How Michelle Obama Beat Rahm Emanuel at His Game

A new book about the life of Barack and Michelle Obama, aptly titled "The Obama's" details a tumultuous White House relationship.

But not between the president and his wife.

The bad blood existed between Michelle and (surprise, surprise) Rahm Emanuel, according to author Jodi Kantor. (Kantor's book comes out January 10 --- one day before President Obama returns to Chicago for a fundraiser.)

Emanuel reportedly tried to micro-manage the First Lady, often putting the kibosh on vacations and shopping trips to preserve the president's image.

But the real story, at least from excerpts from Kantor's New York Times piece, ahead of the book release, is how she beat him at his own game. 

She particularly wanted to help sell the health care overhaul in spring 2009. “Figure out how to use me effectively,” she told her aides, “this is my priority.” But West Wing advisers, recalling the public resentment of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s involvement in health care as first lady, mostly declined her offer.

Mr. Emanuel, who told colleagues that his battles as a staffer with Mrs. Clinton back then had taught him to steer clear of first ladies, mostly avoided Mrs. Obama. The tense relationship between the East and West Wings remained a muted matter, but the strains eventually became deep enough that the first lady’s team held a retreat in the winter of 2010 to discuss the problem. Ms. Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, served as an envoy and tried to smooth relations. But Ms. Jarrett’s mix of roles — she had her own West Wing portfolio, she acted as Michelle Obama’s advocate, and she was so close to the Obamas that she vacationed with them — created its own tensions.

That summer, in exchange for a key vote on an energy bill, Mr. Emanuel, without asking the first lady’s permission, promised Allen Boyd, a Florida congressman, that she would appear at an event. Annoyed, she attended the event, but registered her broader disapproval by refusing to commit to campaigning for the midterms. She eventually withheld agreement for nearly a year, according to former East and West Wing advisers. Instead she focused on an agenda of her own.

Her reluctance to campaign left Mr. Emanuel incredulous, according to two aides: The elections were already looking like a potential bloodbath, and the White House was going to face them without the president’s popular spouse? 


"Michelle and Rahm Emanuel had almost no bond; their relationship was distant and awkward from the beginning. She had been skeptical of him when he was selected, and now he returned the favor; he was uneasy about first ladies in general, several aides close to him said, based on clashes with Hillary Clinton in the 1990s that became so severe that she had tried to fire him from her husband's administration," writes Kantor. "Now Emanuel was chief of staff, a position that almost never included an easy relationship with the first lady. They were the president's two spouses, in a sense, one public and official and one private and informal."

It wasn't just Michelle. Apparently Barack tired of Emanuel's shtick, too, according to Kantor.

Later Mr. Emanuel would glide into the Chicago mayor’s office, partly on the basis of his strong ties to Mr. Obama, but by a year into the administration, his relationship with the president had grown strained. While he relied heavily on Mr. Emanuel, especially in dealing with Congress, Mr. Obama told advisers that he had concerns about his chief of staff’s overall management and planning skills, along with his sometimes abusive outbursts toward staff members. Mr. Emanuel openly said that he thought the health care overhaul had been a bad idea, and after accounts of his views began to surface in the news media in early 2010, he went into the Oval Office and offered his resignation to Mr. Obama, according to several colleagues.

The chief of staff “understood that the stories were an embarrassment and felt like he owed it to him to offer his resignation,” Mr. Axelrod said. The president declined to accept it, telling Mr. Emanuel that his punishment was to stay and push through the health care measure, according to Mr. Axelrod and others. Mr. Emanuel declined to comment on the matter.

But that spring, Mrs. Obama made it clear that she thought her husband needed a new team, according to her aides. When the president decided to deliver a lofty speech about overhauling immigration laws in June 2010, even though there was no legislation on the table and the effort could hurt vulnerable Democrats, Mr. Emanuel objected. Aides did not produce the speech he wanted and the president stayed up much of the night rewriting — but the address drew a flat reception. Mr. Obama was irritated, two advisers said, and told Ms. Jarrett to keep an eye on other top staff members to make sure that they delivered what he wanted.

Several West Wing aides said they had heard secondhand that Mrs. Obama was angry about the incident. Later, they said they wondered: was the president using his wife to convey what he felt?

In September 2010, after a summer of infighting throughout the West Wing, things finally exploded. 

Is it any surprise that Rahm Emanuel rubbed Michelle the wrong way? His abrasive temperament is already becoming the stuff of legend in Chicago.

Read more in The New York Times.

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