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September 23rd, 2009
11:07 AM ET

Inside the Obamas' marriage: Love, partnership and politics

They're a power couple, a partnership and about as A-list as you can get: President and First Lady Obama.

So what makes their relationship tick? Author Christopher Andersen’s new book, "Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage," gives a peek into some of the Obamas' most pivotal moments on their road to the White House.

Andersen joined Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Wednesday. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

Chetry: It’s important to note, we reached out to the White House for a response to the book. They declined to comment but made it known they weren't happy. In fact, they pulled a previously scheduled interview we had with a senior adviser once they learned you were on the show. What’s your reaction to that?

Christopher Andersen: About as senior as you can get, as I understand. I was dismayed because the USA Today story on the book said it was a glowing portrait of a rock-solid marriage and that is exactly what it is. It's a very positive look at what I think is a remarkable first family.

Chetry: The other interesting thing is some questions that were brought up about sourcing, because at times in this book you do relay conversations where Michelle and Barack would be the only people in the room. So explain your sourcing. And explain how that works.

Andersen: It's the fly on the wall technique, I suppose. What you do is you go to the people Michelle and Barack confided in: their friends in Chicago and his friends in Springfield, Illinois; his old poker playing buddies in the Senate that he talked to about these incidents. And they say precisely what they said to each other and what happened behind the scenes. And I do recreate that in the book. This is my 28th book. It is the fourth book I've written about presidential couples. The others were the Kennedys, the Clintons and the Bushes. And I have to say I think this is the most riveting of all those couples.

Chetry: You talked to over 200 people? People close to them?

Andersen: Over 200 sources, yes. As close as you can get.

Chetry: Let's get to some of the interesting parts. One of the things you write about is how hard it was – and it's a challenge I think a lot of new parents in relationships can understand where you're trying to make that turn. Michelle Obama is, in her own right, a very successful and high-powered attorney and also a working mom supporting her husband's political ambitions. And one of the things that you write is “Michelle delivered an ultimatum to her husband. If Barack couldn't find a way to pursue his political dreams and at the same time make more time for his family, then he would have to choose between the two.” Explain those years and how this impacted the couple.

Andersen: She has been very open about this. When he was pursuing his political ambitions in the state Senate in Springfield, he spent four nights away from home leaving her at home to take care of the kids in Chicago. She was desperate. Valerie Jarrett, their close friend, said she was desperately lonely and angry. She told her mother, “No, no, I did not sign on for this. He'd better do something to turn this around.” The president went to - not the president then - but then state Senator Obama would tell his friends constantly, “God, Michelle is angry at me all the time. I've got to do something about this.” It really wasn't until September of 2001 when they reached a crisis…

Chetry: You talk about this turning point in their relationship. And this is when Sasha, their younger daughter who was just a few months old, had a meningitis scare. The first lady herself actually talked about that when she was giving a speech last week.

She said, “I will never forget the time eight years ago when Sasha was 4 months that she would not stop crying. And she was not a crier. So we knew something was wrong. … But he told us that she could have meningitis. So we were terrified.”

Chetry: She talked about how scary it was. And then you write in your book that Barack Obama, now President Obama, later said, "My world narrowed to a single point. I was not interested in anything or anybody outside of those four walls." How did that change how the couple decided to handle their work/life balance?

Andersen: Only for a short time did it actually. She said it was a nightmare that brought them closer together. But they actually reverted to their old ways and started bickering again about if he was going to spend more time with the family. In fact, it wasn't until he decided to run for the Senate two years later in 2003 when she said she made – she reached the epiphany in their relationship when she made the decision not to find happiness through her husband. She said, you know, I cannot depend on my husband to make me happy. I've got to do it for myself. So she decided to go to the gym at 4:30 in the morning. She got in a full-time housekeeper. She took her mom up on offers to take care of the kids and really turned their life around. She saved [the] marriage, in fact.

Chetry: That is fascinating. This is also interesting. You describe a moment in the campaign when there were discussions – as we know, it was a very, very contentious primary. There were talks about whether or not Hillary Clinton would be the vice presidential nominee or whether that would be something the Obamas would want. And you say that Michelle Obama asked, “Do you really want Bill and Hillary just down the hall from you in the White House? Could you live with that?” How did those conversations go?

Andersen: Darn good advice, if you ask me. He has often said that "she is my chief adviser, the person I listen to. I wouldn't make an important decision without first consulting Michelle." And he asked her opinion and she gave it to him. It's not the first time, by the way. She was the person who saved the “Yes, we can” slogan when it was floated by him when he was running for the Senate back in 2004.

