Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Obamas

By Jodi Kantor
New York, Little, Brown, 2012
360 pages    Nonfiction

It is hard to write a book about a presidential administration while the president is still in office. Harder yet to read a book about a presidential administration under the same circumstances. But The Obamas is more about the marriage of the Obamas and their working relationship than it is about the policy workings of the administration—except it is primarily about how their marriage intersects with the workings.

Jodi Kantor only had one interview with the Obamas and it wasn’t for this book.  It was for an article in the New York Times, but she became fascinated with the couple and their bond. She particularly became fascinated about how Michelle relates to Barack and how her influence permeates the White House.

Most of the book is free from gossip; it is rather straightforward journalism. Kantor interviewed present and past staff members to get the information she used. Apparently Michelle thought that Kantor was too hard on her and complained about it when the book was published, but my feeling is that Michelle comes across as an remarkable woman—strong, sensible, idealistic, and a firm supporter of her husband and his policies. Whether she wanted to be a politician or not is another whole matter and the subject of much of the book. 

Although the Obamas thought that the White House would be a hard place for their family to live, it way outpaced their expectations as to how miserable it would be for finding places for their children to play and ways of fulfilling other tasks about being a young family. Kantor writes about Sasha and Malia easily without descending into gossip. You’ve gotta feel for those kids; how do you go trick-or-treating when you are the President’s children.  As one reviewer notes: “Hope is easier to embrace than reality.”

The most poignant moment in the book came as the Obamas react to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. This is Kantor’s writing at its best. As she relates the speech Obama gave to the nation following the tragedy, Kantor says: “He wasn’t imposing his own agenda this time: he had correctly read, for once in a long time, what the country wanted and needed from him. The speech stood outside politics, but in a way that was good politics. Republicans congratulated him on his generous, reasonable, civil, unifying address. The expression on Michelle’s face was one of deep satisfaction. He had given the kind of speech she knew he could give. The look on her face said: this is the president I wanted you to be.” 

Obama was elected to lead “a rational, post-racial, moderate country that is looking for sensible progress,” a White House official told Kantor. “Except, oops, it’s an enraged, moralistic, harsh, desperate country. It’s a disconnect he can’t bridge.”  The reviewer in the Los Angeles Times sums it up: "The question at his inauguration was whether Barack Obama would oversee a historic, transformative administration that could overcome partisan politics; the question now is whether he will survive his re-election campaign.”

I have to say that I like Barack and Michelle Obama and it was interesting to read about their lives in the White House. I was trying to finish The Obamas last night while the returns from the Michigan Republican primary were coming in. Engrossed in thought about the Obama administration, I was thrust back to reality by Mitt Romney’s diatribe against him. And, I kept thinking…who would want this? Who would want this?

A couple more things—my son and his family live about four blocks away from the Obama’s Hyde Park, Chicago house. My first inkling about the neighborhood came in the spring of 2008 when I went to pick up Chinese food the day my son’s family was moving into their condo. Proudly displayed in the little carryout restaurant was a picture of Barack Obama with his arm around the restaurant owner. You can imagine the pride the neighborhood experienced when he was elected. There was a street celebration complete with fireworks on the corner, and my son and his wife as well as my daughter and her boyfriend made their way downtown to the giant celebration in Grant Park. I watched it all on television desperately wishing that I were there.

Then the neighborhood went into lockdown. My daughter-in-law never knew what streets she could go down to and from work. The downstairs neighbors, who had a daughter in Sasha’s class, had to have ID to get their children to school. And when the Obamas tried to return for a weekend in February after the inauguration, my son’s car almost got towed as the streets were cleared so that the family could get to their house. 

The other thing I wanted to share is that I have been a fan of Michelle Obama’s wonderful sense of style as presented in a charming blog, Mrs.O. It has been fun to see what she is wearing, and how many times she wears the same outfit. Although I don’t know much about designers, the blog has been a delight. Check it out.

There is a very long review of The Obamas in the New Yorker.
Jodi Kantor's website:

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