The Obamas, Mixing Politics And Romance

Read Jodi Kantor's Article For the New York Times Magazine, "The Obamas' Marriage"

New York Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor sat down with President Obama and the First Lady in the Oval Office, and asked them about their marriage. She shares what the Obamas revealed about how their relationship has changed since they moved to the White House.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This week, the news media and much of America turned its gaze to President Obama and the first anniversary of his election. One aspect of his presidency that still arouses curiosity is his marriage. During the run for the White House, Michelle Obama was sometimes portrayed as a reluctant campaigner and described by others as everything from a black radical to the second coming of Jackie Kennedy.

New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor sat down with the president and the first lady and her account of how their very public relationship appeared on the cover of yesterday's New York Times magazine. You can find the link to her story at npr.org.

If you have questions for her about the Obamas, their marriage and how that marriage has changed over the past year, our number is 800-989-8255; email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jodi Kantor joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. JODI KANTOR (Correspondent, The New York Times): Thank you so much.

CONAN: And one of the things you got to do for this was sit down for an interview with the Obamas in the Oval Office. And at one point, you asked them, how can you possibly have equality in a marriage when one member is president of the United States?

Ms. KANTOR: Yes, that was the standout moment of the interview to me. I've interviewed both Obamas before. They usually answer questions very easily, but they had a little bit of trouble with this one.

First, Mrs. Obama gave sort of this little laugh of recognition when I asked the question like maybe this is something she had thought about before. And then the president tried to answer, and it took him a couple of tries. And his wife was looking at him and looking at him, and he said, well, I have to be really careful about how I answer this. And he made a little joke.

Finally, Mrs. Obama swooped in and said, look, he is the president, we are not equal in our jobs, but we're more equal in our private lives. And it was a very light moment. Everybody in the room was laughing. But I thought it was revealing not only of their relationship, but of what it means to be president.

CONAN: Describe the scene for us where you talked with them.

Ms. KANTOR: Well, we were in the Oval Office, and so part of what was interesting about the interview was just the juxtaposition of being in the room that symbolizes official power. You've got JFK's desk in the other corner of the room, and Pete Souza, the White House photographer, was clicking away on his camera. And the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington is hanging on the wall. And yet, we were talking about date night among other things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There's a moment in the interview where Michelle Obama says, I come in every once in a while and see him there and say, what are you doing there?

Ms. KANTOR: Yes. And I think that is so indicative of the way that they are dealing with being in the White House. I mean, for one thing, part of this may be that his rise was just so fast that there's - it seems like there's a certain surreality to it.

But also, you know, what I said in the story, and I think it was - I really saw as I watch them over a period of a number of months is they're a different generation from other presidential couples. Although they take the office of the presidency very, very seriously, they also have this sort of satirical, almost sort of Jon Stewart generation sense of humor. And again and again, especially at these very formal occasions, they tend to sort of laugh.

I mean, the president - they had recently come from the G-20 summit, and they had waited on this sort of carpet to greet leaders for a very long time. And in the interview, the president told me that the first lady was whispering into his ear the entire time and he said he couldn't repeat what she was saying because it sounded like it might have been a little bit naughty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let me read just a slight excerpt from your story from yesterday's New York Times magazine. In the annals of presidential coupledom, the Obamas more than slightly resemble the Clintons: a pair of Ivy League-trained lawyers, the self-made son of an absent father and a wife who sometimes put her husband's ambitions ahead of her own. But - and then you go on to examine the ways in which they're not like the Clintons.

Ms. KANTOR: Yes. And I think that this was a fascinating theme for me throughout the story. They're - I mean, the differences with the Clintons are too many to list, but the one that I really concentrated on is the fundamental question of how oriented together they are towards politics. According to the biographies, Bill and Hillary Clinton were always very political. From the start of their relationship, they saw politics as the way to achieve change.

And what we see with the Obamas' relationship is that they have more of the debate. And consistently throughout his career, the president has a more political orientation. He believes that elected office, elected officials, the legislative process is the way to change things. And Mrs. Obama has a slightly different approach. She's more skeptical of politics. She's more interested in working with communities, with nonprofits.

CONAN: Interesting. And another fascinating fact - we'll get calls in just a moment, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

But one of the things you point out is that probably they have spent more time together since they moved into the White House than they have at any other time in their marriage.

