Michelle Obama 2.0?

With the 2012 election fast approaching, New York Times reporter and bestselling author Jodi Kantor ponders the public face the First Lady will present to voters

When I began reporting my book on Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House, their old friends from Chicago — especially the female ones — asked me a question: what had happened to the woman they used to know as Michelle?

As they watched the new first lady on the public stage, they recognized familiar aspects of her personality: her warmth, her ability to connect with crowds, her focus on being a mother first and foremost. All of those qualities were totally authentic, the friends said. But they wanted to know what had become of the other parts of Michelle Obama they knew: her incisive critiques of politics, her eye for injustice or unfairness, the force of the Harvard-trained lawyer’s advocacy.

The answer was simple: in the wake of nasty attacks from the right on Mrs. Obama during the 2008 race, she and her advisers had remade her image, scrapping a frank documentary. No more interviews on newsy topics; more focus on Michelle Obama as wife, mother, daughter and sister, as she put it in her speech at the Democratic convention. “We went into a little fluff,” one adviser admitted to me, “a much more traditional woman’s role,” showing that she was “like the mom on the Cosby Show.”

Those changes weren’t imposed on Michelle Obama from advisers; she accepted them.

I saw her caution firsthand when I interviewed the first couple in the Oval Office in 2009. When I asked Michelle Obama how her insights affected the presidency, she rejected the question wholescale. “I am so not interested in a lot of the hard decisions that he’s making,” she said. “Why would I want to be in politics? I have never in my life ever wanted to sit on the policy side of this thing.”

The president peered at his wife, looking amused, and then gave a very different answer. On almost every “domestic issue that’s come up — up and through health care,” he said, the first lady has offered “very helpful” insights on “how something is going to play or what’s important to people.”

“Did she say she’s not interested in policy?” Susan Sher, her chief of staff, said the next day, shaking her head and smiling. “She always says that.” While Michelle Obama wasn’t exactly a wonk, Sher and other advisers said, she followed domestic policy debates, read briefing papers from her staff on social issues, and had strong beliefs about social injustice and fairness in American society.

As I continued to report, I saw that those beliefs had not faded or been edited away behind closed doors. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, Michelle Obama was backing her husband’s desire to take on ambitious but politically risky projects like health care and immigration reform, often against the advice of advisers like Rahm Emanuel, who urged more caution. This was her ultimate influence on the early years of the Obama presidency: the sense of purpose she shared with her husband, her passionate beliefs about access, opportunity, and fairness; her readiness to do what was unpopular and pay political costs. Barack Obama spent his days with advisers who emphasized the practical Washington realities and poll numbers; he spent his nights with Michelle, who never intervened directly in West Wing business but reminded him again and again that they were there to do good, to avoid being distracted by political noise, to be bold.

Still, she didn’t want anyone on the outside to know; she edited herself sharply, for fear of raising negative headlines that could hurt her husband’s initiatives. She wanted to publicly advocate for health care reform, but within limits. “I don’t want to be Hillary Clinton, I can’t be that person,” she told advisers, referring to the criticism her predecessor had earned for taking charge of her husband’s failed reform efforts. Advisers and cabinet members who appeared with her at events later said in interviews that the first lady seemed terrified of making a public mistake.

That’s certainly understandable. How much scrutiny is Michelle Obama under? So much  that wearing a simple pair of shorts to the Grand Canyon triggered a public debate. (Mrs. Obama was horrified by the reaction: she had specifically been told to dress lightly for high temperatures, and she later went to advisers, asking if she’d made a mistake.)

But here is the question I’ll be watching, and that I ask you to watch with me, as the 2012 race enters full force. Michelle Obama is front and center in her husband’s efforts: raising money, motivating supporters, using her own work on childhood obesity and military families to portray the administration as innovative and caring. In coming interviews, will she give a different answer about her influence than the one she gave to me? How much will the president say about how his wife’s views inform him now? With an election in the balance, they may feel the political risk is just too high to answer frankly.

If that’s the case, we may have to wait much longer for a president’s spouse to acknowledge having influential ideas and options — say, until the day the country finally has a first gent.

Jodi Kantor is the author of the critically acclaimed biography “The Obamas” A Washington correspondent for The New York Times, she lives in Brooklyn with her family.

10 comments so far.

