State of the union: One year on, are we still in love with Barack and Michelle Obama

To their millions of admirers around the world, they represent the American Dream come true. But as Barack and Michelle Obama celebrate a year in the White House, is their union as perfect as it seems?

John Walsh@johnhenrywalsh
Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

When barack and Michelle Obama flew to Oslo last month to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, they were ushered into the Holy of Holies of the human-rights world – the room at the Nobel Institute in which the committee chooses the Peace candidate every year.

They were invited to sign the Visitors' Book, where contributions from Nelson Mandela and Albert Schweitzer grace the pages. President Obama stepped forward, quivering with integrity. He gravely inscribed a long message of thanks to the committee for highlighting the cause of peace, giving a voice to the voiceless and... "What are you writing?" demanded Michelle Obama, as he reached the seventh line of his entry, "A whole book?"

When the presidential couple met King Harald and Queen Sonja and the crown princelings at the Royal Palace, everyone gathered for a group photo. It was a moment of some solemnity, as the leader of the world's only superpower met old European royalty. President Obama lifted his chin. He looked noble, dignified, a Titan among men. The cameraman inspected the viewfinder and... Michelle Obama suddenly leaned over to pluck a small piece of lint from the President's jacket. The photo-shoot was temporarily halted. Obama looked at Queen Sonja meaningfully. "This is what..." he began. The Queen understood what he meant. "...they are there for," she said firmly.

Is that really what presidential wives are there for? To fuss and fidget, bitch and banter and flick bits of fluff off their men? To hold joshing little oh-you-beast rows on the Oprah TV show about which of them gives the other better Christmas presents? To make personal remarks about each other? It's difficult to imagine Nancy Reagan saying of her beloved Ronnie, "He's a gifted man but, in the end, just a man". It stretches the imagination to think of Franklin D Roosevelt saying, of his wife Eleanor, "Sometimes, when we're lying together, I look at her and I feel dizzy..." One cannot easily contemplate Jackie Kennedy telling the press that her husband is "so snore-y and stinky when he wakes up in the mornings" that their children don't want to crawl into bed with him.

Yet this is how Barack and Michelle Obama talk and behave. They discuss each other with a down-to-earth frankness that's very modern, very American and, depending on your point of view, disarming or emetic. They are demonstratively close and loving, mutually delighted by and absorbed in each other, but boy, do they over-share. Their candour makes the breathy tributes paid by Sarah Brown to Gordon at conference time sound like Hallmark birthday cards.

Their 17-year marriage is held up by many commentators as a perfect balance of closeness and independence, tenderness and truth-telling, respect and constructive criticism. "It's unusual to have so strong a bond and so strong a marriage as the two of them have," said Valerie Jarrett, a campaign adviser in the presidential election and a close friend of Michelle. "They work very hard at it. It's not easy." Their union is praised as a friendship and a partnership as well as a love match. But after a year in the world's spotlight, just how much do we know about Mr and Mrs Obama? Is their celebrated rapport a bit of an act? Has she had to stifle her public ambitions to fit in with his? Have they spent 17 years in genuinely blissful harmony, or have sharks sometimes appeared, circling around their bateau d'amour?

It all started in the summer of 1989. Barack Obama was 27, a law student at Harvard taking a summer associateship at the Sidley Austin legal partnership in Chicago. Michelle Robinson, then 24, was working there, specialising in marketing and intellectual property. There was a tremor of excitement about the new arrival (who was the big-shot president of the Harvard Law Review) but Michelle was unimpressed. She saw his photograph and, "I thought, OK, he's probably not all that terrific, and he's probably kind of a clown," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004, "and then I found out his name was Barack Obama and like everybody else, I thought, 'What kind of name is that?'"

She was assigned to show him round and be his "summer adviser", and they clicked immediately: among other things, they were two of the very few African-Americans at the law firm. "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," he reported in The Audacity of Hope. He asked her out, but she declined, saying she didn't date work colleagues. "Eventually," though, "I wore her down."

Their first date was an all-day thing. They visited Chicago's Art Institute, took in Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing and went for a drink in a bar at the top of the 100-storey John Hancock Center. At some point, while sitting on the pavement eating Baskin Robbins ice-cream, they had their first kiss. "It tasted of chocolate," reported the smitten Barack.

