*Jodi Kantor’s new book on the burdens placed on President Barack Obama and his marriage during his first years in the White House reveals a major rift that existed between First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, reports the Huffington Post.
The dramatics that surrounded the passage of health care reform — culminating in Emanuel’s near-resignation — reflect the type of high-pitched struggle that routinely erupted between Emanuel and the first lady during the first two years of the Obama administration. The two jockeyed for influence over the president even before he formally took office.
Kantor, who interviewed for the book 33 White House staffers (many on several occasions) but not the president or the first lady, reports that Michelle Obama had “doubts” about the choice of Emanuel as chief of staff. Emanuel, in turn, had been opposed to bringing Valerie Jarrett, the Obamas’ longtime mentor, into the White House as a senior adviser.
Once the administration began, the frictions only escalated. Emanuel rejected Michelle Obama’s efforts to be part of his 7:30 a.m. staff meeting. The administration did not outfit her with a speechwriter for some time. And the first lady’s office grew so isolated from the rest of the presidential orbit that aides there began, as Kantor writes, “referring to the East Wing as ‘Guam’ — pleasant but powerless.”
“Michelle and Rahm Emanuel had almost no bond; their relationship was distant and awkward from the beginning. She had been skeptical of him when he was selected, and now he returned the favor; he was uneasy about first ladies in general, several aides close to him said, based on clashes with Hillary Clinton in the 1990s that became so severe that she had tried to fire him from her husband’s administration,” writes Kantor. “Now Emanuel was chief of staff, a position that almost never included an easy relationship with the first lady. They were the president’s two spouses, in a sense, one public and official and one private and informal.”
The tug of war between Michelle Obama and Rahm Emanuel for the president’s spiritual or political soul contributed to a White House that was far more disorganized and friction-filled than the public perception holds. Kantor reports that then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was often deployed to push back against the first lady, informing her that she couldn’t take a private vacation on a state visit, spend large amounts on White House redecoration, or buy expensive clothes.
Michelle Obama, who came to politics skeptically but saw her husband as someone capable of lofty achievements, lashed out against her isolation. She sent emails to Jarrett when she had complaints about news coverage, which Jarrett would forward to others after removing the first lady’s name from them. When she couldn’t wedge herself into her husband’s schedule, she would send her missives to Alyssa Mastromonaco, the president’s director of scheduling. The emails, Kantor writes, “were so stern that Mastromonaco showed them around to colleagues, unsure of how to respond to her boss’s wife’s displeasure.”
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