First Mates

The Obama Marriage

What it could mean for his presidency.

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 studies Barack Obama’s role in the relationship, and considers what his marriage tells us about what kind of president he might be. In this piece, she examined Michelle Obama’s role.

When Barack Obama feels sorry for himself, it is not as a black man but as a family man, a put-upon father unfairly kept away from home by a world that has conspired to keep him at work or on the road. “He’ll get angry and when there’s pressure he’ll say, ‘Don’t you know I have kids?’ ” says Dan Shoman, who was Obama’s closest aide during his years in the Illinois State Senate.As in, I’m missing bedtime for this? Every salaried mom stuck in a pointless meeting knows that feeling, sure—but also the cost of letting it show. Actually expressing that kind of guilt and ambivalence—when I’m here, I feel I should be there, and vice versa—is about as sure a career-enhancer as calling in sick with the babysitter’s menstrual cramps. And if the career in question were as commander in chief, we’d be in truly uncharted territory.

In lashing out this way, it’s himself Obama is really beating up on. Especially on the home front, “he’s a person who feels guilt whether he is guilty or not,” says Shoman. In fact, he’s a person who is motivated by guilt, even more than by glory. In his first book, Dreams From My Father, he says his mom used to joke that she’d slipped self-recrimination into his baby food: ” ‘Don’t worry, though,’ she added, smiling like the Cheshire cat. ‘A healthy dose of guilt never hurt anybody. It’s what civilization was built on, guilt. A highly underrated emotion.’ ”

And not such a bad thing in a husband.

As Obama tells it, all the men in his life were fragile, but the women could be relied upon. In his wife, Obama sees a lot of his mother’s mother—the intensely practical, no-nonsense Kansan who raised him, anchored him, and got on the bus every morning to earn the living for their family, too. “She doesn’t always know what to make of me,” he writes of Michelle in Dreams, and “worries that, like Gramps and the Old Man, I am something of a dreamer. Indeed, in her eminent practicality and Midwestern attitudes, she reminds me not a little of Toot,” his grandmother, who when she met Michelle for the first time pronounced her “a very sensible girl.” It would be wrong to cast Michelle Obama as some kind of marital hall monitor. A joyless job like that is one of the many things she would never stand for. But she does demand that he live up to his own almost impossibly high standards—and because he, too, worries that he is something of a dreamer, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He wants a mate who will insist that he be the kind of father he never had—and still fears not being. The father for whom he was named was brilliant and idealistic but unmoored; he returned to Africa while Obama was still a baby and visited only once after that, but married three times, and in the end saw his dreams come to nothing. 

In some ways, Obama’s choice in a mate mirrors those of the last two presidents. Like Bill Clinton, he not only grew up without a father but was separated from his free-spirited mother for long stretches. He, too, picked a spouse who was not only his intellectual equal but brought some much-needed ballast to the party, and a permanent address. Like George W. Bush, Obama speaks of his wife as a stabilizing force, supportive but with a stickpin in her purse, in case his bubble needs popping.

Which, as he tells it, keeps him out of trouble and true to his marriage vows:  “We would talk about temptation in Springfield,” when Obama served there, says his friend and former colleague state Sen. Kim Lightford. “And he would say, ‘No, no, no, I would never [cheat]. Michelle would kick my butt. Not only would it not be worth it, but I would not want to have to deal with that.’ Michelle is totally in control. She is friendly but very stern and sharp—stern is the only way I know to say it—and she is very involved in his decision making.”

As evidence of the good judgment he brags about, Michelle Obama is an impressive human credential—a self-described “little black girl from the South Side of Chicago, the daughter of working-class parents and the product of a public-school education,” who trained at Princeton and Harvard, walked away from a big law firm to work in the public sector, and, as her former community organizing colleague Paul Schmitz puts it, “has a compass with as good a True North as anyone I’ve ever known. When she gives feedback, you want to follow it.” Which is what Obama does.

And just as she is a telling reflection of his values and priorities, their partnership is as good an indication as we are likely to get of the strengths the senator would bring to the White House—the steadiness and idealism, the willingness to listen and the ability to feel bad—and on the other side of the ledger, those same qualities perceived as weakness.

Several of their friends say that in his marriage as in his public life, he is quite serious about sticking to the power-sharing, “it’s about all of us” philosophy he adopted decades ago as a young community organizer. As is she.