Ms. KANTOR: Yes. They have not lived together full-time under the same roof since 1996 which is two years before Malia was born. So they've had a commuter marriage for a very long time.

CONAN: And that has had its frustrations, too. You describe a low point of their marriage.

Ms. KANTOR: Yes. This is something they have talked about before. And I think this was a little different and I'll tell you why. They had - the basic story is that they had a very tough time after their kids were born. There was too much going on in their telling of the story. And the president was away from home a lot because of his job, and Mrs. Obama felt like she was being left to raise the kids alone. And they had some very tense negotiations and a period of a real unhappiness centered around that problem.

Now, they have discussed this before. If you've read �The Audacity of Hope,� then this is a familiar episode to you. What I thought was different about my interview is that it's one thing for a regular politician to say, yeah, marriage can be hard

What happened in this interview was that we were sitting in the Oval Office and the first lady as well as the president - but it was the first lady's remark that sort of stood out on this. The first lady said things like, every marriage has bumps. To pretend otherwise is unfair to young couples. The bumps are continuous.

And so, you know, the story went online at the end of last week. And I've been listening to reader reaction. And this thing, the overwhelming reader reaction has been that readers, I think, were just really struck that a sitting first lady of the United States was willing to talk so bluntly about the problems everybody has in their marriages.

CONAN: Our guest is Jodi Kantor, Washington correspondence for the New York Times who wrote the cover story, �The First Marriage� for this week's New York Times magazine, with us from our bureau in New York. 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. Andrew(ph) is on the line from Cleveland.

ANDREW (Caller): Hey. Thanks for taking my call. My wife and I - we typically have a tough time gauging frustration. When somebody is having lots of anger coming in to the marriage, you know, do you let them vent and burn, you try to fix. When you try to fix, when do you start trying to help or do you just back off? And I'm wondering kind of (unintelligible) when you said at the beginning, Neal, you know, when it's the president of the United States or the first lady and what your advice could really change times. How do they wrestle about an issue?

Ms. KANTOR: Well - I think, by the way, it would be very dangerous for me as a New York Times political reporter to actually give out any marriage advice�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KANTOR: �or to represent the Obamas' marriage advice. But your question struck a cord with something I heard a lot in my reporting which is that the Obamas are very direct with each other. They communicate really clearly. When something is going on that they don't like, they tell each other immediately. They're very specific about what it is. They don't hide things from each other, so maybe that has some bearing on the question you asked.

ANDREW: Well, actually, I was more - but you know, you come home from working you've had a (unintelligible) - that person on Capitol Hill is really blocking my health care plan. It is burning, burning, burning, like, you know, how do you - do you get the idea that they are very directly involved with each other in that regard and kind of soothing problems in the Oval?

Ms. KANTOR: You know, it's funny. I did ask - I can't remember if I asked the Obamas, but I asked a couple of their top advisers about this summer because it seemed to me that the summer would have been a frustrating time for them, especially in terms of health care legislation, which I think you mentioned. And I wouldn't say that I got terribly specific answers on that. I don't know the extent to which they come home venting to each other. What I do know is that they really use each other to process what they're going through.

It seems to me that, you know, in each of their given days, there's sort of enough action to fill, I don't know, a week or a month of normal life. They're very new in this position. They've never done anything like this before. And for anyone, being president or first lady can be an overwhelming experience. And that they spend a lot of time just saying, this is what happened to me today and then this happened and then this happened, and what do you think and what do you think and what do you think.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much.

ANDREW: Well, thank you, Neal.

Conan: One thing you did talk to them about is a moment that I think people remember sparked anger, and that was the coverage of one of those - excuse me - one of those date nights where they flew up to New York to take in a show and had dinner and do a lot of criticism.

Ms. KANTOR: Yes. The president launched into what was basically a soliloquy on the issue of date nights. And that date night in particular, you know, I - like everybody else - I had watched the coverage of that date night. And they looked, you know, glamorous and happy coming to New York to see a show. And so, it was so interesting to hear that that was not their experience. And the president said that - he actually said this was the one thing that had really annoyed him since becoming president.

And he chose his words very carefully, but it was clear that he was pretty annoyed. And he talked about trying to just fulfill this promise to his wife of taking her to a Broadway show that he had made during the campaign and the way he was criticized afterwards for using federal money on his private entertainment.

