The Indomitable Michelle

Canary in the Mine: Michelle Obama

In the absence of knowledge about previous relationships, Michelle is the only source of information we have about Barack Obama’s behavior in more intimate relationships. One of the more interesting descriptions of their relationship can be found in +The New York Times‘ magazine from October 26, 2006, in a piece by Jodi Kantor, “The Obamas’ Marriage.”  Though recent reports suggest significant frictions between Michelle and +Barack Obama, this portrait well-documents Michelle’s strong influence on her husband, which was strong even preceding their marriage.

People who ran in the same circle as the Obamas in +Chicago have confirmed this influence, almost uniformly describing her as well-educated (Princeton undergraduate and Harvard law), smart, opinionated and, often, even more aggressively Afro-centric and left-leaning in her political views than her husband. In fact, her senior thesis at Princeton received considerable media attention. She wrote in the introduction: “ My experiences at Princeton have made me far awarer of my ‘blackness’ than ever before.”

Michelle was also controversial during her husband’s first presidential election campaign, when Michelle was quoted as saying that, recognizing the support her husband was receiving from the public, she said she was “for the first time in her life was proud of the country.” She attempted to tone down her discourse from then, but it was hard not to notice her strong will and opinions. Her husband and his staff have attempted to hide her opinions and downplay her obvious influence on policy decisions. In an interview with Kantor, President Obama said, “What I value most about my marriage is that it is separate and apart from a lot of the silliness of Washington, and Michelle is not part of that silliness.”

Michelle’s cultivated image as apolitical, focusing on less controversial causes like veterans’ affairs and healthy nutrition, is a false representation of Michelle and her political acumen and ability. Kantor perceived this in noting that “Barack and Michelle Obama are a more fully fused political team than ever before, with no other jobs to distract them, no doubts about the worthiness of the pursuit dogging them.” Per Kantor, President Obama is also known to give her credit for her involvement by quoting Michelle in Oval Office meetings. Meant as a joke but, likely, offering a level of truth, the President in the interview with Kantor also noted that “his staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than what I think.”

Insiders on many occasions have been quoted in the media as describing Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarret, the President’s senior adviser, as the two most powerful individuals in the White House. In the President’s second term, Valerie Jarret has assumed a more visible role while Michelle, still, remains in the background. Her influence can, however, not be overstated. Though initially skeptical of her husband’s decision to enter politics, Michelle quickly became his “enforcer.” Kantor quotes Valerie Jarret, likely the Obamas’ closest family friend, as describing Obama as more of a pragmatist, while Michelle takes more principled positions, “thinking that everybody should do the right thing.”

Two remarkable episodes have found their way into the media, which shed an interesting light on the couple’s relationship: A first, when the President interrupted his meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for over an hour to join Michelle and their two daughters for dinner in their private quarters, while forcing the Israeli guest and his entourage to wait.

The second, and more recent episode may be even more telling: When running late for a private dinner with Michelle (and Valerie Jarret) at an Italian restaurant in DC, on a day of major foreign policy crises, the President asked General Dempsey (Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to accompany him in the presidential limousine on the ride to the restaurant so he wouldn’t run late for the dinner. Being on time for a dinner with Michelle (and Jarret), thus, on that day of international crisis, received priority over consulting with Dempsey on urgent military matters in regard to U.S. interventions in Iraq.

It is hard to judge whether the President’s behavior in these two episodes reflects fear of Michelle’s reaction if they were to arrive late, and, therefore, almost a subservient status in the family, or a rather astonishing disregard for the importance and the duties of the office of the President.

Of course, there are outside players with a huge influence on Barack and Michelle alike. The now infamous Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. married Michelle and Barack on October 3, 1992 at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Recently White House sources and sources from among the Obamas’ small circle of Chicago friends suggest that Michelle is “disappointed” in her husband’s performance as President, considering him as too timid in pursuing his goals. She appears to advocate a more aggressive and confrontational posture in “doing the right things,” and is said to be among the most vocal proponents of using executive orders in advancing the administration’s agenda, even if opposed by Congress.

Michelle’s opinion and perspective likely have more weight than that of any other individual surrounding President Obama. Whether he ultimately impacts his administration positively or negatively is perhaps yet to be seen.

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