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A flattering portrait of the first lady

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Esther Cepeda
January 25, 2012
— Forget the made-up controversy about whether Jodi Kantor’s new book, “The Obamas,” makes the first lady come off as an “angry black woman”—the author’s meticulously reported portrayal is a love letter to the wife in chief.

What’s truly alarming is how this latest look behind the White House curtains chronicles many missteps that have led to three years of crushing disappointment for the millions of voters who bought into Barack Obama’s hopefulness and now hardly recognize the candidate they once so adored.


Though media sound bites focused on the book’s catalog of faux pas—Michelle and Barack Obama’s reluctance to embrace White House schmoozing and politicking expectations, kerfuffles over how it would “look” if the family redecorated the White House as every one of its predecessors had done, and tsk-tsks about how often, where and with whom the family vacationed—“The Obamas” is a fascinating study of the human toll that the isolation and public scrutiny of living in the White House takes on its inhabitants.


But the deepest insight of this book is reserved for the careful observer of the Obama administration who has spent the last three years mourning how scattered, uninspiring, and underachieving Obama’s presidency has been. For all of those who have been bemoaning a disorganized staff, the lack of overarching goals, and the inability to communicate a vision, much less execute it, consider your frustrations vindicated.


Much like the portrait of administrationwide dysfunction that Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men” painted, this book provides example after painful example of opportunities lost to a general lack of presidential leadership.


Because some of the most withering observations about the widespread lack of West Wing cohesion come from the first lady, the critiques hold extra gravity. We read over and over again about her frustration that the president’s club of competing right-hand men doesn’t have its act together.


And though much of the book is devoted to Michelle Obama’s early laments that she wasn’t a meaningful partner in guiding her husband’s strategy, that eventually changed and the first lady, with her far-higher approval ratings than the president himself, has become his administration’s most effective ambassador. Her biggest irritation, by far, has been the fact that the president’s goals and work weren’t governed by any cohesive strategy or message.


We learn that even back at the beginning of their political life, when Barack tried to sell Michelle on the idea that running for an Illinois state Senate seat would be the opportunity to redefine a politician as someone who educates voters about the choices before them, she doubted such open communication would be possible with constituents in the inherently roller-coaster-like game of politics.


Years later, the first lady sat detached from the action, watching as her husband struggled to communicate anything at all to either legislators or voters because the White House was forever responding to crises “instead of,” as Kantor writes, “telling its own compelling story about the president’s actions.”


From early on, telling “their side” was next to impossible since the president’s factional coterie of close advisers was too focused on day-to-day survival to do much long-term planning. The female staff who gathered with him to air concerns about women’s working conditions in the White House were worried less about sexism than about the entire staff’s inability to get anything done.


“There was almost no process on anything,” a former economic adviser told Kantor. Most decisions were made haphazardly by a tiny, insular, combative group.


Michelle was continually frustrated by the president and his staff’s failure to adequately explain the administration’s policies. She saw the opportunity to make the American people feel that Barack’s agenda was also theirs slip away over and over again.


What stood out most in Kantor’s portrait of the Obama White House was her observation that, in stark contrast to her gifted speech-giver husband, Michelle is a meticulous planner who believes that how you play is nearly as important as winning.


She is a well-educated, high-achieving professional in her own right who cherishes discipline, organization, long-term planning, detailed goals, impactful tactics and measurable results almost as much as she does the lofty ideals her husband stands for. It left me wondering if we put the wrong Obama in office.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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