By FnF Desk | PUBLISHED: 14, Jan 2012, 13:13 pm IST | UPDATED: 12, Mar 2013, 13:40 pm IST
A few days after Barack Obama swept to victory as the first black president of America, in November 2008, his wife Michelle took their elder daughter Sasha to a tennis lesson close to their home on Chicago’s South Side. A friend she bumped into asked if plans had been finalised for the move to Washington.
‘I still don’t know what we’re doing,’ said a worried-looking Michelle.
Unbeknown to all but the closest aides and confidantes of the Obamas, the nation’s new First Couple were locked in conflict.
Most political wives would give their right arm to be chatelaine of America’s most famous building. But Michelle was far from enamoured with the prospect of moving to the White House.
In fact, she was considering living in Chicago with their daughters Sasha and Malia for six months, commuting to Washington for occasional official duties.
The new leader of the free world was aghast. The woman he had lauded in his speech for her ‘unyielding support’ and described as ‘my best friend for the past 16 years, the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation’s next First Lady’ did not see the need to be at his side in the White House.
It was a blow to Mr Obama because he had justified running for president to his wife and himself with the prospect that they could live as a family under the same roof after months on the campaign trail.
But those who had known the couple through occasionally rocky times and constant friction over the demands of his political career found this latest conflict — recounted in a new book, The Obamas, by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor — easier to understand.
Its revelations about tensions in the Obama marriage — and how they reverberated through the White House — have gripped America, even more so after Michelle went on a CBS talk show this week to claim the book was just the latest attempt to portray her as ‘some angry black woman’.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, a rumour that she had been recorded at church using the word ‘whitey’ was circulated via conservative talk radio, even though no tape ever materialised.
It was Michelle who had decided the family would join the church of the notorious pastor Jermiah Wright, who has been described as having anti-American and anti-white views.
She was also depicted as a Sixties black radical clad in Army fatigues and with an Afro and AK-47 — though the image was on the cover of the liberal New Yorker magazine and was intended to be ironic.
Speaking on the stump during the election campaign, she sounded like a firebrand in comparison with her detached technocrat husband.
But to some observers this week, her protestations rang hollow. Some felt that she was playing the race card to stifle criticism.
During the presidential campaign, staff had nicknamed her ‘the Taskmaster’ and been in constant fear of what one adviser termed ‘the wrath of Michelle’.
Though she had thrown herself into the campaign, she had been sceptical from the outset about the very notion of her husband running for president.
Barack Obama had been constantly dissatisfied with where he was in life.
When he was elected to the state senate in Illinois, he immediately began complaining that the body was not serious and referred to his colleagues as idiots.
As soon as he entered the U.S. Senate, he felt frustrated.
At his first hearing on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he sat listening to a long-winded address by Senator Joe Biden — later to become his vice-president — and passed a note to an aide that said: ‘Shoot. Me. Now.’
Brushing aside advice to bide his time, Mr Obama immediately decided he wanted to run for President. The main obstacle in his way was his wife.
She had hated him campaigning for the Senate, startling his staff by phoning him up on the campaign trail to remind him to bring home eggs and milk.
Though she came from a humble background, Mrs Obama was a lawyer educated at Princeton and Harvard.
A former editor of the Chicago Tribune who had met the Obamas years earlier recalled: ‘If someone had said to me ‘‘One of them is going to grow up to be president,” I may have bet on her.’
Michelle was uncomfortable with the role of politician’s wife, the silent, smiling appendage, and felt her husband’s ambitions were selfish.
‘What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but “me” is first,’ she told a reporter in 2004.
‘And for women, “me” is fourth and that’s not healthy.’
After Mr Obama shot to international attention with a scintillating speech at the Democratic National Convention that summer, she had made a point of telling people that he was a man, not a prophet, and he hadn’t yet achieved much.
As if to keep his feet on the ground, she would talk publicly about his failure to pick up his dirty socks or put the butter away, and revealed he was so ‘snorey and stinky’ in the mornings that their daughters did not want to crawl into bed with them.
Abandoned by his father and sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in Hawaii for his schooling, Mr Obama had little sense of what ordinary family life was like.
Michelle had to teach him basic things, such as phoning home every day from a trip. Her coolly intellectual husband didn’t see much point in calling if he didn’t have anything to say.
She had long been his link with the real world, advising him ‘Barack, feel — don’t think!’ during preparation for a debate.
When he baulked at posing for pictures with strangers, she would tell him ‘Do your job’, with the subtext: ‘This is what you wanted.’
Remarkably, Mr Obama neglected to tell her about the preparations he was making for a tilt at the presidency. When he did finally let her know, he knew she held the right to veto and was inclined to use it.
His advisers were surprised when she relented, joking she was letting him run only so he would lose and abandon the idea of the White House.
The only quid pro quo she negotiated was something she’d been pushing him to do since the start of their marriage: he had to give up smoking.
After he won the 2008 election, the logistical complications of his wife remaining in Chicago meant she soon abandoned the idea and moved with him into the White House.
