First Mates

The Obama Marriage

How does it work for Michelle Obama?

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 looks at Michelle Obama’s role in the marriage. Next time, she considers Barack Obama’s role, and what their partnership tells us about what kind of president he might be. 

Barack and Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama has stopped publicizing even her husband’s most forgivable flaws, though truth to tell, she never accused him of anything more reprehensible than leaving the butter out after breakfast. Still, she no longer enlightens audiences on how he can’t seem to manage to pitch his dirty socks into the hamper. In interviews, she has quit humanizing him quite as pungently as when she told Glamour that he’s “so snore-y and stinky” when he wakes up in the morning that their little girls don’t want to crawl into bed with him.

She dialed back on proclaiming him “a gifted man, but in the end just a man,” after New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who has lots of advice for wives, wrote that some supporters “worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband—under fire for lacking experience—as an undisciplined child.” But what the candidate’s wife was trying to pull off, according to her friends, was not an act of sabotage but something even more subversive: How about let’s not pretend that he or any other candidate is perfect, so that when he turns out not to be, we can all skip pretending to be surprised?

We say we want truth in political advertising, but do we? We say we want candidates who are authentic and have real relationships, too, but when they are and do, the howls of protest—are you going to play this game or aren’t you?—come first and foremost from the press. Connoisseurs of artifice, we object on those rare occasions when the only reasonable conclusion is that we have not been lied to. And we demand from candidates and their spouses what Dowd once told an interviewer she considers the secret of a good marriage: “a certain amount of acting.”

“People think I’m trashing him,” Michelle Obama told Susan Sher, a longtime friend and her boss at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she is vice president for community and external affairs. “I was trying to make a larger point, that we want to put our president on a pedestal, when not only can no one fulfill all our fantasies, but we’re all in this together and we can’t leave it up” to any one Decider. 

In the same way, both Barack and Michelle Obama have made a conscious, conspicuous effort to represent their marriage in the most realistic possible terms. So much so, in fact, that they may have overdone it, not only sharing strains that other political couples would have papered over, but portraying a strong relationship in a sometimes overly harsh light.  This is what perfectionists in love look like, unaccustomed as we are to the sight. And this is how two former community organizers function in a relationship that’s far more egalitarian than most political unions. Decision by consensus is so crucial to both Obamas that she once took him along on a job interview—not for backup, but to see if the interviewer passed Barack’s test.

The woman Barack Obama married 15 years ago is a stickler, but the sane, unoperatic kind, who eats well and sees her trainer, gets the sleep she needs and overprepares for meetings. Until recently, she was a fixture at their daughters’ school—but without the slightest tendency to fret over the color of the cupcakes. She is too practical for that, and has no problem telling her 6- and 9-year-old girls that if they don’t like what’s being served for lunch, then they’ll be good and hungry for dinner. Though her job is in PR, a former colleague notes that she “is not interested in massaging your ego”—primarily because she sees flattery not as an emollient but as a trap and potential stumbling block. The Obamas are “are both very driven” Ivy-educated lawyers, but he is laid-back by comparison, according to her brother, Craig Robinson. “Barack has a calming effect on their family. My sister is very meticulous and straightforward and she’s more of the taskmaster.” They laugh more when he is around, her brother says. But not just anybody could play straight man to such a serious guy.

In their marriage, Michelle serves as the role model’s role model, keeper of books and all of the lists, defender of standards no one else even knows about. “Michelle is the one who makes sure all the things that need to get done get done,” says his Harvard Law buddy Cassandra Butts. “And as my sister likes to say, ‘If Mommy’s not happy, nobody’s happy.’ ”

That she even sees leaving the butter out as a lapse worth mentioning speaks to the unforgiving standards of the world in which Michelle Robinson grew up. In the South Shore neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, there were very few do-overs for those who fell short, and letting one’s guard down was a luxury. Almost invariably, the first thing friends mention about her is that they have never known her to be caught unprepared. “My sister is really good at most things,” offers her brother, who is the head basketball coach at Brown University. Which must have been annoying growing up, huh? Even now, Robinson does not indulge the feeble joke: “No, because I’m really good at most things, too. It’s the way my parents raised us, that if you’re really prepared, there’s no reason you can’t be good at whatever you choose to be good at. So no, it was not annoying at all.” Today, watching her in action—giving a speech better than he does, and working a crowd equally well—one wonders not why she and her husband are together, but who in the world else he might have married.

