Michelle Obama's office can be a "confining, frustrating, even miserable place to work," former White House assistant press secretary Reid Cherlin says, noting the first lady has an "exacting but often ambivalent leadership style" that does not make working for her easy.
"Jealousy and discontentment have festered, as courtiers squabble over the allocation of responsibility and access to Mrs. Obama, both of which can be aggravatingly scarce," writes Cherlin in a piece for The New Republic.
Cherlin worked in the West Wing, not the East Wing where the first lady's office is located. But sourcing former East Wing insiders, he presents a detailed inner look at a first lady whose popularity overshadows that of her husband, but who did not want to get in the way of her husband's presidency.
"Perhaps no first lady in recent memory has entered the stately recesses of the East Wing under a higher burden of expectation than Michelle Obama," he writes. "From her earliest appearances on the 2008 campaign trail, it was clear that she possessed rare political gifts.
Like Hillary Clinton before her, she was an accomplished lawyer with policy smarts. But unlike Clinton, she was also an electrifying speaker, able to translate her husband's lofty agenda into a grounded, commonsense morality."
But she is a perfectionist, he said, who often plots out her strategy months in advance, and although she already had lists of official duties as National Hostess, and launched her "Let's Move" and "Joining Forces" program by the 2010 midterms, she wondered if she should be doing more.
At that time, she hired Kristina Schake as her communications director to unveil her new agenda. But just 2½ years later, Schake was replaced by an Estee Lauder executive, writes Cherlin.
"What Schake couldn't have known in 2010 — and what Mrs. Obama's hyper-motivated, highly accomplished staffers would never publicly admit — is that the first lady's office can be a confining, frustrating, even miserable place to work," he said.
In addition, the first lady is very cautious, Cherlin said, unlike her husband, who is satisfied with his ability to improvise.
"That mandate to be deliberate in all things has been enshrined into East Wing operating procedure," said Cherlin. "Mrs. Obama made it clear to her staff that — endless compulsory East Room receptions aside — her time was a valuable asset and requests to use it would have to meet an exceptionally high bar."
This means all her public events had to focus on a certain goal and that she would only be available for official duties a few days a week. The rest of her time is dedicated to family.
"It would take a really creative staffer to work within that environment and be successful," a former aide told Cherlin.
Another ex-aide told Cherlin the staff is under pressure to make everything perfect.
"Staff knew that every event should produce positive coverage, and that all the angles had to be exhaustively researched and gamed out (not easy with a team of less than 30)," Cherlin wrote.
But those standards were never clear, an ex-aide said.
"The first lady having the wrong pencil skirt on Monday is just as big of a [screw-up] as someone speaking on the record when they didn't mean to or a policy initiative that completely failed," the aide said. "It just made you super anxious."
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