I spend a good part of yesterday afternoon devouring Jodi Kantor’s meaty profile of the Obamas in The New York Times Magazine. If you haven’t read it, check it out here. It’s a terrific, fly-on-the-wall portrait of the U.S. First Couple and how the pair’s marriage has weathered his whirlwind campaign and victory, and their first year in the White House. Kantor confirms what I think a lot of us suspected: Barack might be a sleek political savant, but his wife Michelle is actually the stronger, more assured and more charismatic of the pair. Forget about being a great man, without Michelle behind him, Obama would have been an average guy at best.
And that’s in no small part due to the sacrifices Michelle has made to bolster his career. Both the Obamas are candid about what his dreams have cost her, not the least of which is her career and privacy. The couple lived apart for several years when he was either campaigning or working as a state senator and she was essentially a single mother. My favourite anecdote from this period is this one: In 2001, Michelle’s babysitter cancelled just before her job interview at the University of Chicago Medical Center, so she took her newborn daughter Sasha with her. Not only did Michelle ace the interview and get the job, her former boss, Susan Sher, is now working for Michelle as her chief of staff.
While the Obamas seem to be making their very public marriage work — who doesn’t swoon every time the couple has a date night? — and Michelle has transitioned into her role with a great deal of grace and charm, the tensions still simmering beneath are familiar to any couple juggling work and family. In order to raise their children with any kind of consistency, one of them had to step back from their ambitions. And in this case, as it still is so often, it was the wife. Most telling was Michelle’s response when asked whether it was possible for them to have an equitable relationship: “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.”
It’s a refreshingly honest admission and one that I can’t imagine any other political couple making. I don’t think we need to feel too sorry for Michelle, however. As much as she protests that she’s not interested in policy, she has a tremendous amount of influence in shaping public opinion on pet issues like support for military families, the empowerment of girls, and childhood obesity. She may have given up her career, but her sabbatical is the envy of most women I know: She gets to spend time with her kids and mom, devote herself to social causes and travel the world. And in three or seven years, when they move out of the White House, she’ll no doubt be flooded with job offers.
In the meantime, I hope she’ll remind her husband of the bind so many working parents are in and have him rewrite employment and childcare laws to ease their burden. Her greatest achievement could be to use her position as Mom-in-Chief to help all those mothers who don’t happen to be married to the most powerful man on earth.
This post was written by Rachel Giese