According to a guy who never directly worked for her, First Lady Michelle Obama is a tough boss. That was the takeaway from a story in The New Republic entitled The Worst Wing: How the East Wing Shrank Michelle Obama written by Reid Cherlin, a former White House assistant press secretary.
Chief among his criticisms are that Mrs. Obama is an “exacting” boss who has the nerve to have an inner circle of people she trusts working with her and that gaining access to her if you’re outside that circle can be difficult. And, he goes on to say, if you do gain access to her, you must be prepared with information that defends whatever it is that you need to discuss. If you are among the staffers with the least access to hear, the writer says, you are constantly jockeying for position among other staffers who have the same limits. Because of this, you’re constantly stressed out.
This rather reminds me of the security guard who sued Universal Music Group for among other things, “the constant marijuana use” of the artists who came into and out of the building. Not to mention the added stress of finding people passed out in bathrooms, having to endure rowdy parties, rappers with handguns and finding the occasional bra and panty strewn around the offices. Just what did you expect?
The idea that working for the First Lady is stressful should be a given. The White House does an enormous amount of ceremonial and state events, and Mrs. Obama must be a presence at almost all of them. We’d imagine that long hours and increasing demands come with the territory.
The writer talked to some of the “stressed out” former staffers who offer gems like this:
“For her, trust is huge, really feeling like people were protecting and thinking about her,” says one alum. “And then, also, she’s a lawyer. She’s really disciplined. She cares about the details. She’s never going to wing it.” The alum explained that staffers would often want to run an idea by Mrs. Obama casually, to get her read on it. “That kind of doesn’t work for her,” the alum said. “You have to fully think it through and be ready for questions.”
My goodness. Who would have thought that Michelle would be such an ogre, asking for her staff to be prepared? The writer, who admits that although he worked in The West Wing, and “rarely” (his words) with the East Wing, the First Lady’s domain, nevertheless seems to know all about it.
He references a former First Lady advisor, Kristina Schake, who, he says, did her “best” despite these difficult conditions and was so good, she was approached about a job by the communications director in the West Wing, while at the same time negotiating an increased role in the East Wing with the First Lady. But once it was found out that, according to the writer, the West Wing had approached her, Schake was viewed as someone who violated Mrs. Obama’s trust. Hmmm, that sounds…. reasonable to me, that I might be upset if someone on my staff was looking to go work with my husband’s instead. (Schake ultimately left to work for L’Oreal.)
There might be some legitimate criticisms of what could be expected to be a high-pressure, high-stress environment, but you won’t find them in this article. If Michelle was prone to screaming fits and firing people at whim, the story might make more sense. But as is, it reads as a racially coded diatribe that suggests that a woman, a Black woman, who is exacting and demanding in job that requires her to be, is somehow suspect.
Black women in the workplace know exactly what that’s about. It’s about everything you do being viewed through a prism of race that suggests your leadership isn’t as valid as the white boss doing the same thing.
Michelle Obama clearly has a thick skin or has developed one by now. She will likely shake off the article and the mega-trolls spewing their hate in the comments section. (Hey, New Republic – comment moderation is key to any intelligent discourse unless you enjoy your site being hijacked by racists). And in truth, what the writer did in emphasizing that Michelle Obama prioritizes her “family responsibilities” shows that she’s truly living out her concept of First Lady in the way that many think she should – as a loving mother, wife and daughter who views her primary role as taking care of her family.
If that’s what makes her a tough boss, we think she’s OK with that.