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Obama marriage inspires fascination, imitation…

February 13, 2009 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( She’s a busy mother of two and a full-time executive at a film distribution company, but sometimes Susan Margolin can’t help it: She Googles Barack and Michelle Obama, not to check on his latest policy initiatives, but to see what they’re doing as a couple.

They went to the Kennedy Center with the girls the other night,” she reported recently. “Isn’t that cool? And I love how they always make time for date night. They seem to have a real romance going.”

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, it’s the season of the PDA in the White House — and we’re not talking about President Obama’s prized BlackBerry. The first couple’s constant Public Displays of Affection have many people across the country fascinated, charmed and even a little jealous of this 21st-century White House marriage.

To be sure, the Obamas aren’t the first openly romantic couple in the White House. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, in particular, had a famous love story.

But to many, the Obama marriage represents a much more modern kind of White House romance: Two people who’ve both had important careers, who are trying to balance professional success with family stability, who are both playful with each other and mutually respectful, and who aren’t afraid to display their affection and chemistry — again and again.

Remember when she leaned in for a quick snuggle as they walked the parade route together on Inauguration Day? It was gone in a flash, yet the photo made front pages across the country. Or the widely documented moment on Election Night in Chicago’s Grant Park, when the two embraced, he whispered something into her ear and she whispered back: “I love you.”

Then there was inauguration night, when the two closed their eyes and somehow managed to dance as if they were alone, not at the center of thousands of popping flashbulbs. YouTube clips of them dancing are accompanied by gushy comments like: “This is soooooooo romantic! I’ve DVR’d it on my TV.”

From the floor at the Obama Home States Ball, Kirk Dillard, an old friend of Obama’s from their years together in the Illinois legislature, marveled at what he was seeing.

“Just looking at Michelle and the president having fun up there on the stage — you could tell they were having the time of their lives,” says Dillard, a Republican state senator, who like Obama commuted between Chicago and Springfield, Ill.

Michelle and Barack have always been madly in love, they’ve always been best friends, and she’s always been his closest confidante. Their relationship has remained constant at all levels, and it’s wonderful to see.”

Joanna Coles, editor of the women’s magazine Marie Claire, couldn’t help having a naughtier thought as she watched the inaugural coverage from afar.

You feel there’s some real presidential whoopee going on, and more power to them,” says Coles.

On a more serious note, Coles sees the Obamas as the first in the White House to really represent a modern couple making it work, with all the tradeoffs and turn-taking that implies.

I think it is fantastically inspiring,” Coles says. “He couldn’t have done it without her incredible support — and she giving him this big chance. But I don’t think anybody thinks Michelle has given up her career. The minute he’s out of office, she will be stepping it up. A true partnership is about passing the baton.”

A scholar of the American marriage, Stephanie Coontz, is struck by how different the Obama marriage is to White House partnerships that preceded it.

We’ve seen love in the White House before, but in many cases it was the adoring wife, along the lines of Nancy Reagan,” says Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “What the Obamas have is a jocular, playful love, a mutual respect, and on Michelle’s part, a lack of awe and of adoration.”

Indeed, Michelle Obama had to tone down a tendency early in the campaign to joke about her husband’s domestic failures — such as forgetting to put away the butter — or his smelly morning breath.

The very story of how the Obamas met is a modern one, notes Coontz. She was his assigned mentor at the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin. So right off the bat, “there wasn’t the old sense that the guy is a leader,” says Coontz. The story also reflects a modern statistic: In at least five cities, Coontz says, women in their 20s earn more than men in the same age group.

The Obamas have been called role models for so many things — could they be reasonably expected to serve as one for healthy marriages, too? That may be taking things too far.

I don’t think they’re going to cause couples to develop better relationships,” Coontz says. “But it IS nice to have one’s own relationship reflected in the White House, or one’s desires for a relationship.”

Dillard, for one, says he looks at his old friend and wants to learn from him in this way, too.

“It helps me in my own life
,” says the legislator, 52, who like Obama has two young daughters. “I want to be more like the Obamas in the way that I adore my wife and relate to my children.”

Of course, there’s the other side of it — watching the Obama marriage can cause a little jealousy, or even a sense of pressure to achieve the same thing.

It worries me because, how many years have they been married, and they’re so romantic?” asks Geralyn Lucas, a New York mother and author. “It’s total pressure!”

Like so much about the Obama presidency, the relationship may simply be a sign of a multilayered generational shift.

They’re in a generation where parents kiss each other in front of their kids,” says Janice Min, editor of Us Weekly, the celebrity magazine that has made frequent use of smiling shots of Obama, his wife and family.

And it’s certainly possible that the Obama marriage is fascinating and inspiring to only Obama supporters — contributors of gushy comments on YouTube aren’t required to say who they voted for.

In a sense, it’s people who love this president so much, and so they love the woman he loves, too,” says Min. “For them, there’s already a fairytale aspect to this presidency, and to have the romance layered on top of that, it just makes it all the more intriguing.”

Still, Min thinks the public as a whole is genuinely fascinated with its first real glimpse into the emotional life of a president. “Just to know anything about a president’s romantic life is so unusual,” says Min. “Just to even think they have one is so intriguing.”

And, Democrat or Republican, it’s hard to ignore that this president, when it comes to affairs of the heart, has his priorities straight.

First of all,” he said to the crowd at the first inaugural ball, “How good-looking is my wife?”


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