Book review: 'The Obamas'

Hope is easier to embrace than reality.

That is one of the themes of Jodi Kantor's new book, "The Obamas," which tells the story of the first couple's arrival in the White House and their subsequent struggles to adapt to Washington and its ways while facing expectations that may have been equaled only in the early days of John F. Kennedy's Camelot.

Kantor's account of the Obamas' first weeks in the capital is a reminder of a euphoria that seems very far away today, as the president continues to grapple with a tepid economy and the lock step Republican opposition to almost every facet of his agenda. The question at his inauguration was whether Barack Obama would oversee a historic, transformative administration that could overcome partisan politics; the question now is whether he will survive his re-election campaign.

In retrospect, some of Obama's early promises seem hopelessly optimistic if not downright naive (for starters, he pledged to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of his first term, as well as to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year). And given the Republican opposition that emerged, his assertion that "over time, people respond to civility and rational argument" appears quaint.

Kantor, a correspondent for the New York Times, has not attempted a full historical accounting of the Obama administration's first years in office. Some major developments, notably the White House's hesitant reaction to the Arab Spring and the events that led to the ouster of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, are passed over as she concentrates on the issues that engaged both the president and the first lady, especially the drive for comprehensive healthcare legislation and their shifting political fortunes.

The thread that runs through it all is their evolution, as the candidate who spoke for hope, change and the need to do big things becomes increasingly frustrated as he realizes that he can be the most powerful man in the world and utterly powerless at the same time. As a candidate, Obama seemed to have a sure grasp of the aspirations and moods of the voter, but as president he failed to recognize when those moods had turned against him.

More revealing is Kantor's portrayal of Michelle Obama, from being a skeptic so leery of life in Washington that she briefly considered staying home in Chicago while her daughters completed their school year, to a fierce, powerful advocate for her husband, more popular than him and a political weapon engaged and eager to fight for his re-election.

It's no secret that Michelle Obama had little appetite for politicking. In their book "Game Change," the journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin describe an unhappy flight home in which she plugged in her iPod headphones and refused to talk, trying to shut out the cacophony of the campaign. Kantor's book takes it further, describing life in the White House as all but suffocating, with a "diorama quality" the Obamas found unnerving (they had little idea of the neighborhood immediately surrounding them, for example, and their well-reported determination not to make new friends in Washington isolated them still further).

This is also a portrait of a remarkable marriage, one with plenty of friction and contradictions. The president, cool and reserved, seems to be the more sentimental of the two; his wife, slower to warm to the challenges facing them, proves more demanding and results oriented. For all of Barack Obama's accomplishments, his wife is equally formidable — and possibly more pragmatic. At times, both seem to adopt an us-against-the-world mentality — he thinks Congress is full of self-interested dullards, she thinks voters just don't understand the magnitude of his accomplishments — that is simultaneously tin-eared and appealing.

There's plenty of juicy gossip here too, as Kantor punctures an administration adage that there seldom is any conflict in the West Wing, just rigorous intellectual debate befitting a White House run by a former constitutional law professor. Given that Obama's first chief of staff was the famously pugnacious Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago's mayor, that statement always seemed dubious.

Kantor reveals the fractures that developed once the glow of the inauguration faded. For all his reputation as "No-Drama Obama," there were plenty of factions and infighting during the president's first term.

Michelle Obama had doubts about Emanuel from the start, and his penchant for wanting to rack up small, consistent political victories clashed with the Obama strategy of going for the big win. In time, the first lady would push for a shake-up of the senior staff.

Emanuel offered to resign following a series of sympathetic stories that portrayed the chief of staff as distancing himself from the president's decisions and striving to save Obama from himself, arousing suspicions that Emanuel had planted the stories.

Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, once exploded in profanities after presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett said the first lady was unhappy with the response to a report that she had called life in the White House "hell." As it turned out, Kantor writes, Jarrett may have misspoken.

Though Obama pledged to have the most transparent administration in history, he takes a dim view of leaks and uncomplimentary reports in the media, and so some of Kantor's assertions are based on the recollections of nameless officials reluctant to speak without authorization (she interviewed 33 former and current White House aides, advisors and cabinet members, among other sources). Still, Kantor's reporting rings true — and considering the administration's insistence on presenting a unified front, it is a considerable achievement.

And she adeptly points out one of the inherent contradictions in Obama's complex story: A president who gained fame for the power of his words stumbled when he came into office, unable to adequately communicate with the voters who elected him, and increasingly peeved by those supporters who asked what had happened to the charismatic, inspiring candidate they sent to Washington. As a result, Kantor writes, Obama has morphed into more of a traditional politician, eager for the competition ahead, hungry to prove himself right and determined to win again.

Luft was Washington bureau chief for Tribune Co. during the first two years of the Obama administration.

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