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The First Lady’s First Mate

Susan Sher talks Jews and politics in D.C.

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Jodi Kantor (L) and Susan Sher (R).(The author)

Last night, in the resplendent sanctuary of the historic Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C., Tablet Magazine sponsored a talk with Susan Sher, the outgoing chief-of-staff to the First Lady and official administration liason to the Jewish community. She was interviewed by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, author of a must-read feature on the Obamas’ marriage and a forthcoming book about—what else?—the Obamas. Much like Sher’s job, the hour-long discussion split pretty evenly between two topics: The First Lady and the administration’s relationship to its Jewish constituents.

“People tend to see a fantasy version of themselves in her,” Sher remarked of Obama, recounting the many letters she receives from children around the country. (Obama needs the children as much as they need her: When the First Lady has a particularly grueling day, Sher said, her staff will deliberately schedule an event with children and physical activity, because those two things give her the most energy.) Sher spoke about her boss’s main legislative initiative, a reauthorization and modernization of the school breakfast and lunch program. They are down to the wire, and Obama may have done all she can: “It now has to do with things that have nothing to do with childhood nutrition,” Sher remarked, a hint of frustration peeking out of her staid, tasteful-power-suit exterior. Next up on the First Lady’s policy docket? More stuff with military families. Sher, who will head home to Chicago at the end of the year, will not be around for that.

“You were Michelle Obama’s boss, and now she’s your boss,” Kantor remarked at the beginning. Sher and Obama first met in 1991 at Chicago’s City Hall; Sher referred to her Valerie Jarrett, who hired her there. Several years later, as chief counsel at the University of Chicago’s hospital, Sher hired her. The word “boss” came up a lot, and it was difficult not to notice that Sher pronounced it with a certain accent: “Buhwahhs.” We learned near the end of the evening that Sher does, indeed, originally hail from New Jersey.

As for the Jewish community and Israel? Sher was careful to note that she is neither a policymaker nor an expert on policy. When Kantor asked what happens when a hypothetical angry, powerful rabbi calls the White House demanding to know why the president’s Mideast policy is so confoudingly naïve—“First of all, I can’t say that’s never happened,” Sher said, in the night’s biggest laugh-line—Sher said he is usually referred to a national security staffer. But on a personal level, Sher reassured: “I’ve known them so long, and I know what is in his heart, and how supportive he is, and how he gets the Jewish community, to the extent that anyone can.” Tea-leaf-readers will be mildly interested to know that when she reached for a hypothetical Israel organization and suggested “AIPAC,” she paused for a few seconds and then reached for, “or J Street,” as though the latter were the former’s peer and alternative.

In terms of the First Lady, I got the sense that she is an unusally good administrator, and consciously thinks of herself as a manager of people (as good administrators do): “Our job,” Sher said, paraphrasing her boss, “is not to solve Afghanistan, it’s to add value to the administration. And if we’re not doing that, then we should just stay home.”

The night’s final audience question was: Do you think you will live to see the first Jewish president? Sher offered a tentative yes. Referring to the president, she argued, “The longer view is that when that one barrier came down, many others will now follow.” Under this formulation, the first Jewish president will owe something to the first black one.

Not that the debt doesn’t travel both ways: “The number of people I have met,” Sher observed, “who have said, ‘I am the first Jewish person to support Obama.’ Legions!”

Related: The Obamas’ Marriage [NYT Magazine]

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The First Lady’s First Mate

Susan Sher talks Jews and politics in D.C.

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