Barack Obama has never been accused of having a second-rate ego, but he depends on her to keep it in check. Among other things, she is his insurance policy against pride, with an eye on the line between idealism and self-indulgence. In both of his books, he sometimes seems to be writing for an audience of one, and the reviewer in his head is not Michiko Kakatani. “My wife will roll her eyes right about now,” he tells us in one such passage, in Dreams From My Father. So he’s playing to her, not telling on her, when instead of air-brushing the tensions in their marriage out of the montage, he zooms in to reveal every single enlarged pore, like those overly ominous close-ups the New York Times Magazine favors. In the senator’s 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he writes that after their first daughter, Malia, was born, he was so busy working that “we had little time for conversation, much less romance. … Leaning down to kiss Michelle good-bye in the morning, all I would get was a peck on the cheek. By the time Sasha was born—just as beautiful, and almost as calm as her sister—my wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained. ‘You only think about yourself,’ she would tell me. ‘I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone.’ ” And it was he who revealed what she’d whispered before he took the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: “Don’t screw it up, buddy.”

If she’s hard on him, it’s not because she thinks he is a screw-up, but because her expectations could hardly be higher. “She thought he was so outstanding that if he became mired in local or state politics, he’d never achieve greatness,” says Dan Shoman, who was Obama’s closest aide during his years in Springfield, Ill. Neither of the Obamas made a secret of the fact that she thought the whole exercise of serving in the state legislature was beneath him. “I remember him saying his wife thought he could do more,” says his friend Denny Jacobs, who served alongside him. “I think she thought he was—I don’t want to say twiddling his thumbs, but she thought he should either do something to move up, or he should get the hell out. She’s his prod.” And from the first moment, his mentor.

Obama walked into her office in 1988, after his first year at Harvard Law. He had a summer job at her firm, Sidley Austin, in Chicago, and she had been asked to be his summer adviser. Obama wrote about their first meeting in Audacity:“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.” She explained billable hours, and the rest was history—but not right away. “They were being careful—or she was,” says John Levi, the partner who hired them both. “I gather she was reluctant” to jump into an office romance. Her brother says that’s an understatement: “You have to know a little bit about my father. My father was not college-educated, a hard-working man who raised two kids when he had M.S., so the example we had was a father full of integrity, and that was the kind of guy my sister was looking for. We used to joke as a family, ‘She’ll never find a guy like that, because they don’t exist any more.’ “

So when Michelle first brought Barack around that summer, Robinson says, “He was just another one who wasn’t going to make it. Not that she had a lot of boyfriends, because she didn’t; it was hard to pass muster with my sister. He had a gauntlet to go through.” Her sense of purpose matched his, and that was important as they met each other’s friends—and each other’s challenges. Before she even agreed to go on a date, “she asked me to play basketball with him. Not to see [how good a] player he was, but because she’d grown up hearing my dad and I say you can tell a lot about a guy on the basketball court.” And the findings? “No personality flaws with respect to the basketball evaluation, so they started dating.” On their first date, they saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

They have each described falling in love with the other’s ideals; at a rally last month in Manchester, N.H., she told the audience that when they were courting, “He took me to a small church basement on the South Side of Chicago,” a place he knew from his days as a community organizer. “And he walked into that church basement just as comfortable and confident … and I knew he had been there before, and that this wasn’t just a part-time fancy … and he talked about the simple notion that we as Americans understand the world as it is—and it is a world sometimes that is disappointing and unfair—but our job as American citizens is to work towards building the world as it should be. And as Barack spoke in that church basement, he moved me.”

