The Making of a President and First Lady

Author Jodi Kantor explores the first couple's evolving partnership in her book, The Obamas.

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That fixation on a black first lady’s public appearance fueled Obama’s pre-existing knowledge that being black — and first — would draw extra scrutiny from those inclined to dwell on racial distinctions. “We have so few models, as a country,” Kantor added, “of warm, accomplished, successful black women that we have to run to Phylicia Rashad who, A), played a fictional character and, B), did that [almost] 30 years ago.”

Being micromanaged didn’t sit well with Michelle Obama, Kantor writes. She re-emphasized that assertion to The Root and characterized Obama’s arrival in Washington as a “rocky start,” a proverbial “stranger in a strange land” existence.

Though Obama is a Harvard-trained lawyer and former hospital administrator who wanted to weigh in on health care reform, President Obama’s aides precluded that, Kantor writes. The Democrats had taken a lesson from the flak former President Clinton received when his own wife, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, inserted her bona fides into that era’s health care debate.

President Obama’s protracted dip in public opinion polls has prompted Michelle Obama to insert herself more boldly in the shaping of her husband’s image and message, said Kantor, for whom Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II served as an inspiration.

“The power dynamic in the White House starts to shift. As the president’s popularity drops, her popularity becomes all the more important. She is the one American people love. She’s in demand for events,” Kantor said.

Obama believes, Kantor writes, that her husband’s aides have been more focused on winning the next election than on promoting the policies that undergirded his campaign pledge of “change.”