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.