the Obamas spent their marriage debating how much change was possible within the political system and whether public life could be made liveable. Michelle worried that you could little trust the government to create lasting change and that fear in political life was corrosive. ‘I didn’t come to politics with a lot of faith in the process’ she said years earlier. ‘I didn’t believe that politics was structured in a way that could solve real problems for people.’ But Barack did.

Kantor explores the impact of the presidency on the Obamas’ relationship and how it is possible to have an equal marriage when one person is president, but also the impact of their partnership – debates, differences, hesitations – on the presidency. How were the Obamas really reacting to the White House and how was it affecting the nation? Controversially, Kantor offers that the couple’s shared mistrust of politics is so strong that it sometimes hurts the presidency.  CUT?

Fascinatingly, The Obamas explores the answers to these questions through the eyes of Michelle, and Kantor discovers an untold story in her deep initial difficulty in the White House – her ‘disorientation in a strange, confined new world, tense relationships with many of her husband’s advisers, struggle for internal influence, and eventual turnaround’. In comparison she implies Barack to be colder; describing him as introverted and elusive, and only learns to better understand him through Michelle. ‘She is his sparring partner’ she divulges, ‘early-warning system, refuge, and guardian – tougher, by his own admission, than he is’. Kantor believes that ultimately Michelle’s standards are the ones which Barack tries to live up to, and whether she is right or wrong, it is undoubtable that we will be discussing the effects of their relationship on the nation for a long time to come.

The novel is a collision course of public and private, political and personal. Kantor reveals that ‘the president and the first lady often hide just inches from the public view’ and it is obvious that ‘instincts, aversions, blind spots and vanities that would not matter much in ordinary workplaces have huge significance’ for both the White House and the Obamas.

A glorious set of anecdotes and well-documented detail breathe life into what might otherwise have become just another documentation of the White House. Lightness and humour shine through anecdotes Halloween parties with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, and the idea of Michelle Obama chastising Barack for sitting behind John F. Kennedy’s desk because she can’t get used to it. More amusing still are reports that Theodore Roosevelt’s son once squashed his horse into the elevator in order to bring it to the second-floor family lodgings and that the carpets upstairs are stained by George Bush’s pets.

More valuable though is Kantor’s honest assessment of the personal dynamic of the White House: the president’s ‘often unrealistic’ assessments of what he can accomplish and the first lady’s worry; the way Michelle was forced to take a backseat when her husband chose presidency for his career and the various ways she has reasserted her power and above all the frequent desire for escape and relief from the life they have worked so hard to attain.


The Obamas is available now from Penguin

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