The Obamas' Marriage.


The New York Times magazine (quadmoniker, avert your eyes) has a whale of a story this week about the relationship between Barack and Michelle Obama. It focuses more on Michelle than Barack, which makes sense because she’s been quite frank about their marriage since the campaign. There’s plenty of meat in the story, but one kind of surprising tidbit is that the Obamas haven’t shared a full-time home since 1996.

Of course, that makes sense considering that Barack moved to Springfield as a state senator. Michelle was all but a single parent for several years, and when Barack ran for national office against Bobby Rush for national office, the strain on Michelle and their marriage increased.

One afternoon in July, sitting in Jarrett’s airy West Wing office, I asked her how the young politician responded to his wife’s assertions that he was leaving her to raise their children alone. Jarrett, whose own marriage ended in part because of career-related conflict, not only recalled Barack’s replies but she also started reciting them. “ ‘I’ll make it work,’ ” said Jarrett, speaking in his voice. “ ‘We can make it work. I’ll do more.’ ” It sounded as if she could have been describing the Barack Obama of today, certain of his ability to juggle an intimidating number of priorities.

Two months later in the Oval Office, I asked the Obamas just how severe their strains had been. “This was sort of the eye-opener to me, that marriage is hard,” the first lady said with a little laugh. “But going into it, no one ever tells you that. They just tell you, ‘Do you love him?’ ‘What’s the dress look like?’ ”

3859980333_30ed588c0cI asked more directly about whether their union almost came to an end.

“That’s overreading it,” the president said. “But I wouldn’t gloss over the fact that that was a tough time for us.”

Did you ever seek counseling? I asked.

The first lady looked solemnly at the president. He said: “You know, I mean, I think that it was important for us to work this through. . . . There was no point where I was fearful for our marriage. There were points in time where I was fearful that Michelle just really didn’t — that she would be unhappy.”

Several years later, he devoted several pages of “The Audacity of Hope” to the conflict. (Judging from interviews, more than a few Chicagoans knew that Michelle once openly resented what her husband’s political career had cost her, so he may have been wise to raise the issue before anyone else.) In the end, what seems more unusual than the Obamas’ who-does-what battles — most working parents have one version or another — is the way they turned them into a teachable moment, converting lived experience into both a political message and what sounds like the opposite of standard political shtick.

“If my ups and downs, our ups and downs in our marriage can help young couples sort of realize that good marriages take work. . . .” Michelle Obama said a few minutes later in the interview. The image of a flawless relationship is “the last thing that we want to project,” she said. “It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.”

3942063467_5a38584215This last bit is important. The Obamas are held up as a paradigm of Black Love™, but I think their decision to be candid about the struggles they’ve faced deserves more attention. So many men and women wonder when they’ll find their very “own” Barack or Michelle, without remembering that the real Barack and Michelle are imperfect people who have stayed together against some considerable odds. Barack appears to have stepped up when confronted, but most of their success seems due to Michelle learning to give him up, a little at a time. That’s something people in relationships often do, but the difference is that this couple ended up in the White House, which has given them a chance to reconnect in a way few people can.

[Images from the White House Flickr photostream.]

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  • pprscribe

    Thanks for this. I just posted on this at my blog. I suspect that what is going to happen now is that media outlets will be looking to post stories on Black marriages, inspired by this. It is nice that there will be recognition that, yes, there are Black folks who are married to each other *and* raising healthy kids *and* managing professional jobs, etc etc. But my fear is that we will be made out to be exotic and/or problem/angst-ridden.

    This is key for me: “I think their decision to be candid about the struggles they’ve faced deserves more attention.” I rarely talk about my own marriage on my blog or even in person with friends. FOr one, that is an area of my life that I like to keep private (especially with respect to my husband because of both his personal and professional needs). But I have also sometimes felt hostility from people who want to characterize my marriage as “unrealistic” or something. So the idea of exploring the Obama’s candor (not necessarily their marriage per se) is an interesting one.

  • Ron

    I enjoyed the story for the simple reason that probably more than any other First Couple in recent memory, their relationship plays out in a very real-time way because of our media cycles and they seem to do a good job of not just recognizing it, but demonstrating the real challenges of what they face in honest language.

    I wonder how much Michelle will get for her book deal when they finally leave the White House…

  • Scipio Africanus

    I wonder if they cherish Reasonable Doubt all the much more, as a result.

  • Shades of the Hill-Bill conflict. Early on in their marriage, Hillary was the high-powered heiress of Chicago movers and shakers, whereas Bill was this shaggy-haired Rhodes scholar who can from dirt. Yet because of society at the time, guess who was supposed to junk their career plans to make the marriage work? Yup, the woman. Which is why Bill, feeling guilty over all of this, has busted his hump to give Hillary back what he took away from her nearly forty years ago: A shot at the Big Time.

    I think it’s actually been a bit easier for the Obamas lately, as while she has ambitions, they’re a) not necessarily in electoral politics, and b) the sort that can now be facilitated thanks to her husband’s meteoric rise. Plus, since they all now — including her mother, who is a doting grandma to their children — live above the family store now, they get to be together and to fulfill their career goals.