Chetry: He was reluctant.

Andersen: He was reluctant. He didn't quite get it. And David Axelrod and the other folks who were trying to convince him to go with it, couldn't. But Michelle did. She said “Look, it’s going to work. Trust me,” and he did.

Chetry: And you also saw a little bit of the protective nature of spouses crop up when she felt that former President Clinton was being a little hard on the candidate, Barack Obama. In this one exchange, she said “I wanted to rip his eyes out” and then made a clawing with her fingernails. You write, “’Kidding,’ she said. ‘See, this is what gets me into trouble.’” So it’s a revealing moment. You're protective of your spouse when they're getting hammered on the campaign trail.

Andersen: And this is what makes them so special is that they're not that guarded. I love Laura Bush, but let's face it, she hid a lot behind that kind of frozen smile. And I think in the case of the Obamas, they're willing to show their true feelings and emotions. And the fact that as a couple, she says, “Look, I don't want anybody to think it's easy to have a marriage like ours. It's strong but it's not perfect.”


Filed under: Politics
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. thehummelr

    Have not yet read the book but from the interview I think I will like it. I loved Michelle's comment during the campaign about being proud of her country for the first time. It was, to me, so in character. Her honest assessment of the many burdens she and Barack had to carry as Blacks in a racist society.

    Anyone who thinks a marriage is "perfect" isn't married. These are real people. Not the typically plastic PC politicos.

    September 23, 2009 at 8:01 pm |
  2. Norma

    Actually, the revelations in this book make the Obamas more real to me. I've been married 30 years and I know some of the same issues the Obamas face. I think the decisions President Obama made on his choice for staff were excellent. Especially with regard to Mrs. Hillary Clinton. In this case I think that decision was best for all involved, Bill, Hillary and the Obama administration. The Clintons appear to be quite challenged and driven with the roles they currently hold . Bill is providing his leadership in stupendous ways. I think although everyone involved may have felt differently at different times, currently it is a win-win situation. And I believe as time goes on they will be in each other's corner even more with the potentiality of becoming life long friends as a couple. Do you have anyone in your life, you and your husband changed your feelings about over time? Life is complicated and experiences, feelings, emotions and decisions do change. Hopefully with the aid of newfound wisdom.

    September 23, 2009 at 2:39 pm |
  3. Norma

    Actually, the revelations in this book make the Obamas more real to me. I've been married 30 years and I know some of the same issues the Obamas face. I think the decisions President Obama made on his choice for staff were excellent. Especially with regard to Mrs. Hillary Clinton. In this case I think that decision was best for all involved, Bill, Hillary and the Obama administration. The Clintons appear to be quite challenged and driven with the roles they currently hold . Bill is providing his leadership in stupendous way. I think although everyone involved may have felt differently at different times, currently it is a win-win situation. And I believe as time goes on they will be in each other's corner even more with the potentiality of becoming life long friends as a couple. Do you have anyone in your life, you and your husband changed your feelings about over time? Life is complicated and experiences, feelings, emotions and decisions do change. Hopefully with the aid of newfound wisdom.

    September 23, 2009 at 2:33 pm |
  4. Norma Fuller

    Actually, the revelations in this book make the Obamas more real to me. I've been married 30 years and I know some of the same issues the Obamas face. I think the decisions President Obama made on his choice for staff were excellent. Especially with regard to Mrs. Hillary Clinton. In their case I think that decision was best for all involved, Bill, Hillary and the Obama administration. The Clintons appear to be quite challenged and driven with the roles they currently hold . I think although they may have felt differently at different times, currently it is a win-win situation. And I believe as time goes on they will be in each other's corner even more with the potentiality of becoming life long friends as a couple. Do you have anyone in your life, you and your husband changed your feelings about over time. Life is complicated and over time with the experiences of life feelings and emotions and decisions do change. Hopefully with the aid of newfound wisdom.

    September 23, 2009 at 2:29 pm |
  5. Mary

    Actually, the revelations in this book make me think the Obamas are not the class act I thought they were. Not so much the marriage troubles, but their whiney, ego-driven attitude toward the Clintons. God knows anyone who paid attention the primaries knows that the Obamas were treated with kid gloves and creepy cultish worship by their supporters and the media (and the Clintons, actually), and the Clintons were unfairly tarnished and attacked time and time again. Then the Clintons came out after the primary and campaigned harder for Obama than anyone in the history of primary losers. The Obamas are lame.

    September 23, 2009 at 1:45 pm |