At 8 o’clock last Monday morning, the day before he was to become president elect, learned that the woman who had raised him was dead. Less than two weeks earlier, he had interrupted his presidential campaign in order to visit his ailing grandmother, Madelyn Dunham — known as ”Toot” — in Hawaii and her death left him too overcome to announce the news.
It was only late in the day that he told crowds she had ”gone home” and praised her as ”one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America”. In the elation of the days that followed, one small yet magnificent detail retained its resonance: Madelyn Dunham had voted by absentee ballot and her vote had been counted.
Though his first bestselling memoir was entitled Dreams From My Father, Obama’s upbringing was governed far more by women: his mother (who died in 1995), his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and their grandmother, with whom he lived from the age of 10. In a new preface to that book, he wrote: ”Had I known that [my mother] would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book — less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life … In my daughters I see her every day … and I know that what is best in me I owe to her.” He is surrounded by women still: his wife Michelle, his daughters Malia and Sasha, Auma Obama, the half-sister he met after their father’s death in 1982, and Michelle’s mother Marian, who has looked after his children during the long campaign. In other words, the president elect is a man for whom women are the past as well as the future.
Of these, the most striking to the American electorate, of course, has been, both in her own right and for what she reveals about her husband’s character.
Together, they present the most collaborative, romantic, intelligent and relaxed couple that has ever been anywhere near the White House.
A high-powered Chicago lawyer three years his junior who met Obama when she was assigned to be his mentor at a Chicago law firm in the summer of 1988, Michelle has done a great deal to win him the all-important female vote. It was not always clear that this would be the case. Early in the campaign, her jokey asides about her husband’s domestic habits were considered a liability by Obama’s strategists. Did voters really need to know that the candidate had bad breath in the mornings, or that he once rushed out of the house and left his wife to deal with an overflowing lavatory? Michelle Obama quickly got the message and toned down the details, but for a while we had the privilege of seeing the couple’s raw banter in action and it was very funny.
At times, Obama can seem cocky: from the start, he incited the kind of mobbing usually reserved for rock stars (one aide had to stop Democratic committee delegates from pulling his shirt out of his trousers) and he’s not shy of referring to his own good looks.
On one occasion, when asked — as Bill Clinton famously was — whether he wore boxers or briefs, he replied: ”I don’t answer those humiliating questions. But whichever one it is, I look good in them.” It’s perhaps no bad thing that his wife is in the habit of taking him down a peg or two.
More fundamentally, Obama could not have run had it not been for his wife: he has specifically said she had the power of veto. ”Her initial instinct was to say no,” he told Newsweek recently. She worried that those supporting his candidacy might be ”setting him up” and, indeed, the physical risks to a prospective African-American president were considered so great that Obama had secret service protection earlier than any other candidate in history. Eventually, Michelle made a deal with him. If he ran for office, he’d have to do something for her: give up smoking. Later on, this became another example of the strength of her character rather than his. Asked if Obama ever wore a nicotine patch, Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson said: ”Michelle Obama: that’s a patch right there!”
In his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes that: ”If I ever had to run against her for public office, I know that she would beat me without much difficulty. Fortunately for me, Michelle would never go into politics.” Given how familiar the Clinton marital dynamic is to American voters, this assertion is significant. For while Michelle Obama presents a formidable intellectual challenge to her husband (”You want to know how Barack prepares for a debate?” she asked Jay Leno, ”He hangs out with me”), she is not competitive with him. As a couple they are, one campaign worker has said, ”almost telepathic”, and certainly such public displays of private affection as they have offered have not existed in politics for decades.
Repeatedly, before tens of thousands of people, they have shared slyly affectionate looks or gestures that, despite their waves to the crowd, seem intended only for each other. They are an incredibly solid political proposition, yet it’s the intimacy beneath the surface that’s striking. Obama once touchingly wrote that despite Michelle’s fast-track, tough woman plans, ”there was a glimmer that danced across her round, dark eyes whenever I looked at her, the slightest hint of uncertainty, as if, deep inside, she knew how fragile things really were.” Even television cameras pick up on such undercurrents now — not the content of their unspoken messages, but the fact that much more is going on than a public performance. It’s rare to see such a bond in politics — or anywhere else.
The Obamas have the devotion of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and the glamour of the Kennedys.
When Obama said, via video-link after Michelle’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, ”Now you know why I asked her out so many times, even though she said no”, he was really speaking directly to her — though he added, for our benefit: ”You want a persistent president”.
When we hear that he insisted, in the middle of his presidential campaign, on coming home to take her out to dinner on their wedding anniversary, it seems crazy yet appropriate, just as it’s unsurprising to know that Cindy McCain’s parents buy her birthday presents and sign them from John McCain because he’s usually too busy to remember. And when we learn that on their first date Barack and Michelle Obama saw Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, it sounds just right that that vigorously scripted call for future unity should have kicked off two decades and counting of the relationship between America’s first African-American President and the woman he calls ”my best friend” and ”the love of my life”.
