First Lady Faulted Aides For Fixating on Politics, Not Promised New Policies

PHOTO: First Lady Michelle Obama at the 440th Structural Maintenance Hangar at Fort Bragg, N.C. in this Dec. 14, 2011 file photo.PlayCarolyn Kaster/AP Photo
WATCH New Book Paints Portrait of Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama's 2010 push for an overhaul of a White House advisory team she viewed as more concerned with electioneering than backing expansive health-care reforms and other major initiatives that President Obama espoused before his historic 2008 win reflects a coming of age for a woman initially dubious about Washington life.

That and other details of Michelle Obama's coming of age are contained in "The Obamas," a new book exploring the politics and personal lives of the first couple that goes on sale Tuesday. Its author, New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor, emailed ABC News that she was unavailable for an interview today.

But the opening anecdote of a roughly 3,300-word extract of Kantor's new book, appearing in today's Times, depicts a Michelle Obama "privately fuming" in January 2010 over the loss of Democrat Edward Kennedy's long-held Massachusetts senate seat and the outward calm with which her husband was absorbing that defeat:

"... Barack Obama was even-keeled as usual in meetings, refusing to dwell on the failure or lash out at his staff," the Times' distillation reads. "The first lady, however, could not fathom how the White House had allowed the crucial seat, needed to help pass the president's health care legislation and the rest of his agenda, to slip away, several current and former aides said.

"To her, the loss was more evidence of what she had been saying for a long time: Mr. Obama's advisers were too insular and not strategic enough. She cherished the idea of her husband as a transformational figure, but thanks in part to the health care deals the administration had cut, many voters were beginning to view him as an ordinary politician."

Since 2007, author Kantor has been covering the Obamas' political and personal lives, including the first lady, a Harvard Law graduate and former Illinois hospital administrator whose ambivalences about politics have long been known.

The New Yorker quoted her in 1996 as saying that her husband was "too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism" of politics.

The home page of Kantor's Web site summarily suggests that 2008's historic victory represented a turning point in the Obama's long-running household debate over the merits of politics. "Contrary to her fears," the home page reads, "politics now seemed like a worthwhile, even noble pursuit. Together they planned a White House life that would be as normal and sane as possible. Then they moved in."

Initially, according to the excerpt in the Times, Michelle Obama aimed to remain in Chicago until her daughters' school year ended, prepping for a much-altered existence under a Washington spotlight. But all other first families had moved in together, all at once, Kantor writes. Michelle Obama relented on that point.

And while Michelle Obama initially balked, Kantor's sources told her, at fulfilling a slew of sometimes conventional obligations—hosting an annual luncheon for congressional wives was one of them—she eventually gave in to most of those demands.

Eventually plotting her own path, she launched high-profile campaigns to celebrate the contributions of military veterans and to fight childhood obesity. She did not, however, take public roles in initiatives like the health care bill, though she offered to do so, in part because of the experience then-first lady Hilary Clinton had in the 1990s when she unsucessfully tried to ramrod a health care bill through Congress, becoming a lightning rod for critics.

As support for her husband continued to flag, including among his more ardent early defenders, Michele Obama injected herself further and ramped up her candor.

Kantor, whose book is based on interviews with 30 current and former aides, writes: "But that spring, Mrs. Obama made it clear that she thought her husband needed a new team, according to her aides. When the president decided to deliver a lofty speech about overhauling immigration laws in June 2010, even though there was no legislation on the table and the effort could hurt vulnerable Democrats, Mr. [former White House Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel objected.

According to the book, she clashed with Emanuel, "a president whose agenda had hit the rocks, a first lady who disapproved of the turn the White House had taken, and a chief of staff who chafed against her influence," the Times writes.

"Aides did not produce the speech he wanted and the president stayed up much of the night rewriting — but the address drew a flat reception. Mr. Obama was irritated, two advisers said …" according to the book.

Amid the tensions of 2010, Emanuel offered to resign. His boss passed up the offer. Emanuel took office as Chicago's mayor in May 2011.

Mrs. Obama struggled at times with public perception and the fishbowl of the White House, reportedly telling the French president's wife that life there was hell, though she and the administration quickly backed away from that.

Matters such as "how the Obamas should look and live, travel and entertain," became concerns, the Times writes. "As the first African-American first lady, she wanted everything to be flawless and sophisticated; she felt 'everyone was waiting for a black woman to make a mistake,' a former aide said," according to the Times.

White House press secretary Eric Schultz told Bloomberg News that the book as it concerns Mrs. Obama is "an over dramatization of old news."

"The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the president and first lady, reflect little more than the author's own thoughts," Schultz said in an e-mail to Bloomberg. "These second-hand accounts are staples of every administration in modern political history and often exaggerated."