In her new book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor, a New York Times White House correspondent, recounts that Jacqueline Kennedy once fled the White House without her tomcatting husband for a month’s vacation in Florida, dumping her tiny son on her relatives. During that spell, JFK only bothered to visit John-John once.
How times have changed.
In our child-centric age, President Obama insists on eating dinner with his daughters and wife at least five times per week.
Kantor’s ostensible goal in The Obamas, which is based on over 200 interviews with Obama insiders, is to portray a normal yuppie couple trying to achieve conventional modern domesticity in the White House’s extraordinary environment.
Much of the current First Family’s appeal is similar to that of The Cosby Show a generation ago—seeing a black family be good role models for other blacks by conforming so visibly to contemporary upper-middle-class norms of monogamy, companionate marriage, and parental investment in coaching girls’ sports. Yet as Kantor’s sympathetic but insidiously subversive narrative of Barack and Michelle’s White House years documents, it’s hard to remain a larger-than-life character like JFK was when you have to spend so much time Working on Your Relationship. In The Obamas, Barack ends up looking smaller than life.
He’s been visibly deflating ever since that night in Grant Park in November 2008. The rise and decline of Barack Obama, from part-time state legislator to Obamamania to National Buzzkill, is one of the weirder stories in recent American history. But it’s not one that many Americans are yet interested in exploring realistically, so it’s not Kantor’s intended theme. Still, The Obamas is stuffed with facts relevant to understanding this strange tale.
Much of The Obamas’ focus is psychological, and rightly so. History is often made by those whose positive moods are timed right. For example, at the last possible moment to head off a Mitt Romney cakewalk to the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich—whose mother was bipolar—turned into a ball of fire. Newt’s currently promising a moon colony by his second term and is proudly accepting the label “grandiose.”
Kantor is struck by the less flagrant but still marked swings in Obama’s mood and energy level. These mostly correlate with his approval ratings, but they sometimes go off on random jags of their own. For instance, Obama’s reaction to his party losing the House in 2010 was blithe. He assumed he might be better off without all that Democratic dead weight holding him back, only to be predictably disillusioned in the disastrous debt-ceiling showdown.
Oddly, Obama’s down spells never seem to undermine his ego, which in Kantor’s telling remains bizarrely expansive for such an otherwise rational individual. Perhaps as a metaphor for a lifetime of affirmative action’s warping effects, Kantor is fascinated by this middle-aged politician’s obsession with competing on his White House basketball court against invited NBA superstars. Whether Obama can keep clear in his head that they’re just letting him score remains unclear to the author.
Kantor’s most intriguing finding is that Barack and Michelle’s mood cycles are generally out of sync. Kantor’s big scoop is that Michelle’s grumpy initial reaction to her husband’s 2008 victory was to plan a separation: He could go camp out in the White House bachelor-style while she stayed in Chicago until their girls finished their school year.
Aghast aides had to repeatedly talk her out of this and other passive-aggressive faux pas. As her husband’s popularity declined, however, Michelle’s attitude improved, suggesting an underlying resentment toward her more accomplished husband.
In contrast to the enigmatic president, Kantor has little trouble making sense of the First Lady. Kantor’s Michelle is organized, conscientious, disciplined, deeply maternal, materialistic, disagreeable, self-pitying, and modestly intelligent.
Overall, she’s a decent woman who has improved at the job of First Lady, initiating prudently bland and unobjectionable drives against obesity and for soldiers’ families. But—at least in The Obamas—she’s not a terribly interesting person.
In Kantor’s telling, Barack has become even more introverted with age. He likes power more than politics. In contrast to Bill Clinton, who exploited the Lincoln Bedroom to make cool new friends such as Bono, the president has retreated emotionally to a tiny inner circle of two wealthy Chicago black couples godmothered by his adviser Valerie Jarrett, whose vapidity drives his white aides to distraction.
According to Kantor, Obama’s intimates all resent whites who resent affirmative action:
“I wasn’t supposed to have my own successful career,” Michelle once said. “They said my achievement must have been the result of racial preferences.”
Of course, Michelle didn’t have her own successful career. Her achievements, such as they were (having her salary as a diversicrat tripled upon her husband’s election to the US Senate), did stem from quotas and from being a politician’s wife.
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