It’s hard to imagine another political couple, much less one residing in the White House, agreeing to sit down with a reporter from the New York Times Magazine to discuss the intimate particulars of their marriage as the Obamas did for a cover story in this Sunday’s magazine. Or perhaps the reverse is true: It’s hard to imagine that most reporters would find the particulars of a good political marriage a newsworthy topic. The Clintons’ marriage, portrayed as mercenary at best, was fodder for torrid speculation and political character assassination; the Bushes made everyone wonder how an elegant book-reading woman with seemingly moderate views put up with her smirking frat boy of a husband (a puzzle that inspired, among other things, Curtis Sittenfeld’s splendidly nuanced fictional take on their marriage, “An American Wife.”) But the Obamas are the fairy tale; our Bama-lot, a suave, sexy, undeniably modern couple who inspire speculation not for their sins, but their virtues. Instead of mockery, they make us ask: Dude, how can we get some of that?
The Obamas’ answer is usually some variation of: “Work really fucking hard for it.” Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the couple is that while their marriage is most often held up by others as an ideal to aspire to — or flat-out envy — the two people in it, when asked, spend much of their time dissecting the ways in which they have failed each other. “The image of a flawless relationship,” writes Jodi Kantor, is, according to Michelle, “the last thing we want to project. It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair to young couples trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.”
Although it seems paradoxical that one of the most envied couples in the nation is also one of the most vocal about the hardships of marriage, it makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly, the Obamas wouldn’t have the luxury of nitpicking at the flaws, major and minor, of their relationship if others made a habit of doing so, too. But they have quite a bit of distance to fall before they would succeed in knocking themselves off their own pedestal. And in many ways, it’s entirely consistent with the rest of their philosophy: Just as one’s accomplishments shouldn’t be limited by birth, marriage isn’t about who you are, it’s about what you do. And just as you’d expect, the Obamas see yet another “teachable moment” in describing the mechanics of their marriage.
The first couple recognizes that their personal life is political; Kantor even describes it as central to Barack’s overall “political brand.” But politics itself is the thing that, for a time, made their personal life nearly untenable. She writes: “Since he first began running for office in 1995, Barack and Michelle Obama have never really stopped struggling over how to combine politics and marriage: how to navigate the long absences, lack of privacy, ossified gender roles and generally stultifying rules that result when public opinion comes to bear on private relationships.”
In fact, when you read the Obamas’ account of their marriage, the shocking thing is that any family manages to combine the stress of marriage and politics, much less endure the unfortunate side effect of having their marriages scrutinized by an unforgiving public. Let’s just start here: Until moving into the White House, the family had not lived full-time under the same roof since 1996, two years before Malia was born. To repeat: Barack has been at least a part-time absent father and husband for nearly 13 years.
This left Michelle, obviously, to care for their two children largely on her own. “She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,” says Susan Sher, her former boss and current chief of staff, who remembers that Michelle showed up for her interview at University of Chicago Medical Center carrying newborn Sasha, because her sitter had canceled. Not only was she left with the bulk of the childcare, but Barack’s political career wasn’t enough to pay the bills, leaving her to earn the income as well. As Barack recalls, “She said, ‘Well, you’re gone all the time and we’re broke. How is that a good deal?’” (Note that the guy who put her in the situation is also the guy who remembers just exactly what he did.)
How indeed? The answer, it seemed to be, was that Michelle just happened to find herself married to a Great Man, though neither of them knew it yet. “Barack doesn’t belong to you,” Michelle’s friend Yvonne Davilia recalls telling her back in the mid-’90s, when Barack was finishing up his memoir and considering getting into politics. But at first, Michelle “just wasn’t ready to share” her husband. Which begs the question: With what? His future destiny as leader of the free world? And would that destiny have been possible had a Great Woman, who also happened to be his intellectual and professional equal, not stepped in to look after the more prosaic concerns of raising the children and collecting a paycheck? “That was sort of an eye-opener to me, that marriage is hard,” says Michelle. “But going into it, no one tells you that. They just tell you, ‘Do you love him? What does the dress look like?’”
At this point it might be worth noting that in seeing a temporary absence from his family as a fair price to pay for greater goals, Barack was not simply following the model of his father (who had “fleeting” relationships with his wives and children), but also the model of his mother, who spent long periods of time away from her children while working as an anthropologist in Indonesia. Michelle had to point out to him, according to Sher, that a lot of parenting is about “sheer physical presence, which wasn’t something he was used to.”
The very essence of marriage is finding ways to calibrate individual aspirations with the cumbersome, day-to-day workings of a larger family unit. And it’s beyond ludicrous that those people whose individual achievements make their family lives most visible — politicians, actors, writers, musicians — are often those whose family lives are most compromised by the costs of individual achievement. But in asking us to take a good long look behind the curtain of their marriage, the Obamas have given us a better lesson in the real costs and benefits of family values than any fairy tale could.