New Obama Book Portrays a White House Staff at War Against Glitz and Celebrity

Obama Family Portrait - H 2011

Advisors urged the First Family to shun luxuries and associations that would make them seem ostentatious.

A new book on the Obamas by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor characterizes the First Family's initial years in office as a period in which their aides wanted them to eliminate every hint of glitz, celebrity or privilege from their public lives.

Fearful that critics would try to portray the Obamas as living lavishly during difficult times, advisors watched their every action to head off anything like John Edward's infamous $400 haircut mistake -- a misstep that stripped him of his populist image.

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"You can't put that back in the box," former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is quoted as saying in the Kantor's book, The Obamas.  "Once it is out there's no way to correct it."

The staff was similarly anxious about everything from Michelle Obama's wardrobe, to the redecoration of the family's White House living quarters, to their choice of performers at social gatherings. Their efforts to tone things down were not always successful, however.

In October 2009, the Obamas hosted an invitation-only Halloween party, planned by the White House social secretary, for the children of administration officials and people serving in the military. Youngsters and adults mingled with characters from Star Wars, including someone dressed in the original Chewbacca costume, which was dispatched to the White House by director George Lucas.

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For the occasion, Tim Burton, who directed the film Alice in Wonderland, transformed the State Dining Room into his version of the Mad Hatter's tea party.  Actor Johnny Depp held court in full costume as the Obamas' two daughters and their friends sat around the table.

Obama's political advisors knew immediately that they had a problem on their hands.

"White House officials were so nervous about how a splashy, Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans--or their representatives in Congress, who would soon vote on health care--that the event was not discussed publicly, and Burton and Depp's contributions went unacknowledged," Kantor wrote. " There was no media coverage beyond the standard, limited pool report noting the president's presence."

Advisors wanted to make sure that all things involving the First Couple -- from clothes to parties -- were tasteful but moderate, according to the book. There was a lengthy internal debate on whether or not to fire the new White House decorator, Michael Smith, even though he wasn't taking a fee. 

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After months of discussion, Smith was directed to repurpose old furniture from a warehouse of White House leftovers to be used in the First Family's living quarters.

 "One aide said he even worried about the In Performance at the White House concerts that were broadcast on PBS, featuring musicians like John Legend and Sheryl Crow singing in the East Room, because anything that said 'the president and first lady enjoy privileges that you don't' was a problem," Kantor wrote.

As Republicans gained seats in Congress and elsewhere, Obama gave a speech in Chicago in 2011 in which he sounded "sheepish, even a little pleading, about the change in his fortunes."

Looking back on his inauguration he said, "Beyonce was singing and Bono was up there and everyone was feeling good. I know that good feeling starts slipping away. And you talk to your friends who are out of work, you see somebody losing their home, and it gets you discouraged."

As the economy declined and Obama's troubles mounted, tension within the White House staff inevitable flared.

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Frictions between Michelle Obama and then Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were particularly acute.

"They were an almost perfect mismatch," Kantor wrote. "She was a meticulous planner who believed that how you played was nearly as important as winning; he operated day to day, and when he was negotiating, almost nothing was sacred."

She added: "'He would promise (Obama daughters) Malia and Sasha's hands in marriage' for votes, aides joked."

All the second-guessing sealed the Obamas into an increasingly restrictive bubble. When they did venture out, every gesture and item of clothing was picked apart.

Kantor recounts a family outing to the Grand Canyon in which Michelle Obama wore a pair of "unremarkable-looking shorts"  that were later criticized by Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan as being "common." The First Lady was worried that she had made a fashion faux pas. For advice she went to Gibbs, who had pushed hard for the toned-down image after Michelle Obama caught flack for wearing a $510 pair of Lanvin sneakers to a food bank early in the term.

According to the book, Gibbs said he felt sorry for the First Lady because she was so concerned about making a mistake. He said he told her:   "You're never going to please some of these people."

Michelle Obama, in turn, told aides she was tired of being know for what she wore, and from then on, she turned down all fashion-related requests and invitations, Kantor wrote.