The big fuss this week is over the new book released today about the President and first lady called The Obamas by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor. An excerpt of the book appeared in the Sunday New York Times and immediately everyone began to put their own spin on the meaning of the book.
Before I read the excerpt, I saw that Salon writer Joan Walsh had tweeted:
Walsh went on to warn that the spin about the meaning of the book would probably reflect earlier efforts to demonize Michelle Obama as mannish, or a closeted, angry black nationalist.
Other folks on the internet have framed the story as depicting a first lady Michelle Obama as a particularly meddling and bossy, driving off staff members, and dictating the direction of the West Wing by ‘leading from behind.’
So when I read the excerpt I was surprised that the portrait I saw didn’t read as hyper-progressive, bossy, or overbearing. I really just saw what I always thought Michelle Obama to be: a determined, professional woman with thoughtful opinions about her family and the shape of her husband’s political career. It wasn’t shocking to me. It didn’t suggest that the book was full of the unexpected, just a story of the life of a first family that has done a good job keeping details behind closed doors.
The bit of the story presented in the excerpt also was in line with what I know to be true of most first ladies of the past century. Since Eleanor Roosevelt, we know that most first ladies are political wives, choosing the degree to which they will engage in explicitly political projects. Many folks had wished that Michelle had been more like Hillary Clinton as first lady, out front on questions of policy and politics. As much as I love the Eleanor Roosevelt approach to how to be a first lady, Michelle Obama has blazed her own trail. As the first first lady who is an African American, she has chosen a less explicitly political path, working with the families of veterans and taking on childhood obesity. By doing so she’s made it harder for her critics on the right to demonize her. Not that they haven’t tried, but the broad nature of her work makes them look ridiculous.
So I’m pretty sure most folks on the right and left will use this book to see what they already believe to be true about the first family. But I for one am not surprised.