Michelle Obama is a major force within the White House who appears to have successfully advocated for critical changes in staff and policy within the West Wing, according to a book that will be released Tuesday.
“The Obamas” by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor relies on extensive interviews with current and former White House advisers – though not the Obamas themselves – and appears to have within its pages a rich amount of insider detail about power struggles in the West Wing.
The book helps explain to me one of the likely causes of something I never fully understood – the departure from the White House of Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. And it makes clear that even if the chance to become mayor of Chicago never came up, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was on the way out the door, which was kindly being held for him by the first lady.
Michelle, according to the book, was a key enforcer of liberal orthodoxy, reminding the more politically minded staff of the principles underlying Barack Obama.
For months, it had been rumored that Gibbs, a longtime and trusted aide to President Obama, would ascend to a higher position within the White House. It’s clear from the book that his rocky relationship with the first lady and blistering butting of heads with senior West Wing adviser Valerie Jarrett made this impossible.
From a New York Times preview piece on the book:
Early on Sept. 16, Robert Gibbs was scanning the news when a story stopped him short: according to a new French book, Michelle Obama had told Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the French first lady, that living in the White House was “hell.” It was a potential disaster — the equivalent of the $400 haircut, Mr. Gibbs feared, coming just weeks before election day and on the heels of a vacation in Spain that had drawn accusations of lavish spending.
Mr. Gibbs asked her aides to find out if she had said anything even close (no, the answer came back), and then fought the story back for hours, having the book translated and convincing the Élysée Palace to issue a denial. By noon the potential crisis had been averted.
But at Mr. Emanuel’s 7:30 a.m. staff meeting the next day, Ms. Jarrett announced that the first lady had concerns about the White House’s response to the book, according to several people present. All eyes turned to Mr. Gibbs, who started to steam.
“Don’t go there, Robert, don’t do it,” Mr. Emanuel warned.
“That’s not right, I’ve been killing myself on this, where’s this coming from?” Mr. Gibbs yelled, adding expletives. He interrogated Ms. Jarrett, whose calm only seemed to frustrate him more. The two went back and forth, Ms. Jarrett unruffled, Mr. Gibbs shaking with rage. Finally, several staff members said, Mr. Gibbs cursed the first lady — colleagues stared down at the table, shocked — and stormed out.
Mr. Gibbs later acknowledged the outburst but said he had misdirected his rage and accused Ms. Jarrett of making up the complaint. After the book incident, he “stopped taking her at all seriously as an adviser to the president,” Mr. Gibbs said, adding, “Her viewpoint in advising the president is that she has to be up and the rest of the White House has to be down.”
Ms. Jarrett declined to discuss the incident; two East Wing aides said she had misspoken, and that Mrs. Obama had not made any criticism.
Looks like ValJar got the reaction she wanted out of Gibbs.
Gibbs was also the chief advocate for scaling back the first lady’s lavish lifestyle, a role that must have rankled her deeply and that appears to have little impact given her . . . lavish lifestyle.
But her husband’s advisers — in particular, Mr. Gibbs — were worried that the White House might appear oblivious to public anger about joblessness, banker bailouts and bonuses. The result was constant, anxious give-and-take between the East and West Wings about vacations, décor, entertainment, even matters as small as whether to announce the hiring of a new florist.
“We all have watched what happens when people get caricatured,” Mr. Gibbs said in an interview, explaining why he policed such personal matters. With a mistake like John Edwards’s $400 haircut in 2007, “there’s no way to correct that.” Other aides said there was a reason Mr. Gibbs became the main enforcer of the rules of political life: because Mr. Obama, all too aware that his wife never wanted that life, would not.
Michelle was perhaps the most crucial voice countering Rahm’s position that the White House should back away from trying to pass the entire health reform law negotiate a smaller bill following the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race.
From an article by Huffington Post White House reporter Sam Stein, who seems to have purloined an early copy of the book.
When the whole enterprise seemed to have fallen apart, following the election of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, the first lady was furious. Instead of letting her husband down easy, which top staff hoped she would do, she lit into him.
“She feels as if our rudder isn’t set right,” the president told his aides. “They had the sense that was not the actual language she had used.”
Kantor writes, “To her, the Scott Brown victory provided grim evidence for what she had been saying for months, in some cases years: [her husband] had been leaning on the same tight group of insular, disorganized advisers for too long; they were not careful planners who looked out for worst-case scenarios.”
Emanuel, naturally, had a different read. And according to “The Obamas,” he was indignant about how the first lady handled the Brown victory. “Emanuel hated it when people criticized the administration from lofty perches,” writes Kantor. “More fundamentally, the chief of staff was trying to convince the president to scale back his health care efforts, but the first lady wanted him to push forward. Emanuel wanted to win by the standard measures of presidential success: legislative victories, poll numbers. Michelle Obama had more persona criteria: Was her husband fulfilling their mission?”
In the end, Michelle Obama would win that fight. After several days of reflection, the president would push again for Congress to pass the full health care reform bill. And while he ultimately would succeed, the battles took their tolls.
“Barack Obama had made a choice in the contest of the worldviews that surrounded him, between his chief of staff’s point of view and his wife’s,” Kantor writes. “His decision to pursue the health care overhaul later seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Emanuel’s tenure in the White House.”
And Rahm, it seems, is just as much a foul-mouthed bully as his reputation suggests. From the book, by way of Politico: a furious Rahm tries to find out who leaked a memo:
“Just because someone wants to put their dick on the table, we have to deal with this!” he yelled, eyeing (Political Director Patrick) Gaspard, who he clearly thought was the culprit. Gibbs, who had approved the leak, said nothing. Emanuel was still screaming at his morning meeting the next day . . .
In his slight Haitian accent, Gaspard talked back. “Respectfully, we’re not the DCCC, there’s but so much we can do,” he said. “We don’t want to own this.” Rahm became volcanic again, screaming about the memo. Gaspard said he had written the memo but not leaked it; Emanuel told him he didn’t believe him, and launched into another round of swearing. Again, Gibbs did not acknowledge his role.