In the new book, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager tells author David Garrow, “In the winter of ‘86, when we visited my parents, he asked me to marry him.”
The former couple — who were introduced by mutual friends who wanted to set them up — dated and lived together for years before Obama proposed in 1986 when he was 25. Jager was 23 at the time and her parents thought she was too young to get married. So she told him, “Not yet,” according to a review of the book by The Washington Post.
While they stayed together after that, Jager says Obama’s political aspirations soon caused a strain on their relationship. She told Garrow that Obama would “compartmentalize his work and home life” — sometimes too much for her taste. His goals became more apparent — and more problematic for their relationship — in 1987, she says.
“He became. . . so very ambitious very suddenly,” she told Garrow. “I remember very clearly when this transformation happened, and I remember very specifically that by 1987, about a year into our relationship, he already had his sights on becoming president.”
Garrow writes that at one point, Obama attempted to end their relationship because of race. Jager, who is of Japanese and Dutch ancestry, claims that Obama believed marrying her would hurt his credibility as an African American politician. Garrow writes that Obama believed he had a “calling” to be president and “a heightened awareness that to pursue it he had to fully identify as African American.”
“The lines are very clearly drawn. . . . ” Obama once told a friend, according to Rising Star. “If I am going out with a white woman, I have no standing here.”
The book recreates a scene in which the couple allegedly argued over the subject.
“That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a reason,” friends recall overhearing Jager yell to Obama. Garrow writes that while Obama loved Jager, “he felt trapped between the woman he loved and the destiny he knew was his.”
According to the book, Obama continued to see Jager on and off during his first year of law school. That was around the time he first met Michelle Robinson, who would later become his wife and first lady. As his feelings for Robinson heightened, his romantic relationship with Jager finally ended, the book says.
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After Barack and Michelle Obama married, his contact with Jager was limited to the occasional letter (including after the 9/11 attacks) and phone call in 2012 (when he reached out to ask whether a biographer had contacted her), according to the book.
PEOPLE attempted to reach Jager, now a professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College, where messages were returned by the school’s communications director with this statement: “Professor Jager will not be engaging in any interviews on the book.”
Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama releases on May 9.