As Miss Kantor’s bombshell book reveals, once there she was far from happy. Clothing had long been her ‘compensatory pleasure’ for dutifully enduring the demands of her husband’s political career.
‘If I have to go, I’m getting a new dress out of it,’ she would tell neighbours before flying to Washington when he was a senator.
When she became First Lady, White House advisers cringed when she wore a $515 pair of trainers by French designer Lanvin during a trip to a food kitchen for the poor.
They were furious when she broke the White House rule of no foreign holidays and went on a four-day trip to Spain.
Her decision to hire trendy designer Michael Smith — who had decorated houses for Steven Spielberg and Rupert Murdoch — to refurbish the White House caused tension.
There was almost another rift when Michelle decided she wanted to appear on the cover of Vogue. During a biting recession, there were fears she was projecting a Marie Antoinette image.
Her reluctance to attend charity lunches and political events became a standing joke. An adviser noted airily that ‘this is not a First Lady who just does lunch’.
For her part, Michelle resented her husband’s aides. Her objections to them, Miss Kantor writes, ‘tended to sound a lot like her personal complaints about her husband over the years’.
Charges of ‘not planning, not keeping her informed, focusing on his needs and taking on risky projects without seeing their potential for failure’ had all been ‘levelled against him since the beginning of their union’.
Bemused West Wing aides noted that Mrs Obama complained about being out of the loop, but had made it clear she wanted to work only two days a week.
Her husband had agreed that if he was in Washington he would never miss more than two dinners a week with his family. He stuck to this, but she fretted he was exhausted all the time and was going grey.
His staff, she felt, should be lightening his workload and letting the vice-president and cabinet secretaries shoulder more of the burden.
At the same time, she felt her husband had lost direction and was not bringing about the political change he had promised.
Miss Kantor writes that the stalemate in Washington over healthcare reforms, among other initiatives, led the Obamas to muse that losing the 2012 bid for re-election might not be so bad.
They began to feel that life in the White House was something to be endured rather than savoured.
With its 132 rooms, six storeys, 35 bathrooms, 412 doors and three lifts, it is a historic monument open to the public, a terrorist target and a government nerve centre. It was never going to be an ordinary home. For Michelle, it became a prison.
Few visitors were entertained in their living quarters and they stuck to their ‘no new friends’ rule — set up in 2004 — to guard against people trying to take advantage.
Sasha and Malia went to Sidwell Friends, the exclusive private school Chelsea Clinton had attended. But it was noted that dozens more parents signed up their children for sports teams the Obama girls might be in.
An early attempt to escape Washington and return to their house in Chicago for a break was a disaster.
The Secret Service barricaded the street and black curtains were hung down two sides of the building to deter snipers. Navy mess stewards had to travel with them to prepare their meals.
The First Couple couldn’t return to their home town, but much of their Chicago life had moved with them to Washington.
Michelle’s mother Marian Robinson lived in the White House and their chef, personal trainer and even their daughters’ piano teacher relocated. Not that there aren’t astonishing perks that go with being the First Family.
When Sasha and Malia chose a particular set of swings, the chief usher of the White House, a rear admiral, travelled to South Dakota to select it.
In the past year, Miss Kantor observes, Mrs Obama — who is 48 next week — has assumed a less combative role.
She has been seen shopping in the budget store Target and picking up supplies for the family dog Bo at Petco.
Her clothes are notably more frugal and her campaigning against childhood obesity and support for returning war veterans has earned her respect and praise.
Some of the White House aides Mrs Obama was most at odds with have departed, including Rahm Emanuel, the former Chief of Staff, and Robert Gibbs, the Press Secretary.
Mr Gibbs had lost his temper over a story that broke in 2010 that Mrs Obama had told her French counterpart, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, that living in the White House was ‘hell’.
Told in a crisis meeting afterwards that the First Lady was unhappy with him, he shouted: ‘Well, f*** her, too, then.’
So, after struggling to fit in with the stifling etiquette of the White House, has Mrs Obama finally carved a niche for herself as the U.S. enters an election year?
Healthcare reform — a passion for her and something she pushed her husband to pursue even when aides such as Mr Emanuel urged caution — has been achieved. And, true to his word, Mr Obama gave up smoking.
But Ms Kantor’s assertion that Michelle is at peace with her role as First Lady is one of the least convincing aspects of the book.
Certainly, its publication has been greeted with panic and fierce denials by the White House.
On TV this week, Mrs Obama — who was once pilloried for stating that her husband’s successful presidential campaign meant that ‘for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country’ — insisted her time in the White House had made her ‘start feeling euphoric and proud and, you know, proud of yourself and proud of your time’.
When it was suggested that some people were disappointed in the Obama presidency, she responded that they ‘may be confused about how much has been accomplished’.
Such hints of feeling victimised and misunderstood will lead many to conclude she can’t get out of the White House fast enough. Some might remark that ambitious people should be careful what they wish for.
To which Michelle could be forgiven for responding that she didn’t want to be in the White House in the first place: it was all Barack’s idea.
# Source: The Daily Mail, By Toby Harnden. Book: The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage by Jodi Kantor (Penguin, £14.99).