In 2009, Jodi Kantor, a reporter for the New York Times, spent 40 minutes in the Oval Office with Barack and Michelle Obama. The topic was their marriage. It was bound to be awkward. At one point she asked how it is possible to have an equal marriage when one partner is the president. Their answer, she would later write, suggested some "subtle tension".
After that article was published, Kantor mulled. She had been trying to understand how Obama's presidency had affected their relationship. But that, she realised, was only part of the story. "The more difficult question was the reverse one," Kantor writes now. Even if it is not an equal marriage, it is a marriage of equals. Certainly their union has informed his presidency.
The Obamas addresses the question from both sides. The book has been received with curiosity, partly because of a tetchy reaction from the White House. Mrs Obama herself responded in a televised interview: "That's been an image that people have tried to paint of me since … the day Barack announced [his candidacy], that I'm some angry black woman."
It is easy to understand Mrs Obama's frustration. Every presidential couple is under pressure, if only because the job of being president is so demanding. The spouse has no official chores or salary, but she is the partner, and she has access to the power. In the modern context, as women have entered the workforce and asserted greater rights, several first ladies have made ambitious use of the role. At times, Eleanor Roosevelt seemed practically the president; Hillary Clinton would go on to campaign for the job herself. The contemporary first ladies who adopt a more demure profile have drawn less criticism, but all of them have taken up various causes.
For the Obamas, the scrutiny has been especially intense. They are singular individuals, controversial in some quarters, and they head the first black first family. Kantor is clear about how annoying this must be, and there is nothing scurrilous about her work. She interviewed more than 200 people, including most of the principal players. No scene she describes has been seriously disputed, although she can be prone to overinterpretation. "He hated posing for pictures with strangers in restaurants, but she did not let him off the hook," Kantor writes. "‘Do your job,' she would say. The instruction carried a whiff of revenge: this is what you wanted. Smile!"
The portrait is largely sympathetic. The marriage has some sore spots, but that is normal, and the Obamas have said as much. "Our society has not necessarily equipped us to sustain relationships," Obama said in a speech at his sister's wedding in 2003. The candour is unusual, but perhaps not surprising. During the 20 years the Obamas have been married, millions of Americans have taken a critical look at the institution.
Since Obama became president, he and his wife have become more insular, which was inevitable. Several dozen staff work on their schedules; the family ducks behind screens when tour groups come through the White House. For Mrs Obama, there have been moments of feeling powerless. Her husband's election meant that she would be forced to have some role in his administration. It was assumed, perhaps unfairly, that she would be more like Clinton than Laura Bush.
The truth is Mrs Obama is neither. She was keen to take up a cause, and has become an advocate against child obesity and for military families, but she is more sceptical of politics than her husband. It would be politics, though, that would help her find her feet. By 2010, her approval ratings exceeded her husband's, and his West Wing staff realised that Mrs Obama could be an asset in that year's elections. As Kantor points out, there is some irony in this; her numbers had soared because she was seen as a devoted wife and mother.
In any case, popularity can only take you so far. The first lady campaigned and the Democrats got a drubbing anyway. Mrs Obama's greatest influence on her husband's presidency will be through her influence on him, which is considerable. At his sister's wedding Mr Obama went on to say that the key to marriage is finding a partner "who sees you as you deserve to be seen". That implies criticism and support. There are scenes when Mrs Obama is a little hard on her husband, but over the years she has clearly been a bracing influence. One way to summarise their relationship is that he is the dreamer and she is the pragmatist. That may be a little simplistic; he comes across as the chillier of the two, and she is an idealist, if not a romantic. But her discipline has helped advance his dreams. The vision is shared.
Problems for the presidency seem to arise when the vision is blurred. Both Obamas see him as a special American, Kantor writes, and a different kind of president. The result is that they sometimes take personal offence at political setbacks, which may be counterproductive; neither Obama seems to have much appetite for domestic politics.
Halfway through the book, there is a poignant episode in Oslo. On a trip to receive the Nobel Peace prize, both Obamas were touched by the Norwegians, who were calm, well-read and admiring. American voters have their own virtues, though, and both Obamas should keep that in mind in this election year. They are stuck with them, for better or for worse.
The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage By Jodi Kantor,Little, Brown, 368 pages, $29.99