on January 14, 2012
"You actually pulled this off?"-Michelle Obama humorously murmured to her husband on election night prior to his victory speech.
Four and a half INCISIVE Stars. This is a solidly researched book that is not the unflattering "tell all" that some have expected. Far from it, from the standpoint of the First Lady, it shows her as a strong, talented, loving, caring person who is a great First Lady. It also is a successful attempt to present President Obama, his family, staff and anyone else involved at a 'down to earth' level of assessment, not from a lofty perch of historical adoration. And while New York Times Correspondent/author Jodi Kantor 'pulls no punches' in giving an in-depth assessment of the First Couple and their personal and political environment from many viewpoints based on 'inside information', there is nothing here that can be viewed as embarrassing or unexpected and is actually flattering. In the pages of this book, 'life' happens. Even the infamous Rahm Emanuel staff tirade pales when put into the true chronological perspective of events in the book. The author assesses the give and take between the president and the first lady in both personal and public aspects, and with their staff: in the early years, and before, during, and after the presidential election. This book is also a cornucopia of very revealing facts and an enormous amount of information. Even the kids make a positive appearance ("Malia's Great Escape"). An important point made by the author is that Michelle, from the beginning in Chicago politics, was deeply involved in Barack's work, not a stay-at-home wife, and the staff knew she was taking note of their effectiveness. She went from the role of 'arbiter' in the Illinois elections to 'taskmaster' in the presidential race.
The book also points out how hard the political races and political life was is on Obama family life, a fact acknowledged by President Obama, but shows how they overcame all of the challenges. We get the origin of Obama's 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech, the unique 'window view' that many first ladies have used to watch over their husband's activities, and the Chicago involvement of familiar names: Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel, et al.- "their friends had become their staff". Then there is one staff selection that ended one of Obama's friendships. Michelle's parents, Marian and Fraser Robinson, have a back story that is both warm and heart-tugging. And we learn of the complexity of White House operations, the difficulty of deploying to Chicago for visits, the complex role of Valerie Jarrett, how Rahm Emanuel stumbled into the Obama-vacated Illinois Senate seat 'mashup' that landed the governor in hot water, Emanuel's tension-filled relationship with virtually everyone and not only one but two First Ladies, the real place where the President does his detailed work, why the East Wing was referred to as "Guam", and more background on the plan to get Osama bin Laden.
The 'bubble within a bubble' family and friends alliances that help the first family cope with time 'off-duty' shows how much presidents and their families are isolated from the rest of us when it comes to day-to-day living: even when they want to get out into the public, it becomes a pain for the Secret Service and an accommodation for the public. And there is much more, like Obama actually saying the 'situational' words: "I'm a Blue Dog at heart". This is a valuable book full of facts, general information, and a lot of interesting minutiae, some of which appears to have never been revealed before that does NOT deserve the unfavorable pre-publication negative hype over a couple of passing, inconsequential incidents that got blown way out of proportion (but isn't that what the media does sometimes?).The final scene of a happy President and First Lady enjoyably dancing at his birthday gala is the perfect ending. Highly Recommended. Four and a half INFORMATIVE Stars! (368 pages, with many photographs.)
I like what Jodi Kantor attempts to do in this biography of the current presidential family. Unlike other accounts of the president's life that deal mainly with Obama's overall political agenda and battles with Congress, this book looks at the many social issues confronting the Obamas as America's first family. The reader learns how Barack, Michelle and the children adjust to and contend with the daily strain of living under enormous public scrutiny in the White House. Kantor provides numerous anecdotes of how the four members of this family are learning to be sensitive to each other's needs and wants and still continue to mature individually. In all my studying of presidential families, I have not found one that captures the sense of family learning to cope with life like this one. Many obstacles and impediments lie in the way as the Obamas try to avoid the trap of living in a fishbowl existence. Protocol, media attention, pressures of the job, family ties, spousal relations, and friendships all have to be juggled in order to make this new lifestyle work. The taken-for-granted freedoms of the past have been quickly replaced by so many new onerous expectations of the present that require a steep learning curve and a ton of patience. To counter all these new public demands on her time, the first lady has decided to steer her own course of public initiatives where she lends her support to local and national campaigns that supplement and promote causes near and dear to her husband's presidency. To prevent herself from being assailed by a potentially hostile media, Michelle has developed a team of experts that assist her in her public engagements. Another section of the book deals with how the president and his inner circle of advisors have had to deal with a string of international and domestic frustrations that could easily dampen their private lives. The president has had to learn to cast aside, from time to time, those besieging matters like Afghanistan, health care, elections, and the economy to find space in his busy schedule for his family. As in all presidencies, there is a key moment that may very well define Obama's place in history: his decision to push for health care reform while he still had congressional support in both legislative houses. We get to see how its tense unfolding impacted the Obama family. If Kantor's work does anything, it shows a family trying to adjust to an ongoing stream of challenges that comes with being in the limelight.