Michelle Obama was fuming at her husband and his team. The Democrats had just lost Edward Kennedy’s senate seat in January 2010. US President Barack Obama was even-keeled as usual in meetings, refusing to dwell on the failure. The first lady could not fathom how the White House had allowed the seat, needed to pass the president’s health care legislation, to slip away.
To her, the loss was more evidence that the president’s advisers were too insular and not strategic. She wanted her husband to be seen as a transformational figure, but many voters were beginning to view him as an ordinary politician.
The first lady never confronted the advisers directly — that wasn’t her way — but they heard of her displeasure from the president. “She feels as if our rudder isn’t set right,” the president confided.
Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, indignantly repeated these criticisms to colleagues. The situation was grim: a president whose agenda had hit the rocks, a first lady who disapproved of the White House’s direction, and a chief of staff who chafed against her influence.
The Michelle Obama of January 2012 is an expert motivator and charmer, a champion of safe causes like helping military families and ending child obesity, an increasingly canny political player eager to pour her popularity into her husband’s re-election campaign. To get to this point, however, has been a story of struggle, then turnaround and now greater fulfillment.
As Obama realised in mid-2008 that she would be a first lady, she asked if her family could delay moving to the White House? Perhaps it was better to remain in Chicago until the end of the school year, giving her children time to adjust. She didn’t understand or care what sort of message it would send to the public.
Even as Michelle Obama dazzled with her warmth, glamour and hospitality early in the presidency, she was deeply frustrated and insecure about her place, said aides. A Harvard-trained lawyer, she tried to wriggle out of ceremonial events she saw as purposeless. Inside the White House, the difficulty of getting her to agree to doing an event became a running joke.
The presidential cocoon was also a shock. Suddenly she had to think twice about taking her daughters to school or some soccer games. Their first attempt to revisit their house in Chicago was so complicated — anti-sniper curtains and military stewards to provide food — that they seldom returned.
Obama got caught in internal debates about how the family should look and live, travel and entertain. She wanted everything flawless and sophisticated; as she felt “everyone was waiting for a black woman to make a mistake,” a former aide said. Her husband’s aides worried about sending wrong signals at a time of deprivation. There was constant give-and-take between the East and West Wings about vacations, décor, entertainment, even small matters like announcing the hiring of a new florist.
From the start Michelle Obama worried the White House was not presenting a clear, compelling story of the president’s actions. This reflected a chief executive with little management experience who clung to a disunited inner circle. She shared the president’s ambivalence about the schmoozing that helps get things done in Washington.
She told others she wanted a more central role in communicating the administration’s message, like selling health care reform in spring 2009. “Figure out how to use me effectively,” she said. “This is my priority.” But West Wing advisers, recalling the resentment of Hillary Clinton’s first lady involvement in health care, declined.
She remained harder on her husband’s team than he was, at one point urging him to replace them. Tensions grew so severe that then press secretary Robert Gibbs, thinking she had unfairly criticised him, erupted in a meeting in 2010, cursing the absent first lady. The first lady’s team held a retreat that winter to discuss such problems.
She didn’t want to be a first lady who interfered with West Wing business. It was her husband’s administration, not hers, she said. She knew the history of first ladies —like Nancy Reagan and Clinton — who had been deemed meddlers, unelected figures who wielded unearned power.
And yet as the administration ran aground in 2010 —the loss of Kennedy’s seat, an unpopular health care law, the Gulf oil spill — she became more involved.
Ironically, it was her own rising popularity, combined with her husband’s eroding support, which was to give her more leverage in the later part of the administration. At an Oval Office meeting in late 2010 the political team came before the Obamas, laying out arguments, details, statistics about how the first lady could help capture votes. They absorbed polling data that showed Democratic voters loved seeing them together.
“This is a great presentation,” the president said with a grin.
Still, the first lady agreed to only eight campaign stops, fewer than the political team had wanted.
This year, now that her husband faces a tough re-election fight, that tentativeness has vanished: I’m all in, she tells aides. Though she still avoids detailed policy or strategy discussions, she now has the role of amplifying his message, speaking alongside him at public fora, even sharing his weekly radio address.
In August last year, the first lady gave a party for her husband’s 50th birthday.
As the sun faded, the 150 guests sat on White House lawn, listening to the first lady describe Barack Obama: an upright leader who rose above Washington’s games, killed the world’s most wanted terrorist and yet coached his daughter Sasha’s basketball team. The president, looking embarrassed, tried to cut her off, but she told him he had to sit and listen. She also thanked him for putting up with how hard she had been on him. At that line, a few of the advisers glanced at each other in recognition.