WASHINGTON (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama is a behind-the-scenes force in the White House whose opinions on policy and politics drew her into conflict with presidential advisers and who bristled at some of the demands and constraints of life as the president’s wife, according to a detailed account of the first couple’s relationship.
New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, in a book published Tuesday, portrays a White House where tensions developed between Mrs. Obama and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and former press secretary and presidential adviser Robert Gibbs.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the book, The Obamas, prior to publication and The Times posted a 3,300-word adaption on its website that appeared to capture its most revealing accounts. The book is based on interviews with 30 current and former aides, though President Barack Obama and the first lady declined to be interviewed for the book.
The book portrays Mrs. Obama as having gone through an evolution from struggle to fulfillment in her role at the White House but all the while an “unrecognized force” in pursuing the president’s goals.
She is seen publicly as the friendly and popular face of the softer side of the White House, the one reading to school kids or promoting exercise as a means to reduce child obesity.
According to Kantor, early in 2010 as the president’s health care agenda seemed in danger of collapsing, Mrs. Obama let it be known she was annoyed by how the White House was handling the strategy. After media reports indicated Emanuel was unhappy pursuing the health care overhaul, Emanuel offered to resign, Kantor wrote. The president declined the offer.
By that spring, however, Kantor writes, Mrs. Obama “made it clear that she thought her husband needed a new team, according to her aides.”
Among the book’s most provocative anecdotes, Kantor recounts a scene in which Gibbs, frustrated after tamping down a potential public relations crisis involving the first lady, exploded when presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett told him the first lady had concerns about the White House response to the flap. The initial commotion had been over an alleged remark by Michelle Obama to French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House was “hell.”
Gibbs cursed the first lady, who was absent. Kantor writes that Gibbs later said his anger was misplaced and that he blamed Jarrett for creating the confrontation. Kantor writes that Jarrett appeared to have been too quick with her criticism of Gibbs and that two aides to the first lady later said Jarrett had misspoken.
The White House had a cold reaction to the book, calling it an “over-dramatization of old news” and emphasizing that the first couple did not speak to the author, who last interviewed them for a magazine piece in 2009.
“The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the president and first lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz
said. “These secondhand accounts are staples of every administration in modern political history and often exaggerated.”