Jodi Kantor on her controversial biography The Obamas

First aired on The Current (13/1/12)

New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor has been under fire for The Obamas, her biography of U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. But she's surprised by the pushback from the First Lady, who in an interview objected to being characterized as "some angry black woman." In a recent interview, Kantor spoke with The Current in defence of the book.

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Kantor told guest host Mike Finnerty that she has been covering the Obamas for almost five years, and had long, in-depth conversations with White House aides. "The White House co-operated with this book. And I'm the first author to get access to Michelle Obama's East Wing."

According to Kantor, the book tells "the story of transformation, and of learning, and sometimes painful struggle but also some very great successes" so the reaction to this book has surprised her. She cited reviewers who regard the book as "a sensitive, largely sympathetic account of the Obamas' adjustment to Washington."

Kantor pointed out that Michelle Obama acknowledged that she hasn't actually read the book. So why did she react that way, if it's not that controversial? "I can't speak for her," Kantor said. "But as you saw in the book, one thing that comes out in the reporting is that she is an exceedingly careful First Lady. She does control her image very tightly. "

Michelle Obama has had some philosophical and strategic differences with the president's advisers, but she doesn't want to be seen as another Hilary Clinton. The lesson Kantor draws is that "people think it's threatening somehow, the idea that there would be a strong First Lady." Kantor sees her as "Not an angry black woman, but an impassioned First Lady who has a lofty idea of her husband as a transformational president."

Asked where Michelle Obama's politics sit on the Democratic spectrum, Kantor observed: "There are two interesting things about her political leanings. She doesn't put as much faith in government [and] she's especially suspicious of the legislative process." Her distrust goes back to Barack Obama's days as a state legislator in Illinois, when good legislation would be scuppered or undermined for partisan political reasons.

Michelle Obama also has supported efforts that were politically unpopular in the U.S. but consistent with the greater Obama project, in particular the healthcare reform initiative and immigration reform. Her imperative has been..."ignore the Washington noise, go out and do the big things," Kantor said.

The interview concludes with a mention of one of the highlights of Michelle Obama's experiences as First Lady. It took place in 2009, when the Obamas went to England and she visited the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. After meeting the Queen, who's "the world's foremost symbol of inherited privilege," the First Lady, "who stands for social mobility," attended the obligatory spousal events but then broke free and went to the school. She was overwhelmed by the reception that the excited kids gave her. Afterwards, aides described it as the moment "when she first saw the power and potential" of being First Lady.

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The Obamas

by Jodi Kantor

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From the publisher:

"When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, he also won a long-running debate with his wife Michelle. Contrary to her fears, 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.

In The Obamas, Jodi Kantor takes us deep inside the White House as they try to grapple with their new roles, change the country, raise children, maintain friendships, and figure out what it means to be the first black President and First Lady..."

Read more at Little, Brown.