  1. avatar Helen Moran says:

    Michelle Obama is one of the smartest and gutsiest First Ladies we have had in a long time. When you see them together, her and her husband, you know they are equals in their relationship, and that there is love and respect between them. She is a strong independent woman and I am sure she gives her husband her opinion when he asks, and that remains between the two of them as it should. I am very happy with this couple in the White House

  2. avatar Lila says:

    Jodi, you write:

    “How much will the president say about how his wife’s views inform him now? With an election in the balance, they may feel the political risk is just too high to answer frankly. If that’s the case, we may have to wait much longer for a president’s spouse to acknowledge having influential ideas and options — say, until the day the country finally has a first gent.”

    SERIOUSLY??? If a woman is President, it’s politically OK for her husband to inform her policy, but a First Lady has no business informing her husband’s policy? Is that what our public STILL thinks in the 21st century? I would hope not! Remember that Michelle Bachmann took a lot of heat for talking about “submitting” to her husband in keeping with her faith. Suddenly folks were asking who would really be running the White House, and RIGHTLY SO.

    The President is the President. I think it is natural to discuss some things with one’s spouse and even to listen to their thoughts, but they are NOT policymakers or formal advisors, even if they come equipped with a Y chromosome.

  3. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    It is unfortunate that presidents are required to be married–well, these days, anyway.  It  is such  a distraction to have the media obsessing on what the First Lady does, says, wears.  Couldn’t care less.  Didn’t vote for Michelle. 

    She has been terribly maligned, in Nancy Reagan style.  With a little racist edge. 

    I hope Obama makes it to a second term.  If he does, I also hope Mrs. O. lets loose.  Be an angry black woman, honey.  There’s plenty to be angry about.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      A little racist edge? Please. And the “angry black woman” is racist as well. Sorry, but that’s how I feel about it. She is an angry First Lady. Period. Like all the others. As for Nancy Reagan being “much maligned” all I will say is thems that live by the sharp tongue, well, you get my drift.  Even Jackie Kennedy was maligned although not as much as everyone else.

      Many of Michelle Obama’s problems were the result of having staff members who didn’t know what they were doing. That does seem to have changed.  She seems to have taken control of her own image. And that’s a good thing. But if she wears $450 Lanvin sneakers to a food pantry again, well, I will be the first, again, to point out how inappropriate to the occasion they are. Other than that, I have no real complaints about her. Him, however, I do.  But, well, I suspect he will be sworn in again in 2013.  The Republicans seem to have decided the way to win back the White House is to declare war on women. Forgetting women vote.

      Eventually we will have a woman president. And all the former First Ladies will have their revenge.

      • avatar JCF4612 says:

        “The Republicans seem to have decided the way to win back the White House is to declare war on women.” — Baby Snooks

        As a registered Republican, I agree that truer words were never spoken, Baby. What’s up with these moronic men at the top of the GOP? After eight years of Bush mission accomplished foolery, followed by McCain’s choice of an idiot to join his ticket, most of us felt driven to look elsewhere for statesmanship. However disappointing Obama has been on some issues, it’s impossible to seriously consider a vote for tin-ear Romney or keep’em barefoot and pregnant Santorum. As for serial cheater Gingrich, who wants a blatant adultress like Callista in the White House? Michelle … we’ve been lucky to have you.     

  4. avatar central coast cabin home says:

    I can only hope that all surviving first ladies will still be alive to see our first women prez.

  5. avatar LandofLove says:

    Overall, I think Mrs. Obama has done a good job in a position for which she will get criticism no matter what she does. She appears to be an excellent mother and role model for her daughters as well.

  6. avatar JCF4612 says:

    I look forward to a second term in the White House for the Obamas. Once the president is re-elected, Michelle can feel more free to be her total self — smart, witty, fun, with plenty of common sense to go with the Harvard training.  

  7. I wish I could vote for her. Or is the world ready for co-presidents? Perhaps it is time to look for new paradigms.

    author of Seeking Sara Summers  

  8. avatar wlaccma says:

    I love both Obamas and I am proud that they represent our country around the world. Has he been able to do everything I would have liked? No. Thanks to the Republicans blocking everything he tried to do. And then the group of congressmen who signed the pledge NOT to raise any taxes any time, didn’t help Obama either. Now the war on women’s health and God forbid insurance companies should pay for contraceptives for women while they pay for viagra for men. Then throw in the cowardly Republicans who are scared of Limbaugh who won’t stand up and defend the student who spoke about birth control. They should be voted out of office or not voted in. Shameful. Rick Santorum has won some states tonight. This is getting laughable. He was booted out of Congress in a landslide. Will Sarah Palin be put on the ballot next. I hope so. Obama should not waste his SuperPac money. He can stay in the White House and do his job and not have to worry about campaigning since these people are not electable.