Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel offered his resignation to President Barack Obama in the winter of 2010 after a series of columns appeared depicting him as the lone element keeping the Obama presidency intact. According to then senior adviser David Axelrod, Emanuel understood that the stories "were an embarrassment" to the president. The president, already suffering from a setback to his health care reform effort, declined Emanuel's offer to resign, despite being convinced that his chief of staff was the main source for the columns.
"I'm not accepting it," Obama replied. "Your punishment is that you have to stay here and get this bill done. I'm not letting you off the hook."
That revelation is one of the more explosive included in "The Obamas," a new book by Jodi Kantor of The New York Times about the first few years of the Obama administration and the strains that it produced on the president's marriage -- strains that were ultimately overcome.
The dramatics that surrounded the passage of health care reform -- culminating in Emanuel's near-resignation -- reflect the type of struggles that routinely pitted Emanuel against the first lady during the first two years of the Obama administration. The two jockeyed for influence over the president even before he formally took office.
Kantor, who interviewed for the book 33 White House staffers (many on several occasions) but not the president or the first lady, reports that Michelle Obama had "doubts" about the choice of Emanuel as chief of staff. Emanuel, in turn, had been opposed to bringing Valerie Jarrett, the Obamas' longtime mentor, into the White House as a senior adviser.
Once the administration began, the frictions only escalated. Emanuel rejected an effort on the part of Michelle Obama's chief of staff, Jackie Norris, to be part of his 7:30 a.m. staff meeting. The administration did not outfit her with a speechwriter for some time. And the first lady's office grew so isolated from the rest of the presidential orbit that aides there began, as Kantor writes, "referring to the East Wing as 'Guam' -- pleasant but powerless."
"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."
The tug of war between Michelle Obama and Rahm Emanuel for the president's spiritual or political soul contributed to a White House that was far more disorganized and friction-filled than the public perception holds. Kantor reports that then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was often deployed to push back against the first lady, informing her that she couldn't take a private vacation on a state visit, spend large amounts on White House redecoration, or buy expensive clothes.
Michelle Obama, who came to politics skeptically but saw her husband as someone capable of lofty achievements, worked hard not to be isolated. She sent emails to Jarrett when she had complaints about news coverage, which Jarrett would forward to others after removing the first lady's name from them. When she couldn't wedge certain events or people into her husband's schedule, she would send her missives to Alyssa Mastromonaco, the president's director of scheduling. The emails, Kantor writes, "were so stern that Mastromonaco showed them around to colleagues, unsure of how to respond to her boss's wife's displeasure."
It was when the jockeying between the two moved into the policy arena that matters grew most complicated. According to Kantor, in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections Emanuel and Michelle Obama were at odds over whether the president should give an address on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. The president wanted to do it. The chief of staff saw no point in pushing for legislation that had no chance of passage. The first lady, who had just been confronted by a second-grader in a Maryland elementary school whose mother didn't have immigration papers, felt that ignoring the issue was fundamentally at odds with her husband's own political story.
The Obamas won out. The president ended up writing portions of the speech himself but it ended poorly.
"His impassioned remarks faded almost as soon as he gave them," writes Kantor. "The media and others were puzzled -- why this, why now? ... Obama became quietly furious at his team for not giving the address more support, for not delivering the one he had wanted in the first place or talking it up more in the press. The first lady fumed, too: she took it as more proof that her husband's advisers were poorly serving him. ... The speech incident confirmed her worst fears, and by that point, several aides said, Michelle was bluntly telling her husband that he needed a new team."
Even before then, there had been major fireworks. In 2009, Emanuel did not ask the first lady or her office for permission before he told Rep. Allen Boyd, a Democrat from North Florida, that she would go to his district for a campaign-style event. The administration needed Boyd's vote on comprehensive energy legislation. Boyd needed the first lady's help holding off a challenger in his prominently black district. Boyd voted for the legislation after the first lady reluctantly agreed to visit. But even then, her staff kept her in the dark on some details.
"In October, Michelle flew down to Florida and spoke at the event, introduced by Boyd. He got his picture and his hug with her. East Wing aides never told Michelle she was being used to head off a potential black challenger for Boyd's seat -- they did not know that themselves. Her staff did know that Boyd was planning on voting against the health care bill, but they did not tell her so, they said later, because they were too afraid of how she would react."
Boyd did cast a crucial "no" vote on the health care legislation; he later voted yes on the final package.
In response to Kantor's story, Boyd told The Huffington Post: "I didn't ask the White House to have Michelle Obama to come campaign for me. I asked her to come to Florida to do an event for a statewide association that was housed in my congressional district. The event was going to be held in Miami, and it was about 600 miles from my congressional district."
Boyd added, "I never heard any words like that or spoke any words like that," about the relationship between his cap-and-trade energy vote and the first lady's visit.
Perhaps the greatest point of friction between Michelle Obama and Rahm Emanuel involved the push for health care reform. Like several staff members (specifically David Axelrod), the first lady was skeptical of, if not outright opposed to, the backroom deals being cut to advance the legislation, wary that it would tarnish an image her husband had worked years to build. But the president, "his competitive juices stoked and his most important initiative on the line, did not halt his chief of staff's horse trading," writes Kantor.
When the whole enterprise seemed to have fallen apart, following the election of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, the first lady was furious. Instead of letting her husband down easy, which top staff hoped she would do, she lit into him.
"She feels as if our rudder isn't set right," the president told his aides. "They had the sense that was not the actual language she had used."
Kantor writes, "To her, the Scott Brown victory provided grim evidence for what she had been saying for months, in some cases years: [her husband] had been leaning on the same tight group of insular, disorganized advisers for too long; they were not careful planners who looked out for worst-case scenarios."
Emanuel, naturally, had a different read. And according to "The Obamas," he was indignant about how the first lady handled the Brown victory. "Emanuel hated it when people criticized the administration from lofty perches," writes Kantor. "More fundamentally, the chief of staff was trying to convince the president to scale back his health care efforts, but the first lady wanted him to push forward. Emanuel wanted to win by the standard measures of presidential success: legislative victories, poll numbers. Michelle Obama had more persona criteria: Was her husband fulfilling their mission?"
In the end, Michelle Obama would win that fight. After several days of reflection, the president would push again for Congress to pass the full health care reform bill. And while he ultimately would succeed, the battles took their tolls.
"Barack Obama had made a choice in the contest of the worldviews that surrounded him, between his chief of staff's point of view and his wife's," Kantor writes. "His decision to pursue the health care overhaul later seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Emanuel's tenure in the White House."
When the House of Representatives managed to pass the bill, the president and members of his team celebrated in his residence. It was the first time many of them had been there, as the first family had tried to separate it as much as possible from the office of the president.
The first lady, however, wasn't there to cheer the achievement. She was in New York City watching television coverage "alone in her suite at the Waldorf Astoria, according to an aide, as her daughters slept."
This article has been updated to reflect Rep. Allen Boyd's response to the story about the first lady visiting his district.
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly stated that Michelle Obama wanted to attend the top-staff 7:30 a.m. White House meeting. Author Jodi Kantor reports that the first lady's chief of staff, Jackie Norris, wanted to attend that meeting and was rebuffed by Rahm Emanuel.
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