Their courtship lasted two years, in which time Michelle took Barack home to meet the folks. Her brother Craig (a basketball star at Princeton) called Barack "very low-key" in his approach. Craig and Michelle's father used to claim that the only way to assess a man's worth was to watch him play basketball; Barack was shown a court, given a ball, and evidently passed muster. He, in turn, took Michelle to meet the folks in Honolulu, choosing a Christmas holiday to introduce her to the family obsession with Scrabble tournaments and their brunch of Cheddar cheese eggs and fresh orange juice.

The marriage proposal was carefully staged over dinner at Gordon's restaurant in Chicago. A waiter arrived with Michelle's dessert: a pudding plate bearing a box containing a ring. They were married in October 1992, at the Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago. The reception was carefully chosen: it was held at South Shore Cultural Center, once an elite private club where Jews or African-Americans would never get past the membership committee. The bride wore an off-the-shoulder white dress, and the happy couple honeymooned along the Californian coast.

So they settled down to a married life in Chicago, for him a career as a human-rights lawyer at Miner, Barnhill and Galland, for her a less starry career working as a fundraiser for the Chicago office of Public Allies, encouraging young people to work for non-profit groups. Later, in 1996, she joined the University of Chicago as Associate Dean of Student Services, and six years later joined University of Chicago Hospitals as a senior executive, then vice president, working for Community Affairs. As the election campaign got under way with the primaries of 2007, however, she reined in her working hours to spend time on Obama's campaign, and to devote more time to their daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Did she mind? It's interesting to compare their salaries in 2006. According to tax returns, she earnt $273,618 in the previous year, while her husband, the US senator, pulled in $157,082. She was also on the boards of food and supermarket companies. It cannot have been easy, putting a brake on her steady rise in public service, in order to devote herself to family. And family was proving to be no bed of roses.

Some insights into the early strains of the marriage can be found in the pages of Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage by the journalist Christopher Andersen, published in September 2009. Readers learnt for the first time that Michelle had suffered from chronic infertility problems. When Barack decided to embark on a political career (he ran for the state Senate in 1995), Michelle told friends she had no desire to be in politics, because her husband would often be away on community business. "I married you because you're cute and you're smart," she told him, "but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do."

He became State Senator in 1997. Family obligations wrestled with his headlong careerism. "Tired and stressed," Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "we had little time for conversation, much less romance." According to Andersen, Michelle's feelings of isolation weren't helped, or ended, by her giving birth to Malia in 1998. The family were living in a cramped first-floor apartment in Hyde Park, and Michelle found constant fault with her husband's messy habits. His private "office" behind the kitchen was dubbed "The Hole". His failure to give up smoking irritated her.

Worst, though, were his absences for long periods, as he ran for Congress in 2000. His non-attendance was enough to make her feel like a single parent. "You only think about yourself," she once said to him. "I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone." Unimpressed by her husband's claims of a busy workload, she made her feelings clear again and again. "I love Michelle, but she's killing me with this constant criticism," Barack apparently told his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham. "She just seems so bitter, so angry all the time."

Nor was Michelle very stimulated about the actual business of campaigning. When she was asked in 2000 if there was anything on the campaign trail that she enjoyed, she said that seeing so many living-rooms had given her a few ideas for interior decoration.

"I think [Michelle] could have walked at one point," Andersen wrote. "She felt abandoned. The strains in their marriage, they've been very open about. During the period when he was in the Senate – he said it was a very dark time in their marriage. It was angry all the time."

What saved the day, while bringing its own terrible strain, was a health scare. The Obamas heard that their baby daughter, Sasha, might have contracted spinal meningitis. According to the author, the parents elected henceforth to put their differences aside and thrash out answers to their problems together.