And, you know, I said to him - after he told that story, I kind of looked around the room and said to him, I guess everything becomes political here. And he looked back at me and he locked eyes with me and he very slowly repeated, everything becomes political.

CONAN: We're talking with Jodi Kantor about her piece on the cover of yesterday's New York Times magazine, the first marriage. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get to Jay(ph) on the line. Jay is on the road in Oklahoma.

JAY: Yes. I happen, you know, I'm 47 years old, about the same age as President Obama and his wife. And in, you know, I'm originally from California. And, you know, we've been a part of biracial relationships for many, many, many years. And I'm a white fellow, my first girlfriend was a black girl, because I grew up in that kind of a neighborhood. And, you know, and I end up marrying a black woman.

And, you know, and I believe, I guess as Mrs. Obama believes that, you know, that, you know, starting out in a, you know, new marriage, you know, in this age, you know, you will experience lots of bumps, and sometimes those bumps kind of continues. And, you know, as you live and grow, you know, after all, when you marry someone, they're not the mirror image of yourself ever. And on top of that, you know, you have to learn what's, you know, their likes and dislikes are, so you're going to end up pushing buttons that may be the wrong button at times, but then you just, you know, we go back to memory and remember that if you push that button, it may come with consequences.

You know, so I happen to believe that they have a very wonderful relationship and is a real model for the American people today. And it's just so wonderful to see a wonderful family in the White House making full use of the White House as I think it was meant to be by having a family in it instead of just a husband and wife with older kids that have grown and out of the house.

CONAN: Jay, thanks very much for that. And I wanted to use that as an opportunity to ask you about Malia and Sasha. How do they keep things sane for them? This is an utterly surreal experience.

Ms. KANTOR: Yes. Well, they do a lot. I mean, I don't - you know, realness is relative. Sometimes when you're at the White House, it has this kind of Disneyland quality. Everything is just so perfect. It's the kind of place where, you know, if a piece of trash blows on to the lawn, somebody comes along to whisk it away in one second. So I think the whole concept of reality in the White House is kind of relative.

But, you know, what they have talked about with Malia and Sasha and what came through in the reporting is that they place a lot of emphasis on structure and routine for the girls. They have been pretty successful in keeping the press away from really reporting on the girls, very directly or specifically. So, I mean, you know, even in terms of the stuff that makes it onto the Web, I don't know about you, but I never see, you know, Sasha and Malia do normal things like go to bookstores and movie theaters, and we don't really see like, cell phone cameras, you know, cell phone camera pictures of them being passed around.

The other big difference for them is that they are spending a lot more time with their dad than they ever have. The president and Sasha are finishing the book, �The Life of Pie.� You know, he reads to the girls at night. So, in that sense, I guess their life is a little more normal than it's been in a long time.

CONAN: One of the details I was fascinated by was that, of course, Michelle's mother lives there as well, their children's grandmother, and is so unaccustomed to having things done for her she will not let the White House staff do her laundry.

Ms. KANTOR: That was one of my favorite details as well. And I don't know. If I were her, I'm not sure how long my opposition would actually last.

CONAN: About a nanosecond, I think. Yeah.

MS. KANTOR: But it - yeah. But it sounds like she has been very intent on it. I mean her, in a way, you know, she has been through an even more dramatic transformation than her daughter and her son-in-law because something like, I don't know, a year and a half ago, two years ago, she was still a bank secretary in Chicago.

CONAN: And now living at the White House.

Ms. KANTOR: Yes.

CONAN: We just have a minute left. But you speculate that Michelle Obama is beginning to gauge her ability to affect public opinion and behavior that she's going to be taking a more active role, you think. But that, of course, opens up the possibilities of failure.

Ms. KANTOR: Yes. What we are going to see from her in the New Year is a major push on childhood obesity, which is, you know, sort of - it's been described to me as sort of her contribution to the health care picture, not her only contribution, by the way, because probably her most political acts to date have been to give speeches in favor of her husband's health care reform efforts. But this is an issue she really cares about. And it'll be really interesting to see what happens.

CONAN: Jodi Kantor, thanks very much for your time today.

Ms. KANTOR: My pleasure.

CONAN: Jodi Kantor is a correspondent for the New York Times. She joined us today from our bureau in New York. You can read her story on the Obamas at npr.org.

CONAN: Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, Carole King will join us, don't miss that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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