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. 

Barack and Michelle Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack and Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama has stopped publicizing even her husband's most forgivable flaws, though truth to tell, she never accused him of anything more reprehensible than leaving the butter out after breakfast. Still, she no longer enlightens audiences on how he can't seem to manage to pitch his dirty socks into the hamper. In interviews, she has quit humanizing him quite as pungently as when she told Glamour that he's "so snore-y and stinky" when he wakes up in the morning that their little girls don't want to crawl into bed with him.

She dialed back on proclaiming him "a gifted man, but in the end just a man," after New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who has lots of advice for wives, wrote that some supporters "worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband—under fire for lacking experience—as an undisciplined child.'' But what the candidate's wife was trying to pull off, according to her friends, was not an act of sabotage but something even more subversive: How about let's not pretend that he or any other candidate is perfect, so that when he turns out not to be, we can all skip pretending to be surprised?

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We say we want truth in political advertising, but do we? We say we want candidates who are authentic and have real relationships, too, but when they are and do, the howls of protest—are you going to play this game or aren't you?—come first and foremost from the press. Connoisseurs of artifice, we object on those rare occasions when the only reasonable conclusion is that we have not been lied to. And we demand from candidates and their spouses what Dowd once told an interviewer she considers the secret of a good marriage: "a certain amount of acting.''

"People think I'm trashing him," Michelle Obama told Susan Sher, a longtime friend and her boss at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she is vice president for community and external affairs. "I was trying to make a larger point, that we want to put our president on a pedestal, when not only can no one fulfill all our fantasies, but we're all in this together and we can't leave it up'' to any one Decider. 

In the same way, both Barack and Michelle Obama have made a conscious, conspicuous effort to represent their marriage in the most realistic possible terms. So much so, in fact, that they may have overdone it, not only sharing strains that other political couples would have papered over, but portraying a strong relationship in a sometimes overly harsh light.  This is what perfectionists in love look like, unaccustomed as we are to the sight. And this is how two former community organizers function in a relationship that's far more egalitarian than most political unions. Decision by consensus is so crucial to both Obamas that she once took him along on a job interview—not for backup, but to see if the interviewer passed Barack's test.

The woman Barack Obama married 15 years ago is a stickler, but the sane, unoperatic kind, who eats well and sees her trainer, gets the sleep she needs and overprepares for meetings. Until recently, she was a fixture at their daughters' school—but without the slightest tendency to fret over the color of the cupcakes. She is too practical for that, and has no problem telling her 6- and 9-year-old girls that if they don't like what's being served for lunch, then they'll be good and hungry for dinner. Though her job is in PR, a former colleague notes that she "is not interested in massaging your ego''—primarily because she sees flattery not as an emollient but as a trap and potential stumbling block. The Obamas are "are both very driven'' Ivy-educated lawyers, but he is laid-back by comparison, according to her brother, Craig Robinson. "Barack has a calming effect on their family. My sister is very meticulous and straightforward and she's more of the taskmaster.'' They laugh more when he is around, her brother says. But not just anybody could play straight man to such a serious guy.

In their marriage, Michelle serves as the role model's role model, keeper of books and all of the lists, defender of standards no one else even knows about. "Michelle is the one who makes sure all the things that need to get done get done,'' says his Harvard Law buddy Cassandra Butts. "And as my sister likes to say, 'If Mommy's not happy, nobody's happy.' "

That she even sees leaving the butter out as a lapse worth mentioning speaks to the unforgiving standards of the world in which Michelle Robinson grew up. In the South Shore neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, there were very few do-overs for those who fell short, and letting one's guard down was a luxury. Almost invariably, the first thing friends mention about her is that they have never known her to be caught unprepared. "My sister is really good at most things,'' offers her brother, who is the head basketball coach at Brown University. Which must have been annoying growing up, huh? Even now, Robinson does not indulge the feeble joke: "No, because I'm really good at most things, too. It's the way my parents raised us, that if you're really prepared, there's no reason you can't be good at whatever you choose to be good at. So no, it was not annoying at all.'' Today, watching her in action—giving a speech better than he does, and working a crowd equally well—one wonders not why she and her husband are together, but who in the world else he might have married.

Barack Obama has never been accused of having a second-rate ego, but he depends on her to keep it in check. Among other things, she is his insurance policy against pride, with an eye on the line between idealism and self-indulgence. In both of his books, he sometimes seems to be writing for an audience of one, and the reviewer in his head is not Michiko Kakatani. "My wife will roll her eyes right about now,'' he tells us in one such passage, in Dreams From My Father. So he's playing to her, not telling on her, when instead of air-brushing the tensions in their marriage out of the montage, he zooms in to reveal every single enlarged pore, like those overly ominous close-ups the New York Times Magazine favors. In the senator's 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he writes that after their first daughter, Malia, was born, he was so busy working that "we had little time for conversation, much less romance. … Leaning down to kiss Michelle good-bye in the morning, all I would get was a peck on the cheek. By the time Sasha was born—just as beautiful, and almost as calm as her sister—my wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained. 'You only think about yourself,' she would tell me. 'I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone.' " And it was he who revealed what she'd whispered before he took the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: "Don't screw it up, buddy."

If she's hard on him, it's not because she thinks he is a screw-up, but because her expectations could hardly be higher. "She thought he was so outstanding that if he became mired in local or state politics, he'd never achieve greatness," says Dan Shoman, who was Obama's closest aide during his years in Springfield, Ill. Neither of the Obamas made a secret of the fact that she thought the whole exercise of serving in the state legislature was beneath him. "I remember him saying his wife thought he could do more,'' says his friend Denny Jacobs, who served alongside him. "I think she thought he was—I don't want to say twiddling his thumbs, but she thought he should either do something to move up, or he should get the hell out. She's his prod." And from the first moment, his mentor.

Obama walked into her office in 1988, after his first year at Harvard Law. He had a summer job at her firm, Sidley Austin, in Chicago, and she had been asked to be his summer adviser. Obama wrote about their first meeting in Audacity:"I remember that she was tall—almost my height in heels—and lovely, with a friendly, professional manner that matched her tailored suit and blouse." She explained billable hours, and the rest was history—but not right away. "They were being careful—or she was," says John Levi, the partner who hired them both. "I gather she was reluctant" to jump into an office romance. Her brother says that's an understatement: "You have to know a little bit about my father. My father was not college-educated, a hard-working man who raised two kids when he had M.S., so the example we had was a father full of integrity, and that was the kind of guy my sister was looking for. We used to joke as a family, 'She'll never find a guy like that, because they don't exist any more.' "

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