Barack Obama and his mama

The presidential candidate says his mother and other key women have shaped who he is today.


Carol Lloyd
January 4, 2008 7:40PM (UTC)

Barack Obama's uxorious post on the Glamocracy blog yesterday offered an interesting counterpoint to his wife's sometimes prickly profile in Vanity Fair last week.

Obama asserted an irresistible platitude: that the women in his life have made him the man he is today. He extols his white grandmother's lack of bigotry in accepting his parents' biracial marriage, his mother's kindness and generosity, and his wife's "beauty, strength and integrity." Yeah sure, the guy's addressing a young female readership in an election in which young female voters are the "it" demographic and he's in a neck-and-neck race with the first potential female president of the United States. What else could the dude possibly do but lay it on thick with cream and sugar? Yet somehow, he managed to radiate sincerity -- so much so that many of the commenters discussed how the posting moved them to tears or made them feel "a little soft inside."

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Having just finished "Dreams From My Father," Obama's memoir about growing up in mostly white/Asian households in Hawaii and Indonesia, and then as an adult rediscovering his African family in Kenya, I'll vouch that he was indeed raised by fascinating, strong women. (He wrote the book while still in law school, so it's not a political hack job.) And given the fact that he spent only one month of his life with his African father, he's not exaggerating that his most powerful influences came from women. No doubt they helped him become a rare sort of American character -- the kind who doesn't just observe the nation's complexities but embodies them.

Yet despite Obama's impressive multi-culti credentials, it's obvious he hasn't walked a mile in a woman's shoes. In the Vanity Fair profile, Michelle Obama openly discusses her frustration earlier in their marriage when she felt as if she was raising their two daughters alone because Barack was away working on his political career. Of course, her point is that she's all over those days of frustration, that she has made her peace, has cut back on her own career as a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center to 20 percent and plans to quit that job if Barack is elected. Yet underneath her words about compromise, there still seethes the sense that with young children and a marriage based on an equal partnership, there are limits to how much one spouse should sacrifice for the other spouse's dreams. Most pointedly, she told Vanity Fair that "it was now or never" for the White House and that they wouldn't "keep running and running and running, because at some point you get the life beaten out of you."

Some may want to splash Ms. O with a cold dose of reality: This is the presidency, honey, the country's welfare is at stake -- who cares about your career? (One of my illustrious colleagues even called her a "princess.") But frankly, I'm heartened to see one woman articulate her own boundaries, and give her own career dreams some weight, even when they may pale in comparison with the aspirations of her husband. After all, it's her life. And with the breakneck pace and excruciating length of campaigns nowadays, election burnout may become the norm.

Would Michelle Obama be the country's most liberated first lady? Not unless she can keep the finger-pointing under control. In the Vanity Fair profile and elsewhere, she has taken potshots at Hillary Clinton, implying that her husband's extramarital affairs somehow disqualify her for the presidency. "If you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House," she told a Chicago crowd. That's the sort of feminism we can do without.

UPDATE: In reponse to today's letters, it's great to see so many people coming to Michelle Obama's defense. I'm not kidding; I appreciate your perspective. If you believe her refutation that the comment I quoted ("If you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House") was entirely related to her own family priorities and scheduling, and not an underhanded joust at Hillary Clinton, then that's fine. But after watching her use that line repeatedly in a number of contexts -- a line typically met with a jeering round of applause from the audience -- I still contend there is a deeper implication that some people don't run their own houses so well, and therefore shouldn't be running the White House. Could she be referring to Giuliani's divorces or some other candidate's personal life? It's conceivable. But honestly, I hardly thought it was a controversial assertion that Hillary was an obvious target. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to read between the lines and see the powerful ambiguity of these words.

Does my interpretation of her words constitute "swiftboating" Obama and watercarrying for Clinton? I would hate to think so. Especially since (I'll say it) I'm not a Clinton supporter! But it struck me as interesting that in a post that was almost wholely supportive of Michelle and Barack Obama, my words were construed as supporting Clinton. Is there still an assumption -- despite all our posts to the contrary? -- that Broadsheet must be supporting the New York senator because she's got ovaries? Or have I been missing the elusive posts which cheerlead for Hillary and slam the opposition?

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Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

MORE FROM Carol Lloyd

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Broadsheet Love And Sex Michelle Obama

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