by Jodi Kantor
Back Bay, 365 pp., $16.00 (paper)
It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism
by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
Basic Books, 226 pp., $26.00
One of the sadder passages in Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas relates what happened when, on February 13, only twenty-four days after taking office, “the Obamas turned around and went back to Chicago.” The idea was to recapture a week- end of normalcy amid the chaos and strangeness of Washington, D.C. President Obama, Kantor says, hoped these getaways would be relatively frequent. His early ambition was to take his family home every four to six weeks.
But in Chicago the first family quickly learned that their house was no longer their home. The Secret Service had erected concrete barricades at both ends of the block. Black curtains were dropped to disrupt would-be snipers. Three bus stops were moved. Police officers stood outside on constant vigil. Pedestrians were rerouted. Neighbors had to clear their visitors with the president’s security detail. The every-four-to-six-weeks plan was dead. “We live in the White House now,” Michelle Obama said, perhaps with a touch of regret.
Obama’s predecessors were arguably more prepared for the public responsibilities that come with the Oval Office. George W. Bush’s father was president, and he was governor of Texas for almost six years before winning the White House. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, with a brief interruption, for thirteen years. George H.W. Bush had been vice-president. Ronald Reagan had been governor of the largest state in the union and a famous actor. Barack Obama had been a well-known US senator for two years when he began running for president in earnest, and four years when he was inaugurated. His family wasn’t used to the Secret Service or motorcades. “His still-unknown wife,” Kantor writes,
bought her size-ten shoes on the Nordstrom sale rack, knew her way around a McDonald’s drive-thru menu, and expressed little desire to live in Washington. Back then, they seemed like the rare political couple who were residents of our world, not a universe of green rooms, briefing books, and sycophantic handlers.
When Kantor’s book was published, the White House reacted with unusual fury. Michelle Obama, in a rare public comment, told CBS This Morning that Kantor portrayed her as “some angry black woman.” For the life of me, I can’t figure out what about this book provoked such a harsh response. Kantor doesn’t portray either of the Obamas as angry in the least. Rather, she portrays them as normal people trying to come to terms with a very abnormal situation.
Again and again, what comes through in Kantor’s book is that the Obamas’ marriage, and the Obama White House, works like most any other marriage, and most any other White House. The conventionality of their relationship is something they are proud of, and strive to sustain—some of the most grimly entertaining vignettes in the book come when the Obamas try to keep their tradition of …