Most evenings Obama dines upstairs with his family in the White House private apartment. Then he usually works alone and often scans the internet for news (another first for an American president). He rarely picks up the phone to chat with advisers or allies. Whenever the Obamas host larger events, “there is no mistaking when the party is over”, one visitor tells Kantor. The Obamas spend almost all of their purely social time with Valerie Jarrett, the ubiquitous senior adviser and original Chicago mentor, or with the Whitakers and the Nesbitts – also from Chicago.
Kantor does a good job of describing how quickly the bubble formed around the Obama White House – and how easily it is to get accustomed to what comes with it. Early in his presidency, Obama took the first lady on Air Force One to New York on a dinner date and a visit to Broadway. In spite of having created a massive traffic jam, the president was astounded at the criticisms of his evening out.
Michelle is the hero of Kantor’s book. Having made an awkward start, her role has steadily grown alongside her national popularity. One retail analyst estimates that the first lady boosts sales of any item she is seen wearing by an average of $14m. This is star power indeed – more Duchess of Cambridge than, say, Laura Bush. Michelle’s aides used to refer to the White House’s East Wing as “Guam”: pleasant and powerless. But Michelle’s touch has grown steadily more sure. Once pliable, she nowadays holds back from agreeing to campaign appearances unless advisers give her a say in the strategy. Mostly she sticks to the safer territory of childhood learning and obesity.
According to Kantor, the Obamas have not made a single new friend in Washington. This should come as no surprise. After daughters Sasha and Malia quit their weekend soccer team, half the remaining players dropped out. Their parents apparently saw no further value in participating. Even the simple act of watching a school performance has to be re-staged in the White House. The First Couple have learnt how disruptive their attendance can be. Frustrated at the lack of good piano teachers, Michelle persuaded her daughter’s teacher to move to Washington from Chicago. A little worryingly, the president apparently views his first lady as his ultimate “reality check”. It is Michelle who tells Obama what the real America is thinking, according to Kantor. Let us hope there is another. Kantor is pretty confident that there isn’t. “The Obamas burrowed ever deeper into a tiny pre-existing circle,” she writes. “Their behaviour was on the far side of introverted.”
One of the persistent themes that appeared when I analyzed Obama-mentor Derrick Bell’s Afrolantica Legacies is a spiritual belief in the goddess-like wisdom and strength of ethnic women. To see how Bell put this principle into practice in his personal life consider Afrolantica Legacies‘ follow-up, a memoir titled Ethical Ambition. In the book Bell describes how his second wife proposed marriage after knowing him for only 3 months, never meeting him in real life, and solely on the basis of how much she loved his ideas. (His first wife lay on her death bed with breast cancer at the time that Bell chose to take a “principled stand” in resigning from Harvard to protest the institution’s unwillingness to hire an ethnic Marxist female professor. Think about that — your wife dying and you decide to give up your amazing position at the world’s most prestigious university on behalf of another woman. A crew from WGBH shot the video of a 28-year-old Obama praising and hugging Bell at a rally in the Spring of 1990; Jewel Hairston Bell died that year in August.)