The perfect first family. Dammit

Are the Obamas setting an unrealistic standard for marriage?

By Amanda Fortini

Published June 9, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Are the Obamas creating a nationwide inferiority complex? An article in the Times Styles section marveled over the pair’s recent “date night” in New York, where they ate at a restaurant and took in a Broadway play. "How do they make the time?" a reader might ask. There are children to raise, a mother-in-law to house, a puppy to walk and, oh, a superpower to run. Author Jan Hoffman assesses the nation’s “romance envy” and imagines slighted wives glaring and elbowing at the breakfast table and henpecked husbands feeling “betrayed by the commander in chief.” Meanwhile Sean Gregory, in an article in Time titled “Obamas, Stop Ruining My Marriage,” attempts to console such anxious couples: “But in the relationship department,” Gregory writes, “no one should ever wonder why they’re not meeting a standard set by the Obamas.”

It’s true that the Obamas appear to be an intimidatingly functional pair, with their constant affectionate winking at each other, their enlightened, considerate “Michelle time” and their adorable, well-behaved daughters – the legacy of the Obamas' studied, reasonable parenting – who perform “first chores” and are always, without exception, in bed by 8. In the White House, we haven’t seen many such ideal models of marriage and family, but rather numerous examples of blazing dysfunction. Think of the retrograde Reagan marriage (he called her “mommy”), or the florid infidelities of Bill Clinton. As for the first children, they provide a virtual parade of maladjustment: the sullen, tomboyish Amy Carter; the rebellious, disaffected Reagan kids; the hard-partying Bush twins, and poor Chelsea, who often seemed a sort of first prop. Not since JFK was in the White House has there been a political marriage Americans have envied to this extent, a first family they might actually like to emulate.

Perhaps more relevantly, never before have we seen a White House marriage so thoroughly imbued by our therapy-saturated culture. Who’s to say whether the Obamas have ever seen a shrink or read "Getting the Love You Want." Like everyone else in America, though, they have spent the past two decades steeped in self-help concepts and ideas – like, well, that of date night, or the idea that one must consciously “make time” for one’s spouse. Indeed, while they appear to love and admire each other, their marriage does not seem accidental or organic. They appear to think about and tend to it, presumably pulling weeds when they arise. (In his new book, "Renegade," political journalist Richard Wolffe notes that their marriage hit a rough patch some years ago: Michelle apparently found Barack too focused on his career; he found her “cold and ungrateful” – both blessedly humanizing tidbits.) Their marriage looks as if it requires what it is often said all marriages require: hard work. Gregory reassures readers that the Obamas have time to do this work because they have the “advantages” of, among other amenities, 8,000 cooks and maids, a 132-room house and a mother-in-law on call. In doing so, he points out, intentionally or not, the discomfiting flip side of any self-help concept, the same notion Susan Sontag emphasized in "Illness as Metaphor": If you can help yourself, then it’s your fault if you don’t. If there are methods by which to resuscitate a marriage, however corny or contrived they may seem, you have only yourself to blame if you don’t try them.

Thus the dark but fairly obvious truth that Americans have long relished the psychodrama of the first family. It’s entertainment (most of us prefer the bickering of “The Osbournes” to the anesthetizing comfort of, say, “Our House”), but it also makes us feel better about our inability to fix our own flawed relationships and lives. It may be that Obama was elected in part because voters idealized the Obama marriage – next to the Clinton, Edwards and McCain partnerships, it surely ranks as the most enviably healthy – but now we must watch it in all its glory for the next four years.

It’s a little like attending a collective couples’ counseling session that sets forth a model of exemplary marital behavior. By turns, the example spurs us to improvement and reminds us of our inadequacy. Then again, we can also look back at the supposedly halcyon exhibit of the Kennedys and realize that any marriage, no matter how dazzling, is always more complicated than it appears.

Amanda Fortini

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