It isn’t just that he consults his wife; it’s that his whole leadership style is more consultative and consensus-driven than the more traditional and authoritarian because-I-said-so model. So, one central question is whether the public is ready to buy the kind of change he’s selling, the kind of “transformation that comes from the bottom up and the inside out.” Another is whether, if not in his marriage then in his public life, there is such a thing as too amenable.

A Democratic candidate who unsuccessfully sought his support in a state race last year says yes—and describes being floored by the submissiveness of the party’s hottest young star. This candidate, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton and did not want to be quoted by name for fear of compromising future fund-raising efforts, met with Obama privately in his Senate office, along with a couple of campaign aides: “His first question was, ‘Have you talked to [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair] Chuck Schumer?’ When I said, ‘Yes, and he’s not helping me,’ he said, ‘Sorry, I take my marching orders from Chuck Schumer.’ ” But Obama was joking, right? Not at all, says the former candidate, and an aide who was also present for the meeting seconded that: Instead of big-dogging it, he was trumpeting his obeisance. “He doesn’t know me from Adam,” the aide said. “And he’s saying this to me? You should have seen us walking out of there. We walked in silence for quite a while because we could not believe it.”

Obama is just as unembarrassed about taking marching orders from his wife: “I spent a little time at his office the day before last Thanksgiving when he was still deciding” whether to run for president in ‘08, says Andy Schapiro, a law school friend. “He was making high-level calls but he stopped and said, ‘I’ve gotta call Michelle.’ ‘Listen, Michelle, I thought I was going to be home now but I have some more calls to make. If I take the kids from 3:30 to 4:30, can you take them from 4:30 to 5:30 so I can still get my workout?’ He’s a phenomenon, a rock star, and he’s having the exact same negotiation I have with my wife every damn day:  If I take the kids for an hour, then can you be on duty while I work out? That resonated with me.” And it would resonate with a lot of men of his generation. While writing this sentence, I got an e-mail from my husband, asking if he could be out of town one day next month. But it is a departure from the norm in political families, where the partner with the title normally feels more entitled. In The Audacity of Hope, he describes calling Michelle to crow about a legislative victory and being told to pick up some ant traps on the way home: “I hung up the receiver, wondering if Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work.” He knows the answer, though, and so do we.But he’s proud of being the guy who despite his big-deal status still stops for ant traps.

It’s falling short as a husband that he would find embarrassing—to the point that he can come across as a little bit of a moralizer. When a lobbyist once showed up at his regular Springfield poker game with a woman who was drunk—and, guess what, not his wife—Obama not only took umbrage, but kept saying he couldn’t see the point of her being there. “It was a situation where someone took advantage of the fact we welcomed anybody to come, and it was not something he was accepting of,” remembers former state Sen. Larry Walsh. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, has said that when the aspiring senator got propositioned at the 2002 Congressional Black Caucus conference in Washington, he was way more surprised than his preacher was, and extremely uncomfortable.

Even in his public life, fellow politicians have sometimes found Obama’s deference to his wife admirable but costly; during his ‘04 Senate race, he told his friend Kim Lightford, the state senator who represents Chicago’s western suburbs, that he needed all the help he could get in her district and wanted her to be on the lookout for events where he could make some contacts. “So, I call him and say, ‘OK, I’ve got 700 people you can talk to, and they’re expecting you at the VIP reception’—and he says, ‘Oh, I really want to be there, but I’m having dinner with my wife that night.’ He had already committed to Michelle for that day.”

That level of commitment to her may make him a five-star husband—but does not communicate the dominance we still tend to see as presidential. Which is why, for Barack Obama, the central question posed by his marriage is not whether it would hold up under scrutiny, but whether a husband who not only bows to his wife but admits it conforms to our notion of what strength is supposed to look like.

In reality, of course, weak men do not marry powerhouses. But for all of our professed weariness with the current president’s “I’m the Decider” overreliance on his own gut, the truth is that for ages, that’s what the American public liked best about him: He’s sure of himself, knows his own mind and doesn’t change it, we said—and meant all of this as a compliment. So even now, it’s not clear that we are ready to say admiringly of our president that he values consensus, that he seeks out opposing viewpoints and then actually pays attention to them.