What Does the Obama Marriage Look Like After Barack?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 30 2009 2:56 PM

What Does the Obama Marriage Look Like After Barack?

Jodi Kantor’s wonderful and voyeuristic reported treatise on the Obama marriage runs in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. It’s absolutely worth the time to delve into the personal insights (and funny audio!) Kantor squeezes out of interviews with friends and associates of the Obamas, many of whom are now co-workers of the world-famous couple. My favorite: senior adviser Valerie Jarrett channeling a frazzled, midnight-grocery-shopping Barack, on the phone with a put-out Michelle, chanting "'I’ll make it work ... We can make it work. I’ll do more.’"

Having had time to read, re-read, and digest the substance of Kantor's reporting, a few key themes stand out. The one involves the sacrifices Michelle Obama has made on the road to her husband’s presidency. Emily flagged the anecdote about bringing little Sasha Obama into a stroller to a job interview. But how about this?

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... I asked how any couple can have a truly equal partnership when one member is president.

Michelle Obama gave what sounded like a small, sharp "mmphf" of recognition, and the fluid teamwork of their answers momentarily came to a halt. "Well, first of all ..." the president started. His wife peered at him, looking curious as to how he might answer the question. "She’s got ..." he began, but then stopped again.

"Well, let me be careful about this," he said, pausing once more.

"My staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than they worry about what I think," he finally said, to laughter around the room.

The question still unanswered, his wife stepped back in: " Clearly Barack’s career decisions are leading us. They’re not mine; that’s obvious. I’m married to the president of the United States. I don’t have another job, and it would be problematic in this role. So that-you can’t even measure that."

What seems fairly awesome about the Obama partnership is the extent to which Michelle Obama both knows and vocalizes exactly what she has given up to be an unpaid figurehead in the East Wing of the White House-and, what’s more, how she maintains a sort of "you ain’t so great" affect when it comes to her powerful partner. No doubt much of this needling comes from the familiarity of 20 years’ acquaintance. But perhaps some of this comes from being a truly successful woman herself. In By the People , the soon-to-be-aired HBO documentary about the Obama campaign, Michelle ticks off her list of demands before embarking on Obama campaign number four-perhaps average for a political spouse, but still draining:

I had a lot of practical questions that I needed answers to before I could say definitively that this is something that I could handle. How is this going to work? What would be the schedule? How often is Barack going to be on the road? What would be expected of me as a spokesperson and campaigner? How would we structure our time to ensure that our girls would not be pulled out of their lives? How much would it cost us as a family? How were we going to handle financially me reducing my hours at work to be able to participate? What would the campaign do if anything about security?

We obviously got all those questions answered to my satisfaction and as a result we are now running for president.

One can easily imagine Barack, like Don Draper in the most recent episode of Mad Men , being lawyered at by Michelle before finally getting his way. So, while the first lady projects a traditionally domestic "mom-in-chief" image, she is acquainted enough with contemporary assessments of achievement and status to know that as a Princeton grad and Harvard-trained lawyer turned hospital executive and main breadwinner, she’s pretty hot shit as well. This is encapsulated in her adolescent confidence that she, too, could do Princeton, and continued by the game of asking Barack "What are you doing?" behind the desk in the Oval Office. What’s also lovely is that the president knows this, too. "She can puncture the balloon of this," he admits.

The second interesting theme involves Kantor’s prediction for how the marriage dynamics will change once Barack leaves office.

[I]n three or seven years, the president’s political career will end. There will be no more offices to win or hold, and the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more - this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.

What an interesting presumption. There will be foundations and speeches, for both, for sure-but also lots of downtime. So what do Michelle’s terms look like?

Here I’ll point out that the story leans heavily on the ghosts of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in part, one senses, because the marriage is freshest in mind as a modern political pairing (Laura who?). One can’t very well compare the Obamas to Brad and Angelina, Bogart and Bacall, or Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, for that matter-as politicians, and as black Americans, their marriage is freighted with much more than celebrity. But Kantor’s subliminal use of the Clintons as backdrop ("theirs is by no means a co-presidency"; "The first lady may have learned from Hillary Clinton’s example the perils of appearing too involved with policy") is not really fair.

Of course, the Clintons’ pathbreaking embrace of "two for one" democratic rule is the template; all else, including the Roosevelts, is prehistory. But the Clinton-shaped shadow also necessarily invokes the discomfort Hillary Clinton seemed to feel in her role as ambassador to the cookie-baking masses. Even in the hotshot, shoulder-padded 1990s, Hillary Clinton operated under gendered political constraints that Michelle Obama does not have. Though, like Michelle, Hillary was very lucid about the assets she brought to the adminisration (hint: not baking), the country rejected her assertiveness in what by all accounts was a stunning, hurtful surprise. By contrast, Michelle, "elected" in 2008, has been able to choose her own adventure as first lady, again, with a surer command of its pitfalls and potential upside.

To wit: Last week, I watched the first lady grin, bear it, and leap over hurdles and under ropes and through hoops in service of a larger aim-health and fitness for women and children across the country. It was a shrewd and yes, political manipulation of her celebrity-and the first lady seemed to have no problem being instrumentalized in this way. In fact, as Kantor reports, she is slowly embracing the cultural authority that can spark push-up wars and clear a dress from stores in an instant.

Yet, she told Kantor: "Why would I want to be in politics? I have never in my life ever wanted to sit on the policy side of this thing." This suggests that her post-persidential "terms" may be very different from her democratic predecessor, who by virtue of being denied authority seemed all the more eager to seize it, with spectacular and inspiring results.

The White House aides and associates I have spoken with confirm that Michelle Obama has "zero" interest in a political career. But I’m still pleased that Kantor included a detail that suggests Barack thinks differently. As Michelle avers to have no political ambitions, "the president [had] faced forward, even leaning a bit away from his wife, but now he uncrossed his legs, swiveled and studied her, looking amused."

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