Kantor's male Times colleague called this "chick nonfiction." Okay, it does have a woman's sensibility; what's wrong with that? People in politics are particular humans as well as celebrity creations sculpted by their pollsters and consultants. There's nothing wrong with trying to record the process of brilliant, tough, determined people trying to live into impossible roles. Kantor is just doing the same sort of human reportage that Walter Shapiro provided in One Car Caravan -- that tale is a fine male spiel and this is a fine women's yarn.
As a political history, The Obamas has some major omissions and what I consider errors. It's point of reference simply erases the Democratic Party's left constituencies (except Blacks) -- from this book, you'd never know that masses of people rose up in 2006 and 2008, alienated by President George W. Bush's Iraq war, mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, partisan corruption, and executive overreach. In the Obama-world portrayed by Kantor, Rahm Emmanuel cleverly and single-handedly won Congressional power for the Democrats in 2006 and Obama's campaign was entirely the product of his handlers' brilliance. Thousands of Democratic activists know better.
The only constituency segment that Kantor treats as a real factor in Barack Obama's rise is the Black community. Perhaps this reflects the attitude of the White House intimates? I'm not qualified to judge how accurate an observer Kantor is, but I sense truth in her portrayal of the isolation of African Americans who had achieved such a pinnacle of meritocratic success. No wonder that both Michele and Barack seemed to take awhile to find their selves in that oh-so-White mansion, built by slaves and tended by mostly Black servants.
Yet for all the book's obliviousness to the populist element in the Obamas' story, Kantor provides a telling vignette I've never seen elsewhere. Like many of us who put Obama in office, my greatest disappointment with this president arises from his failure to replace Bush's unconstrained, lawless "security" regime with the constraints of law and due process. She records this story of an Obama meeting with civil liberties lawyers in the spring of 2009:
When push came to shove, reinstating basic civil liberties was a project that Barack Obama couldn't rise to. In another passage, I think echoing how the White House approaches governing, Kantor writes that after Major Nidal Hassan's killing spree at Fort Hood (13 dead; 29 injured)
My emphasis. So long as presidents let themselves be held in thrall by the occasional eruptions of mad men, this country hasn't got a chance of turning its attention to our vital problems. A mature country would catch terrorists and jail them, of course, but it would carry on. We need a mature President who can lead us in a grown-up direction. So far, we don't have one.
Kantor's book vividly describes an inexperienced executive and his uncomfortable spouse growing into their roles. He was unformed and she was uncertain when they moved into the White House. But by now they seem to have figured it out.
Kantor describes Michele as demanding a more disciplined, more strategic and more political approach to the Presidency than her policy-obsessed and oddly apolitical husband instinctively adopted. He sought expert management of a country in economic crisis and partisan division; smart people should be able to work out their differences. Michele, like many of the President's supporters, wanted him to find a better mix of policy and politics, perhaps even show a recognition that smart politics too was part of his project. She wanted him to find a way to transform the country in a more just direction, not just manage a cumbersome ship of state. Or so this author repeatedly asserts.
Kantor closes with an almost wistful anecdote from the dismal end of the failing 2010 midterm campaign. Michele was making a political pitch:
As he fights for re-election, the President is acting like a politician these days, calling out the other guys for coddling the wealthy while making war on women. That's a President who sounds again like the guy who gave us hope in 2008. It is imperative to re-elect him, for all his failings -- the other guy is a conservative plutocrat who has lent himself to the right's project of erasing the 20th century.
But who will Barack Obama be if he wins a second term? Has he learned to mesh the best impulses of both Obamas with their impossible situation? The Obamas offers some insights, a very mixed bag. This book is far more than a puff piece and a terrific read.