Inside the Obama marriage.

Inside the Obama marriage.

Inside the Obama marriage.

Explaining political marriages.
Oct. 29 2007 7:31 AM

The Obama Marriage

What it could mean for his presidency.

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 studies Barack Obama's role in the relationship, and considers what his marriage tells us about what kind of president he might be. In this piece, she examined Michelle Obama's role.

When Barack Obama feels sorry for himself, it is not as a black man but as a family man, a put-upon father unfairly kept away from home by a world that has conspired to keep him at work or on the road. "He'll get angry and when there's pressure he'll say, 'Don't you know I have kids?' " says Dan Shoman, who was Obama's closest aide during his years in the Illinois State Senate.As in, I'm missing bedtime for this? Every salaried mom stuck in a pointless meeting knows that feeling, sure—but also the cost of letting it show. Actually expressing that kind of guilt and ambivalence—when I'm here, I feel I should be there, and vice versa—is about as sure a career-enhancer as calling in sick with the babysitter's menstrual cramps. And if the career in question were as commander in chief, we'd be in truly uncharted territory.

In lashing out this way, it's himself Obama is really beating up on. Especially on the home front, "he's a person who feels guilt whether he is guilty or not,'' says Shoman. In fact, he's a person who is motivated by guilt, even more than by glory. In his first book, Dreams From My Father, he says his mom used to joke that she'd slipped self-recrimination into his baby food: " 'Don't worry, though,' she added, smiling like the Cheshire cat. 'A healthy dose of guilt never hurt anybody. It's what civilization was built on, guilt. A highly underrated emotion.' "


And not such a bad thing in a husband.

As Obama tells it, all the men in his life were fragile, but the women could be relied upon. In his wife, Obama sees a lot of his mother's mother—the intensely practical, no-nonsense Kansan who raised him, anchored him, and got on the bus every morning to earn the living for their family, too. "She doesn't always know what to make of me," he writes of Michelle in Dreams, and "worries that, like Gramps and the Old Man, I am something of a dreamer. Indeed, in her eminent practicality and Midwestern attitudes, she reminds me not a little of Toot," his grandmother, who when she met Michelle for the first time pronounced her "a very sensible girl.'' It would be wrong to cast Michelle Obama as some kind of marital hall monitor. A joyless job like that is one of the many things she would never stand for. But she does demand that he live up to his own almost impossibly high standards—and because he, too, worries that he is something of a dreamer, he wouldn't have it any other way.

He wants a mate who will insist that he be the kind of father he never had—and still fears not being. The father for whom he was named was brilliant and idealistic but unmoored; he returned to Africa while Obama was still a baby and visited only once after that, but married three times, and in the end saw his dreams come to nothing. 

In some ways, Obama's choice in a mate mirrors those of the last two presidents. Like Bill Clinton, he not only grew up without a father but was separated from his free-spirited mother for long stretches. He, too, picked a spouse who was not only his intellectual equal but brought some much-needed ballast to the party, and a permanent address. Like George W. Bush, Obama speaks of his wife as a stabilizing force, supportive but with a stickpin in her purse, in case his bubble needs popping.

Which, as he tells it, keeps him out of trouble and true to his marriage vows:  "We would talk about temptation in Springfield," when Obama served there, says his friend and former colleague state Sen. Kim Lightford. "And he would say, 'No, no, no, I would never [cheat]. Michelle would kick my butt. Not only would it not be worth it, but I would not want to have to deal with that.' Michelle is totally in control. She is friendly but very stern and sharp—stern is the only way I know to say it—and she is very involved in his decision making."

As evidence of the good judgment he brags about, Michelle Obama is an impressive human credential—a self-described "little black girl from the South Side of Chicago, the daughter of working-class parents and the product of a public-school education,'' who trained at Princeton and Harvard, walked away from a big law firm to work in the public sector, and, as her former community organizing colleague Paul Schmitz puts it, "has a compass with as good a True North as anyone I've ever known. When she gives feedback, you want to follow it." Which is what Obama does.

And just as she is a telling reflection of his values and priorities, their partnership is as good an indication as we are likely to get of the strengths the senator would bring to the White House—the steadiness and idealism, the willingness to listen and the ability to feel bad—and on the other side of the ledger, those same qualities perceived as weakness.