POLITICS SEPTEMBER 3, 2009
The May evening was lovely, and the couple couldn’t resist taking a stroll. Dinner had been quite the production--two hours at one of the city’s poshest restaurants. Now, both seemed in need of a little together-time before reentering the loud, bright chaos of kids, pet, and messages from the office. So, rather than head straight into the house, they drifted slowly down their driveway and out into the yard, arms brushing now and again with the easy intimacy of the long married. His collar was undone, and his hands were tucked casually into his pockets. The tie of her white blouse wrapped around her back and dangled past the hem of her black capri pants to tickle her calves. Her sexy black heels (no sensible mom shoes tonight!) seemed to throw her a little off-balance. Approaching the children’s swing set, she reached to take his hand. Around them, the gathering twilight was alive with songbirds and the occasional chirping cricket. And, if you listened ever so closely, from way back near the house could be heard the gentle rustle of cameras and reporters documenting the pair’s every move.
The Obamas had just returned from a “date night” in Georgetown. It was a strikingly public affair, with everything from cocktail choices to accessories reported in excruciating detail, and footage from the post-dinner promenade quickly going global on YouTube. Yet the event was not the highest profile instance of public romancing by the presidential lovebirds. That honor goes to their New York date a few weeks later, which sparked national debate over the propriety of the president firing up Air Force One to take his wife to dinner and a show in the thick of a recession. There have also been smaller moments, like the scene in NBC’s “Inside the Obama White House” where Michelle and First Dog Bo, cruising the corridors with anchor Brian Williams, crossed paths with the president, prompting a kissy-voiced greeting from her and a quick smooch from him. Or recall Michelle’s welcoming remarks at an event preceding the White House luau, during which she broke into a hip-wiggling mini-hula that spurred her man, brows shooting skyward, to do a grinning double take and tease, “Try that again?” Which she did.
The barriers between public and private have long been eroding, and every modern president has had to deal with the resulting overexposure. Something, however, feels different this time around. While previous First Couples have accepted intrusions into their personal lives, they have appeared to do so reluctantly, and only at the prodding of a relentless media. The Obamas, by contrast, seem almost eager to make their private life, especially the romantic bits, part of the national conversation. It’s unquestionably entertaining. But is it a good idea?
There are obvious political advantages to spotlighting the First Marriage. For this president, specifically, it counters criticism of him as a pointy-headed academic or “philosopher king.” For the nation’s first black president, more generally, the portrait of a doting husband helps dispel both the too-exotic and the scary-black-man factors. Similarly, all the connubial canoodling eases lingering stereotypes of Michelle as a ball-breaking feminist or angry black woman. And, most broadly, with political sex scandals popping up all over (and unpleasant memories of Bill Clinton lingering) anything that makes this strapping young Democrat look enamored of his lawfully wedded wife is good for the party.
The most immediate political risk is that critics, not to mention a blood-thirsty press corps, are typically quick to slam public officials for cynically exploiting their personal lives. The Obamas, however, enjoy an edge: Voters are inclined to cut them slack in part because everyone is so thrilled to have a nice black family serving as role models. People are actively charmed and hopeful (and relieved) whenever the Obamas telegraph their Huxtable-esque wholesomeness to a black America whose family troubles are all too frequently in the news. They see in the effort an admirable, even noble motive. Also, on a more intimate level, we see the potus working through some childhood demons: He wants to be both the hands-on father and the attentive husband his dad never was. The White House is happy to promote this angle as well. (Witness Obama’s Father’s Day essay in Parade.) So, even if we suspect there might be an exploitative element at work, we don’t see cheap politics as the main storyline.
Political calculations aside, the Obamas seem to genuinely believe they are making a difference to black America by conducting their marriage so publicly. Michelle is continually pitching herself as a role model, reminding young people at schools and community centers across the globe of her modest roots and improbable success, while stressing that they too have limitless potential. It is a message she is clearly eager to convey, fighting whatever low expectations non-affluent minority children in particular may hold for their futures. As she urged in a January interview on the African American–targeted network TV One: “For all the parents out there, have your date nights. It’s important for kids to know their parents are connecting.” Sure, Michelle could have avoided snippets of her love life being posted on the Web--but, then, she and Barack and the girls couldn’t prominently model the Perfect Black Family.
The flip side is that there are invariably personal costs to this degree of exposure, especially for the First Lady. People are always talking about the stress and strain of being the president’s wife, of functioning as some bizarre, quasi-official, brutally scrutinized symbol of American womanhood. And, already, there are signs that Michelle could use some breathing room. This summer, The Washington Post suggested in a profile that she was feeling constrained by the public fascination with her every move. (The East Wing was apparently surprised when pics of her walking Bo in shorts wound up on the Web almost instantaneously.) Her days off don’t allow her any real privacy, and her plan is to get the girls out of town whenever she can for a little more freedom. This relentless sense of being under a microscope can only be exacerbated by having her most intimate relationship publicly dissected.
Not that the Obamas have an alternative at this point. Having OKed First Coupledom as an appropriate topic of national discourse, any move to change the rules would provoke howls of protest. One can only hope the political and social benefits are indeed worth it. Because, on a personal level, there are sure to be moments when the Obamas will regret the decision they have made. Keeping the spontaneity and spark alive is tough in any marriage. Managing it with a pack of tittering journalists trailing along will take a freaking miracle.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.