Politics

Michelle Obama and the Evolution of a First Lady

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Michelle Obama has been an anxious spouse, eager to help President Obama succeed. More Photos »

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Michelle Obama was privately fuming, not only at the president’s team, but also at her husband.

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In the days after the Democrats lost Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat in January 2010, Barack Obama was even-keeled as usual in meetings, refusing to dwell on the failure or lash out at his staff. The first lady, however, could not fathom how the White House had allowed the crucial seat, needed to help pass the president’s health care legislation and the rest of his agenda, to slip away, several current and former aides said.

To her, the loss was more evidence of what she had been saying for a long time: Mr. Obama’s advisers were too insular and not strategic enough. She cherished the idea of her husband as a transformational figure, but thanks in part to the health care deals the administration had cut, many voters were beginning to view him as an ordinary politician.

The first lady never confronted the advisers directly — that was not her way — but they found out about her displeasure from the president. “She feels as if our rudder isn’t set right,” Mr. Obama confided, according to aides.

Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, repeated the first lady’s criticisms to colleagues with indignation, according to three of them. Mr. Emanuel, in a brief interview, denied that he had grown frustrated with Mrs. Obama, but other advisers described a grim situation: a president whose agenda had hit the rocks, a first lady who disapproved of the turn the White House had taken, and a chief of staff who chafed against her influence.

The Michelle Obama of January 2012 is an expert motivator and charmer, a champion of safe causes like helping military families and ending childhood obesity, an increasingly canny political player eager to pour her popularity into her husband’s re-election campaign. But interviews with more than 30 current and former aides, as well as some of the first couple’s closest friends, conducted for “The Obamas,” a new book, show that she has been an unrecognized force in her husband’s administration and that her story has been one first of struggle, then turnaround and greater fulfillment.

Mrs. Obama is a supportive but often anxious spouse, suspicious of conventional political thinking, a groundbreaking figure who has acutely felt the pressures and possibilities of being the first African-American in her position and a first lady who has worked to make her role more meaningful.

Initially, she had considered postponing her move to the White House for months; after arriving, she bristled at its confinements and obligations — unable to walk her dog without risking being photographed, and monitored by her husband’s aides for everything from how she decorated the family’s private quarters to whether she took makeup artists on overseas trips.

New to the ways of Washington but impassioned about what her husband had been elected to do, she saw herself as a guardian of values. She was sometimes harder on her husband’s team than he was, eventually urging him to replace them, and the tensions grew so severe that one top adviser erupted in a meeting in 2010, cursing the absent first lady.

“She has very much got his back,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s longtime strategist, in an interview. “When she thinks things have been mishandled or when things are off the track,” he continued, “she’ll raise it, because she’s hugely invested in him and has a sense of how hard he’s working, and wants to make sure everybody is doing their work properly.”

Mrs. Obama’s difficulties illuminate some of the president’s central challenges in the White House, including how the Obamas’ freshness to political life, a selling point in 2008, became a liability in office. Her worries about his staff point to a chief executive with little management experience who clung to an inner circle less united than it appeared. (Mr. Emanuel’s relationship with the president grew so strained that the chief of staff secretly offered to resign in early 2010; Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, had a tense relationship with Mrs. Obama and with Valerie Jarrett, another adviser). She shared the president’s ambivalence about political chores and the back-patting and schmoozing that can help get things done in Washington.

Like many of the president’s supporters, Mrs. Obama was anxious about the gap between her vision of her husband’s presidency and the reality of what he could deliver. Her strains with the advisers were part of a continuing debate over what sort of president Mr. Obama should be, with Mrs. Obama reinforcing his instincts for ambitious but unpopular initiatives like the overhaul of health care and immigration laws, casting herself as a foil to aides more intent on preserving Congressional seats and poll numbers.

This article was adapted from “The Obamas,” by Jodi Kantor, which will be published Tuesday by Little, Brown & Company.

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