NYT Magazine: How Can A Marriage Be Equal When One Of You Is President?

Here's something refreshing: Learning about a politician's marriage before it's a complete trainwreck! For this week's New York Times magazine cover story, Jodi Kantor spoke to Barack and Michelle Obama about their relationship.

"I married you because you're cute and you're smart," Michelle told the President when he first announced that he intended to run for the Illinois State Senate. "But this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do." Fourteen years later, she might think differently about her husband's political career, but it took a while to get there. And you can't blame her for being irritated along the way when she mentions that "This is the first time in a long time in our marriage that we've lived seven days a week in the same household with the same schedule, with the same set of rituals. That's been more of a relief for me than I would have ever imagined." Prior to their moving into the White House, they hadn't lived together full-time since before Malia was born.

"Barack doesn't belong to you," a friend told Michelle around the time he was in Bali writing Dreams from My Father, and not long before he started going on the road constantly. The narrative here builds toward her acceptance of that fact — or at least, that he only belongs to her in certain ways. The rewards of her letting him go, of not insisting that he give up politics and find a job that brought him home for dinner every night, are obvious. But then, so are the sacrifices. She was essentially a single mom who also worked outside the home — not entirely by choice, when the girls were little — for much of his early political career, since his time-consuming work wasn't bringing in enough to support the family. She had to bring baby Sasha to her job interview at the University of Chicago Medical Center, because her sitter canceled at the last minute and Dad was somewhere else. Says the president, "Michelle would say, ‘Well, you're gone all the time and we're broke? How is that a good deal?'" He wrote about their frequent conflict over their long-distance marriage in The Audacity of Hope ("he may have been wise to raise the issue before anyone else," Kantor notes), but says, "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." And, frankly, she was.

All those sacrifices she made leading up to his election as president make a great backstory, but Kantor is smart enough to recognize that the story's far from over. She asks the Obamas point blank "how any couple can have a truly equal partnership when one member is president." Said president hems and haws a bit before responding.

"My staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than they worry about what I think," he finally said, to laughter around the room.

The question still unanswered, his wife stepped back in: "Clearly Barack's career decisions are leading us. They're not mine; that's obvious. I'm married to the president of the United States. I don't have another job, and it would be problematic in this role. So that - you can't even measure that."

Can I just tell you how much I love that Michelle doesn't let him get away with turning it all into a joke? (Especially a hoary old, "Oh, really, my wife's the one with all the power!" joke. For fuck's sake, you're the president of the United States. That joke is annoying when regular guys make it to avoid directly addressing the actual inequality in their marriages, and off-the-charts annoying when you do it.) Michelle's gotten heaps of praise for being an Ivy League-educated lawyer with a high-powered professional background, yet dutifully taking on the role of traditional First Lady, never overstepping her bounds — unlike certain other Ivy League-educated lawyer wives of youngish Democratic presidents in recent memory. But people are so eager to applaud her for knowing her place, they don't seem willing to consider how, you know, it kind of sucks that after all the support she's given her husband, the end result is that she can't even have a job of her own. Barack doesn't belong to her — but for the time being, she belongs to Barack. And the media. And the American People. And the world. Just not so much to herself.

Oh, and about that other ivy league-educated lawyer wife — not to mention her husband. Clinton comparisons abound here, for reasons I can't quite grasp. Sure, there are some superficial similarities, but also — as the comparisons inevitably demonstrate — so many differences, it's hard to see why Kantor doesn't compare them to Bushes or Kennedys or Roosevelts or Jolie-Pitts. In fact, it's not even clear who's who in the Clinton/Obama analogy.

As a first-time candidate, Barack could be stiff; friends remember him talking to voters with his arms folded, looking defensive. Michelle warmed everyone up, including her husband. "She is really Bill, and he is really Hillary," one friend recently put it. But like Hillary Clinton - and countless other political wives - Michelle sometimes took on the role of enforcer.

Which raises the obvious question: If Michelle has both Bill's charisma and Hillary's ovaries of steel, why the hell is she not our president?

That question occurred to me again while reading the passage where Kantor gets into Michelle's "vital role in heading off the most promising female [presidential] candidate in United States history."

It was essential for the Obama campaign to present some sort of accomplished female counterweight to Hillary Clinton, to convince Democratic women that they could vote for Barack Obama and a powerful female figure besides. Consciously or not, Michelle made herself into an appealing contrast to the front-runner. She was candid; Hillary was often guarded. Michelle represented the idea that a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago could grow up to be first lady of the United States; Hillary stood for the hold of the already-powerful on the political system. And Michelle seemed to have the kind of marriage many people might aspire to; Hillary did not.

This whole passage makes me sad. That's partly because I voted for Clinton in large part because I regarded her as long-overdue proof that a little girl from the Chicago suburbs could grow up to be president, and it still irritates me to see her held up primarily as a symbol of the establishment, rather than a swift kick in the establishment's shriveled white nuts. (I think she and Obama are both about 50/50 there.) But it's also because the false equivalence continues to go unquestioned, just as it did in the campaign — we're meant to accept that becoming First Lady is basically just as momentous for a woman as becoming president would be. Which... you remember that Hillary Clinton is one of the people in this equation, right? And seriously, every time I heard that shit about a little girl from the South Side growing up to be First Lady, all I could think was, "What little girl dreams of being married to the most powerful person on the planet?" I don't know, maybe some still do in the twenty-first century, but I certainly didn't in the late twentieth. I was heartbroken when I learned in elementary school that being born in Canada makes me ineligible for the presidency; it took many more years before it fully sunk in that my vagina does, too. And sadder still is the fact that little African-American girls are faced with even less evidence to suggest they could ever scale those heights. Michelle may have Bill's charisma, Hillary's toughness and Barack's brains, but with racism and sexism both working against her, she couldn't have made it as far as any of them if she'd wanted to.

Fortunately for her, if not for little girls in desperate need of role models in politics, Michelle doesn't seem to want to. And being the wife of a cute, smart president who clearly adores her is not such a bad gig, even if it means her personal ambitions have to wait another three to seven years. Despite my focus on the First Lady's sacrifices and the inequality of the marriage here (I am a humorless feminist, after all), Kantor's portrait of the Obama's marriage is really quite sweet, warts and all. They joke. They flirt. They go on dates and ignore the conservatives who flip out about our tax dollars going toward dinner and a show. That's just not the whole picture, and Michelle herself believes revealing the warts has a higher purpose.

"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"

The First Marriage [NY Times]