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'The Obamas' offers insights on the first couple and the presidency

The endpapers provide maps of the White House, and the front cover shows the first couple's heads in beaming clinch. On the back, they're walking from a well-lit room into a dark hallway, eyes down, mouths somber.

The iconography that frames Jodi Kantor's The Obamas is as curious as her tale of Barack and Michelle's first 1,000 days: a mix of personal and political, of diary and elegy that assays "the impact of their partnership ... on the presidency, the job of first lady, and the nation."

Kantor, a New York Times reporter, staked her claim to this turf when she wrote of "the centrality of the Obama marriage to the president's brand" in a 2009 feature for the newspaper's Sunday magazine. She ended the article by wondering whether they would learn whether "their marriage can both embrace politics and also at some level stay free of it."

If you're scratching your head wondering how two Harvard Law graduates who already had shared his stints as state and U.S. senator could stay free of politics while living in the White House, you will want to keep your hand in that position. The Obamas' apolitical hope springs eternal in Kantor's view, stoking frustration for them, sowing dysfunction among their staffs and playing a large part in the president's uneven record.

Kantor's recap of the pre-White House Obamas quickly establishes that politics was "an uncomfortable fit" for both of them. The political process Barack found in both senates was slow, rule-bound, short-sighted. Michelle hated the long separations caused by campaigning, and she shared her husband's sense that little could be accomplished in those chambers.

Once they moved to Washington, the Obamas seemed most in tune with each other and out of sync with realpolitik when it came to the health-care bill. It fit "with their shared sense of mission — their joint idea that the president's career was not about pursuing day-to-day political victories" but about fundamental change, "about access, opportunity and fairness."

How did the president nourish his vision, according to Kantor?

He wouldn't schmooze for support on the measure and wouldn't listen to Democratic legislators saying the bill couldn't pass.

He neglected a special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in deep-blue Massachusetts and lost it, along with "the Democratic supermajority that was supposed to enable the passage of the health-care legislation, along with the rest of the president's agenda."

Facing disaster in the midterm elections, he sparked "the ire of congressional Democrats" for refusing to campaign more.

Kantor shows how the first lady, with her East Wing crew, carved out a role in the White House drawn partly from being Mrs. President, partly from her own smarts and grit.

She raised her voice to criticize the guest list for the president's first Super Bowl party. She defined exactly how much she would campaign for the health-care bill and the midterms, which was not much. Her "Let's Move!" campaign against childhood obesity helped persuade Wal-Mart to cut "fats, sugars and salt in the foods it sold." Another program boosted support for the spouses and children of those in the military.

"Each Michelle Obama public appearance created an average of $14 million in overall value as measured by the stock prices of the companies that made the clothing she wore," according to a New York University professor. Yet media coverage of a trip to Spain focused on her designer clothes and the cost of operating the Air Force jet she flew, "$11,351 an hour."

Kantor acknowledges that the president passed "an extraordinary amount of legislation," including the health care bill, but the dark moments seem to linger. He misspeaks on the underwear bomber and shifts on a central Guantánamo promise. His Oval Office speech on the gulf oil spill reveals his frayed ties to the people. The U.S. credit rating gets downgraded. The Tea Party movement and all its Mad Hatters emerge to bedevil him.

Even the Nobel Peace Prize seems "to underscore an idea Obama chafed against: the main accomplishment of his presidency might be his election."

The president returned to eloquent form in the speech he gave after January's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. And the killing of Osama bin Laden in May was a triumph. In her closing pages, Kantor also notes signs that the dysfunction is easing, as the president starts politicking and roles are clarified.

Kantor's chronicle can be read just for the key points of the 1,000 or so days after Obama's election and some intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpses of what went awry. There are strange moments of a gee-whiz tone that sounds forced from a seasoned reporter, and a few signs of haste in the proofreading. These are minor issues to trade for the freshness of a narration that concludes only four months ago.

Kantor unavoidably accepts limitations in the theme of the Obamas' marriage. By rarely losing sight of the first lady, she sacrifices a more-detailed look at the West Wing. The book gains considerably, though, from its well-observed, sympathetic portrait of Michelle. Still, whichever wing you favor, or blame, in this historical drama, there's little in The Obamas to make one expect a second act.

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