Obama was attracted to Michelle’s actual family and sense of family, her South Side roots and strong Christian faith. “She wanted to be of service and he found that very attractive,” says Jerry Kellman, who brought Obama to Chicago and trained him as an organizer. When she left her big law job for the public sector—initially, a position in the mayor’s office—”I thought I was going to have a coronary,” says Levi, the partner who had recruited her. “I had a very high opinion of Michelle, and she was doing great work for the firm.” After they were married in 1992, Barack recommended her for another pay cut—in a post with the community leadership training program Public Allies—a startup that hadn’t even really started up yet when Bill Clinton named it as a model AmeriCorps program.

As it turned out, her work there was not bad preparation for her later role as Mrs. Barack Obama, circa 2004: “The program is only three months old, and the most powerful man in the world has said we’re great,” says Paul Schmitz, who has been with the program ever since. “We didn’t really even know what we wanted to do yet, but we were all believing the media hype.” All, that is, except Michelle: “She was the one who said, ‘That’s nice, but let’s dress the emperor.’ She’s the one who got some substance behind a fairly hyped idea.”

In her current job at the University of Chicago hospitals, “[S]he’s taken public affairs from one employee to 17 in five years,” according to her boss. Right after taking the job, she asked if the 200 or so volunteers who donate their time to the hospital could report to her; there are 800 now, and she’s also started a separate program in which some 700 hospital employees spend their off-hours volunteering in the surrounding communities.  More than we might expect, given her training and their two-career household, their division of labor has been fairly traditional: “First of all, Barack expects her to be the mother of his children, and she expects that also,” his friend Denny Jacobs says. If she becomes first lady, “[A]ll she knows is she’ll be Michelle and take care of the girls first,” says Sher. Yet it’s also true she has not entirely given up her own work, and comes in one day a week even now. “First she went down to half-time, and she was going to take a leave. But her independent life meant enough to her that she just couldn’t do it.”

Ambitious as she’s been for her husband, she was not quick to sign on for her husband’s ‘04 senatorial run; it’s her way to wade in carefully. And because she keeps the accounts, she worried that they could not afford for him to make the race. After one early campaign event, he came home marveling, “Michelle, they were drinking the juice”—couldn’t get enough of the Kool-Aid, in fact, Shoman remembers. “And she said, ‘You don’t even have enough money to drink your own juice’ ” at a fund-raiser like that.

Even now that she is busy passing the presidential juice around, what she tells audiences is not that he will swoop in to the rescue, but that they have a lot of hard work ahead of them, too. Just as she prods her husband, she prods them. In a fiery recent speech to the National Congress of Black Women in Washington, she said, “The saddest reality is that we as black women still don’t love ourselves enough. We don’t eat right, ladies, we don’t exercise, we don’t demand healthy relationships, we wait too long to address our health care problems. … So the question that we must ask ourselves as black women is, ‘Are we really ready for fundamental change?’ ”

As it turns out, Michelle Obama’s patter about the butter and the unmade beds was not a put-down, or even a throwaway line—but a through line in the marriage of two people who actually mean it when they say that setting up one guy as the lead dog who is supposed to pull us out of this mess can only cause more of the same. They see that leadership model as a risky way to run a family—or a country. Which is why she persists in telling every audience that “it’s about all of us,” that change can only come from them, from the grassroots up and the inside out. And why the central question of his candidacy is whether that’s the kind of change the country wants. “In a meeting, he’s not the father figure, the know-all and be-all politician you defer to,” says his friend Cassandra Butts. “He wants engagement, he wants you to challenge him, and that comes across in the role Michelle plays in his life. If people are attracted to him, it’s because he can lead without being authoritarian. Unlike the current president and many politicians of that generation, Barack doesn’t have a my-way-or-the-highway mentality. The people in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina are ready or they’re not.”

Tomorrow: What the Obama marriage  might mean for his presidency.