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.