Inside the Obama marriage.

Explaining political marriages.
Oct. 26 2007 10:14 AM

The Obama Marriage

How does it work for Michelle Obama?

This is the first installment in Slate's First Mates series, which will examine the marriages of the presidential candidates. Read Melinda Henneberger's introduction to the series here. In today's piece, Henneberger looks at Michelle Obama's role in the marriage. Next time, she considers Barack Obama's role, and what their partnership tells us about what kind of president he might be. 

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So when Michelle first brought Barack around that summer, Robinson says, "He was just another one who wasn't going to make it. Not that she had a lot of boyfriends, because she didn't; it was hard to pass muster with my sister. He had a gauntlet to go through." Her sense of purpose matched his, and that was important as they met each other's friends—and each other's challenges. Before she even agreed to go on a date, "she asked me to play basketball with him. Not to see [how good a] player he was, but because she'd grown up hearing my dad and I say you can tell a lot about a guy on the basketball court." And the findings? "No personality flaws with respect to the basketball evaluation, so they started dating." On their first date, they saw Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

They have each described falling in love with the other's ideals; at a rally last month in Manchester, N.H., she told the audience that when they were courting, "He took me to a small church basement on the South Side of Chicago," a place he knew from his days as a community organizer. "And he walked into that church basement just as comfortable and confident … and I knew he had been there before, and that this wasn't just a part-time fancy … and he talked about the simple notion that we as Americans understand the world as it is—and it is a world sometimes that is disappointing and unfair—but our job as American citizens is to work towards building the world as it should be. And as Barack spoke in that church basement, he moved me."

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Obama was attracted to Michelle's actual family and sense of family, her South Side roots and strong Christian faith. "She wanted to be of service and he found that very attractive," says Jerry Kellman, who brought Obama to Chicago and trained him as an organizer. When she left her big law job for the public sector—initially, a position in the mayor's office—"I thought I was going to have a coronary," says Levi, the partner who had recruited her. "I had a very high opinion of Michelle, and she was doing great work for the firm." After they were married in 1992, Barack recommended her for another pay cut—in a post with the community leadership training program Public Allies—a startup that hadn't even really started up yet when Bill Clinton named it as a model AmeriCorps program.

As it turned out, her work there was not bad preparation for her later role as Mrs. Barack Obama, circa 2004: "The program is only three months old, and the most powerful man in the world has said we're great," says Paul Schmitz, who has been with the program ever since. "We didn't really even know what we wanted to do yet, but we were all believing the media hype." All, that is, except Michelle: "She was the one who said, 'That's nice, but let's dress the emperor.' She's the one who got some substance behind a fairly hyped idea."

In her current job at the University of Chicago hospitals, "[S]he's taken public affairs from one employee to 17 in five years," according to her boss. Right after taking the job, she asked if the 200 or so volunteers who donate their time to the hospital could report to her; there are 800 now, and she's also started a separate program in which some 700 hospital employees spend their off-hours volunteering in the surrounding communities.  More than we might expect, given her training and their two-career household, their division of labor has been fairly traditional: "First of all, Barack expects her to be the mother of his children, and she expects that also," his friend Denny Jacobs says. If she becomes first lady, "[A]ll she knows is she'll be Michelle and take care of the girls first," says Sher. Yet it's also true she has not entirely given up her own work, and comes in one day a week even now. "First she went down to half-time, and she was going to take a leave. But her independent life meant enough to her that she just couldn't do it."

Ambitious as she's been for her husband, she was not quick to sign on for her husband's '04 senatorial run; it's her way to wade in carefully. And because she keeps the accounts, she worried that they could not afford for him to make the race. After one early campaign event, he came home marveling, "Michelle, they were drinking the juice"—couldn't get enough of the Kool-Aid, in fact, Shoman remembers. "And she said, 'You don't even have enough money to drink your own juice' " at a fund-raiser like that.

Even now that she is busy passing the presidential juice around, what she tells audiences is not that he will swoop in to the rescue, but that they have a lot of hard work ahead of them, too. Just as she prods her husband, she prods them. In a fiery recent speech to the National Congress of Black Women in Washington, she said, "The saddest reality is that we as black women still don't love ourselves enough. We don't eat right, ladies, we don't exercise, we don't demand healthy relationships, we wait too long to address our health care problems. … So the question that we must ask ourselves as black women is, 'Are we really ready for fundamental change?' "

As it turns out, Michelle Obama's patter about the butter and the unmade beds was not a put-down, or even a throwaway line—but a through line in the marriage of two people who actually mean it when they say that setting up one guy as the lead dog who is supposed to pull us out of this mess can only cause more of the same. They see that leadership model as a risky way to run a family—or a country. Which is why she persists in telling every audience that "it's about all of us," that change can only come from them, from the grassroots up and the inside out. And why the central question of his candidacy is whether that's the kind of change the country wants. "In a meeting, he's not the father figure, the know-all and be-all politician you defer to," says his friend Cassandra Butts. "He wants engagement, he wants you to challenge him, and that comes across in the role Michelle plays in his life. If people are attracted to him, it's because he can lead without being authoritarian. Unlike the current president and many politicians of that generation, Barack doesn't have a my-way-or-the-highway mentality. The people in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina are ready or they're not."

Tomorrow: What the Obama marriage  might mean for his presidency.

Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.

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