On June 3, just before Obama accepted his party’s nomination for president, Michelle accompanied her husband on stage. She looked commanding, beautiful and athletic. As she left to join the crowd, she gave her husband a knowing look, and, in a savvily ”street” gesture of solidarity, pressed her fist against his. To their critics this would become a ”terrorist fist jab”; to everyone else it revealed enormous romantic and cooperative power. She turned. He instinctively put his hand on her lower back — almost her bottom.
When she came back to the stage after his speech (”This was the moment, this was the time, when we came together to remake our great nation…”) they embraced, she applauded and she mouthed the words: ”I love you”. His smile was dazzling — more dazzling even than that of last Tuesday night, when the Obama family emerged victorious in Grant Park, Chicago, and the new First Couple exchanged a glance of cautious jubilation as they walked toward the podium, and the 10ft walls of bullet-proof glass.
Last September, Michelle Obama addressed a Women for Obama rally in North Carolina. ”Between now and 4 November,” she said, ”the leadership of women is going to be absolutely critical to the outcome of this election — and thank goodness, because women get it done!”
Why, you might ask, is the female vote so significant? To begin with, more women than men have voted in every American election since 1964. More new registered voters are women every time and, perhaps most crucially, more undecided voters are women.
Though women traditionally tend to lean Democratic, a Pew Research Centre poll released as late as 24 October found that 60% of all undecided registered voters this time were women.
This election saw the first female candidate for the presidency and the first female candidate for the vice-presidency. The campaign was exceptional for what Hillary Clinton’s biographer Judith Warner has described as ”the woman thing, in all its pretty girl versus smart girl iterations”. Barack Obama had to make sure he didn’t lose women who might have voted Democrat to the Republicans’ late arrival, Sarah Palin, and he also had to woo embittered former Clinton supporters who wished Hillary had been the Democratic nominee.
To some women, Obama’s nomination looked like a defeat for women, a thwarting of the chance to have a female President. In many ways, he had a long road to persuasion. But he began early. On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, and her loyal fundraiser, Terry McAuliffe, who had been certain their candidate would win by 10 points, were shocked when they saw how she was defeated. On the miserable flight back to their New Hampshire headquarters, McAuliffe said to Penn, incredulously: ”Mark, we lost women.”
Even good friends of Obama were initially Hillary fans. Marni Willenson (39) an ex-colleague of his who is now a lawyer in Chicago, says she ”found it hard to vote against a woman running for that office. I thought Hillary was fantastic — but I didn’t have the sense that she was going to be better for women. She would break a glass ceiling, but Hillary’s is the be-one-of-the-guys story. Michelle’s story, and her relationship with Barack — basically her life: that strongly spoke to women of my generation.”
Eight-five percent of Hillary’s voters ended up voting for Obama and Willenson believes that one of the most compelling things about him is ”who he chose to marry. Michelle is not just a smart woman, she’s been a provider for the family. She was working full-time throughout her career, so he’s aware of the conflict, the difficulty that working women face.” Willenson recalls: ”I was about 20 yards from the podium at the victory speech, and to see the four of them stand there, I mean it gave me goose bumps. Obviously on a personal level, it is a tremendous impact: it’s probably not the life Michelle imagined for herself, and there are sacrifices she’s made — for all of us.”
Speaking to the assembled crowd in North Carolina in September, Michelle Obama argued that ”women need an advocate in the White House now more than ever before”. She and her husband had sat at round table discussions all across the country over almost two years, she said, and ”every woman on every panel is the face of the challenge in America today”.
Now that they have an advocate, what will he do? The day after Barack Obama won the election, his office posted on its website a detailed agenda for women that includes fighting ovarian cancer, supporting stem-cell research, preserving the right to choose on abortion, strengthening domestic violence laws, fighting for pay equity and caring for women veterans.
Three days after his victory, an article on the front page of the Chicago Tribune photographed him coming out of a parent-teacher conference and suggested that, as president, Obama would need time to attend his daughters’ soccer practice and dance recitals. ”That’s going to be a priority for him,” a former aide said. There have been young children in the White House — the Kennedys, for instance, and more recently Amy Carter — but none has been the product of such a modern co-parenting structure.
While Michelle Obama has described herself as ”Mommy-in-Chief”, she has also said that it’s her husband’s mission to give his daughters something he never had: ”the affirming embrace of a father’s love”. Ever since he was elected to the Illinois State Senate, which sits in Springfield, in 1996, he has had to spend a lot of time away from home. Dramatic as his presidential victory is, it may be less of a strain on the family than the past few years have been: they will be together again and they’ll set a new standard, not just for women, but for equality. – guardian.co.uk