No matter how challenging a C-suite job may be, it is surely dwarfed by the pressures of the U.S. presidency. No matter how many vacations they take or how much they exercise, presidents seem to visibly age faster than other people; among the White House staff, there’s frequent talk of burnout leading to turnover. Harvard Book Review asked Kantor what C-suite executives might learn from how the First Couple deals with one of the world’s most stressful jobs.
Your book contains rich detail on how hard the Obamas worked to preserve a sense of normalcy when they moved to the White House. Why was that so important to them’
I started covering the Obamas in 2007, so I watched their transformation. They very quickly went from being the sort of parents who dropped their kids off at school to being president and first lady. Their change in status was so extreme — normally in politics and in business, people rise slowly and pay their dues. When they got to Washington, they really tried to preserve as sense of normalcy, but that’s almost impossible in the White House, which is a combination museum, office, residence, and secure military compound. In the business world, even the most public CEO still has a place he or she can retreat to that’s out of the public eye. That’s not true for a president.
Today more executives avoid relocating their families when they change jobs, so we’re seeing more commuter marriages. In your book you note that until he moved to the White House, Obama had never lived full-time with his family.
That’s true — he’d commuted to Springfield and Washington as a state senator and U.S. senator, while the family stayed in Chicago. In fact, one of the most surprising things I found out while reporting the book was that Michelle Obama initially considered not moving to the White House in 2009 — she considered having their daughters finish out the school year in Chicago. To me that’s a story that shows both how naïve and how wise Michelle Obama was about the presidency. On the one hand, it was naïve to think the country would have accepted a commuter first lady. At the same time, it showed that even though Mrs. Obama was new to politics and to Washington, she instinctively knew that living in the White House was not going to be easy, and the demands on her family (including her children) were going to be enormous. While the business world does have the concept of the “corporate spouse” who may play an important role in social events, it’s still really unusual for a CEO’s children to become involved — they’re generally off the hook.