The Surprisingly Sharp Elbows of Michelle Obama

No one's ever considered Michelle Obama a docile first lady, but the catalog of aggressive confrontations and benign squabbles in Jodi Kantor's new book The Obamas are among the revelations that are making the most noise. According to New York Times reporter Kantor, so far in the White House the first lady has assumed an active role on health care and immigration reform to the chagrin of then chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel and then-press secretary Robert Gibbs. Here are the nuggets that commentators latched onto over the weekend:

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Not just a mom-in-chief As The Wall Street Journal's Carol Lee notes, Michelle wasn't merely playing out a ceremonial role promoting exercise and healthy eating. She also hounded President Obama's staff if it wasn't performing up to her standards. "Mrs. Obama’s reputation for being blunt and setting high expectations for her staff is well known. But Ms. Kantor’s book shows she’s had a deep level of dissatisfaction with how her husband was conducting business in Washington and running his White House – and the level to which it impacted West Wing staff."

Enraging Gibbs According to a passage excerpted by Politico's Mike Allen, the first lady, via Valerie Jarrett, infuriated Robert Gibbs after his handling of the emergence of an unflattering story in the French press. "According to a new French book, Michelle Obama had told Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House was hell." After a whirlwind effort, Gibbs successfully managed to get the Élysée Palace to issue a denial of the story and the potential crisis was averted. However, Michelle's supposed disappointment in Gibbs's work set him off:

Jarrett announced that the first lady was dissatisfied with the White House's handling of the situation. All eyes turned to Gibbs. 'Don't go there, Robert, don't do it,' another aide remembered Rahm Emanuel saying. Years of tension between Gibbs, Jarrett and an absent Michelle Obama exploded. 'Fuck this, that's not right, I've been killing myself on this, where's this coming from?' Gibbs yelled. He calmed down and tried to probe, according to a half-dozen people who witnessed the exchange. 'What is it she has concerns about?' he asked Jarrett. Jarrett said something about the reply not being fast enough. Gibbs blew up again. 'Why is she talking to you about it? If she has a problem she should talk to me!' David Axelrod was trying to soothe Gibbs. It was the calm of Jarrett's tone that finally undid Gibbs, others said later. He looked so frustrated one colleague thought he was going to cry. 'You don't know what the fuck you're talking about,' he hurled back. 'The first lady would not believe you're speaking this way.' 'Then fuck her too!' He stormed out as the rest of the group sat stunned. 

The quotes make for an entertaining story of palace intrigue but not everyone's thrilled with Kantor's take. New Yorker editor David Remnick writes, "The conflict, the profanity, the yelling: it’s the sort of vivid, if ultimately meaningless, detail that provides books like Renegade, Game Change, and, now, The Obamas with their lurid and irresistible zing. Such books regard more earnest matters like history, context, and ideas the way a child looks at a plate of Brussels sprouts." 

Michele and health care reform Another surprising revelation is the degree of involvement the first lady had in health care reform. In a review of the book, The Huffington Post notes that Michelle lit into her husband following the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, blaming his advisers for being disorganized and incompetent. 

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." 

Alice in Wonderland party The most tabloid-friendly scoop to come out of the book was of course the "secret" Alice in Wonderland party the White House hosted with the decorative help of Tim Burton. The New York Post describes the scene:

The book reveals how any official announcement of the glittering affair — coming at a time when Tea Party activists and voters furious over the lagging economy, 10-percent unemployment rate, bank bailouts and Obama’s health-care plan were staging protests — quickly vanished down the rabbit hole ... 

“Fruit punch was served in blood vials at the bar. Burton’s own Mad Hatter, the actor Johnny Depp, presided over the scene in full costume, standing up on a table to welcome everyone in character.”

The Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha, then 11 and 8 respectively, “sat at the table, surrounded by a gaggle of their friends, and then proceeded to the next delight, a magic show in the East Room.”

Pushing back against the Alice in Wonderland story, the White House insists it wasn't a secret party. "This was an event for local school children from the Washington DC area and for hundreds of military families. If we wanted this event to be a secret, we probably wouldn't have invited the press corps to cover it, release photos of it to Flickr, or post a video from it on the White House website," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.

Michele's immigration push Another legislative priority that didn't turn out in the first lady's favor was the issue of immigration, which she was passionate about. The Huffington Post  has the details: 

According to Kantor, in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections Emanuel and Michelle Obama were at odds over whether the president should give an address on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. The president wanted to do it. The chief of staff saw no point in pushing for legislation that had no chance of passage. The first lady, who had just been confronted by a second-grader in a Maryland elementary school whose mother didn't have immigration papers, felt that ignoring the issue was fundamentally at odds with her husband's own political story.

The Obamas won out. The president ended up writing portions of the speech himself but it ended poorly. "His impassioned remarks faded almost as soon as he gave them," writes Kantor. "The media and others were puzzled -- why this, why now?

Rahm's resignation As much of the book highlights, Emanuel's vision for the presidency often differed from Michelle's and when stories in the press began revealing these differences, Emanuel surprisingly offered his resignation, as The Washington Post:

Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel offered his resignation to President Barack Obama in the winter of 2010 after a series of columns appeared depicting him as the lone element keeping the Obama presidency intact. According to then senior adviser David Axelrod, Emanuel understood that the stories "were an embarrassment" to the president. The president, already suffering from a setback to his health care reform effort, declined Emanuel's offer to resign, despite being convinced that his chief of staff was the main source for the columns.