In 2012, Sheryl Sandberg told a reporter she leaves her office every day at 5:30 pm to get home for dinner with her family, and it started a big debate over how executives set limits on their workdays. What did you observe about how Obama sets limits’
One of the details in my book that people react most strongly to is that the president has a strict 6:30 time for dinner with his family, and it’s pretty much inviolate. He’s willing to miss dinner twice a week, but that’s it. That’s very unusual for a president. It limits his fundraising trips to the West Coast. It limits his outreach to Congress. I’m not suggesting that he’s remiss for not doing those things—I’m only noting it’s an unusual approach. For CEOs, I think it raises the interesting question of how far you’re willing to go [in setting boundaries]. Especially in light of CEOs’ outsized pay packages, is it okay to say ‘If it’s after 6:30 pm, I can’t do that”
Sheryl Sandberg also says that choosing the right spouse is the single most important career decision someone can make. Do you see Michelle as unusually vital to Barack Obama’s career’
I don’t think Barack Obama would be president without Michelle, for both practical and psychological reasons. The practical reason is that he was a newcomer to Chicago who needed to become not just a politician, but a black politician in a new city. He had an unusual background and no roots there. Michelle Obama provided those roots when they married. From a psychological perspective, Mrs. Obama always had a very elevated sense of who her husband was. She talked about how he was not like other politicians, and that influenced his own self-image.
You provide vivid descriptions of the First Lady gently teasing the president, of “puncturing” the pomp around him. Why is this dynamic important’
One of the dilemmas of being the spouse of someone who has a ton of responsibility—whether it’s a president or a CEO—is knowing when you support and console, and when you speak truth to power. When your spouse comes home, you don’t want to say ‘I really think you could have handled that meeting differently.’ But on the other hand, you can have tremendous influence and arguably a moral duty to use it, to prevent or fix problems where you can. We have a whole literature about presidential marriages—we know a lot about the Adams, the Roosevelts, the Clintons—but I’ve never seen research into CEO marriages, and how spouses influence CEO decision-making. That could be a fascinating area for research.
Last year was especially difficult for the Obama administration. When things aren’t going well, do you have the sense that the president puts in longer hours, or is he able to maintain a sense of balance and perspective’
It’s really hard to tell. Aides are constantly trying to present an image of the president as cool and unruffled by what’s going on around him. At the same time, there is a sense that he works incredibly hard—for instance, he’s known to pull all-nighters, especially when writing big speeches. The bigger question for me isn’t the workload but how presidents deal with the psychological pressure. The decisions they make are just so monumental, particularly during times of war and economic struggle. So many of us worry about having an outsized degree of anxiety about jobs where the stakes are relatively low; what can we learn from people who’ve served in really high office’