It was during the presidential election that Michelle Obama switched tack. She cut back her work commitments, stepped up her travel to political events, campaigned with Oprah Winfrey and wrote her own speeches. By February 2008, she had attended 33 events in eight days, an exhausting regime. In the early days, she used to speak on race and education issues, and was rewarded by being dubbed an "Angry Black Woman" in the press. By 2008, it was obvious that she had softened her image to a more gentle, conciliatory tone, looking for audience empathy, wearing non-designer frocks and giving interviews to the super-genteel Ladies' Home Journal. Ordinary rather than ornery, and feminine rather than feminist, became the keynotes. Then came her celebrated speech on the first night of the Democratic Convention, in which she talked about her family as an emblem of the American Dream. Her words were simple but rather moving: she talked about fairness, equality, decency and made sure she involved her husband as a co-idealist. They both believed, she said, "that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond, and you do what you say you're going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them." Seasoned political commentators wiped away tears.

She also stopped the genial abuse. From the early days of Barack's fame, Michelle seemed keen to de-mystify her brilliant husband, to take him down several pegs, to reveal him as an ordinary guy who had lucked into a political career. She told magazines how sick she was of his bad habits in the Hyde Park condominium – of picking up his socks and throwing out his cigarette butts. She grumbled about his heinous habit of not clearing away the butter after breakfast. She brought up his unfortunate morning halitosis to Glamour magazine. In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd claimed that some Obama fans "worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband – under fire for lacking experience – as an undisciplined child." Mrs Obama was nonplussed by the criticism. "People think I'm trashing him," she told Susan Sher, her boss at the University of Chicago. "I was trying to make a larger point, that we want to put our President on a pedestal, when not only can no one fulfil all our fantasies, but we're all in this together."

She learnt how easy it is to be misconstrued by the media and a much rosier picture of the family replaced the vérité stuff. Today, we're more likely to learn about Obama's determination to see his children before bedtime, and about the couple's "date nights", when the President may impulsively fire up Air Force One to fly his wife to dinner and a Broadway show in Manhattan (for which he was severely criticised for squandering public money on trivia).

But there's an element of calculation about all this: the implication that, if the First Family's relationship is doing fine, so must the President's relationship with his country. For all Obama's casual insistence that his marriage is "separate and apart from a lot of the silliness in Washington," he sometimes seems to wave it around like a political pennant, and discuss it as if portraying a wildly successful policy initiative. For "State of the Nation" read "State of the Marriage" throughout.

A fine example came at the end of October 2009 when Barack and Michelle gave an unusually frank interview to The New York Times. Sitting on adjacent striped chairs like a king-emperor and his consort, they talked about the effect of the presidency on their marriage. Nothing on the economy, nothing on troop deployments and peace initiatives, just the marriage. They confessed to the "bumps" in their relationship. They strove to reject any suggestion that they had a "perfect marriage", as if they knew it could inspire disbelief, jealousy and loathing. Michelle pointed out what a relief it was to have the family living "seven days a week in the same household with the same schedule, with the same set of rituals", something they haven't enjoyed since 1996. Ordinary Americans learnt that the couple usually see Malia and Sasha off to school, then exercise together and don't begin their public day until 9am or 10am. And they shared the redecorating decisions. It was all as cute as a pair of cupcakes.

The most interesting exchange, however, concerned equality. They were asked how any couple could have a truly equal partnership when one member is President. Barack tried to answer but Michelle butted 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 [for me to have one] in this role. So that – you can't measure that."

You can, of course, measure the psychological journey on which she's travelled since the days when she was his mentor at the Sidley Austin law firm, the days she earnt $120,000 more than him, the days she had to tell Mr Slobby to put his own underwear in the linen basket.

It's been pointed out that Mrs Obama shares many political goals with her husband: such as health-care reform, the make-up of the Supreme Court, the public's perception of White House administration. But the arc of Michelle's career suggests a woman whose world has contracted uncomfortably in the past 17 years. Her revelations about her husband's habits have been reined in. Her career in public service has reduced by degrees until she now embraces the role of First Helpmeet and Handmaiden, with subsidiary roles as First Black Model and First Fashion Plate. But the Obamas have evinced a positive genius for evolving a relationship over time, through frank discussion, argument, compromise, a cat's cradle of choices. Just as they know social change can come about only through political compromise, they know that their own relationship can flourish only if the First Lady learns to put her personal ambitions, her intelligence and scathing wit on hold. "The strengths and challenges of our marriage don't change because we move to a different address," Michelle told The New York Times. Very few people believe her.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments