NYTimes Reporter (and Obama Biographer)Jodi Kantor Profiles Unfairly 'Caricatured' Michelle Obama, 'Motherly' Hugger-in-Chief

New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, author of a biography of the Obamas, on Tuesday filed a flattering profile of "hugging" Michelle Obama, "First Lady Strives for Caring Image Above Partisan Fray." Kantor excused the first lady's verbal "missteps" ("For the first time in my adult lifetime...I am really proud of my country") but avoided describing them.

The profile appeared the day after a surprisingly critical article from Kantor on the Labor Day front page on President Obama (beyond the complimentary headline): "The Competitor in Chief – In Politics, and About Everything Else, Obama Plays to Win."

Four years ago, Barack Obama seemed as if he might be a deliberate professor of a leader, maybe with a touch of Hawaiian mellowness. He has also turned out to be a voraciously competitive perfectionist....But even those loyal to Mr. Obama say that his quest for excellence can bleed into cockiness and that he tends to overestimate his capabilities....Mr. Obama spends surprising energy perfecting even less consequential pursuits. He has played golf 104 times since becoming president, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who monitors his outings, and he asks superior players for tips that have helped lower his scores....For another, he may not always be as good at everything as he thinks, including politics.

But Kantor made up for it with her gushing profile of the hugging first lady, a trait Kantor detailed in ridiculously overblown fashion.

This is how Michelle Obama delivers a hug: The nearly six-foot-tall first lady envelops her target, her long arms often wapping all the way around the recipient’s back. She leans in close, unafraid to press her body against a stranger’s. Working crowds with her husband, she sometimes falls behind him, because he is more of a hand-shaker or high-fiver, and in the second-to-second choreography of a rope line, the Michelle Obama hug takes time.

That hug, half motherly embrace and half papal benediction, has become a minor phenomenon. Many of the first lady’s events end with marathon hugging sessions, because people now hope to get one. At the Olympics, the United States men’s basketball team lined up for hugs, the sweaty giants waiting their turns like meek children. When Mrs. Obama gave the queen of England a mere half-hug, Britain went wild. The first lady delivers solemn, private hugs to wounded service members. And all summer she has hugged her way across the country on behalf of her husband’s campaign, drawing volunteers, donors, staff and potential converts near.


It is hard to remember another first lady who appeared as comfortable in her own body as does Mrs. Obama, who studied dance as a girl and later served on the board of an African dance company. She has shimmied, skipped, hopscotched, hula-hooped, jumping-jacked, and potato-sack-raced her way through her tenure as first lady, using not just her position but her body to push for more exercise and better nutrition for children. (She is fighting an obesity crisis and trying to convince corporations to change products and advertising, yet she sticks to a Mom in Chief tone.)

Kantor briefly referenced the first lady's controversial comments without quoting them.

But she has also done real political work for her husband -- stumping in 2008 and learning message discipline the hard way (though she was hugely popular, she made verbal missteps that allowed critics to cast her as aggrieved). She promoted President Obama’s health care plan in 2009, though to keep her popularity high, advisers limited her association with the initiative. And for the past year, Mrs. Obama has been a central figure in her husband’s campaign -- exhorting supporters to donate and volunteer, stating her husband’s argument for re-election in simple, jargon-free terms.

Kantor concluded that the first lady was unfairly "caricatured during the 2008 campaign":

Mrs. Obama has reason not to take risks, even beyond the fact that she was caricatured during the 2008 campaign. Throughout her time in the White House, she and her advisers have carefully protected her image; she knew her husband would need her for re-election from early on, aides say. So she has mostly avoided controversy, highly aware that any mistake on her part could cost her husband: in a sharply polarized country with close presidential contests, no other calculation makes sense.

“Who can be opposed to a hug from a tall, beautiful woman?” said Kati Marton, author of “Hidden Power,” about presidential marriages. “In this divisive climate, to be the hugger in chief is all that our first lady can do.”

In an October 2009 Times Magazine cover story on the Obamas, Kantor dismissed Michelle Obama's infamous campaign lines like "For the first time in my adult lifetime...I am really proud of my country" merely a "rhetorical stumble" and suggesting the media was overplaying it.