The Presidency as a Partnership: The Obamas’ Marriage on Display

A number of you have rejected this weekend’s profile of the Obamas’ marriage (and accompanying slideshow) as yawn-inducing celebitician/politicity pop-love drivel. Alas, I have the will power of a goldfish, and so I was possessed not only to read the big long Presidential love exposé but to write about it. Here. Now!
Fortunately for you, I was much less interested in the intimate details of the Obamas’ marriage than I was in the idea of the presidency as it was overwhelmingly, if inadvertently, presented throughout the article- as a partnership.
While I enjoy a juicy detail as much as the next, and yes, Presidential date night = cute, I couldn’t help but notice this surprising theme woven throughout the article.

Take this quote, from page 2:

Barack and Michelle Obama are also a more fully fused political team than ever before, with no other jobs to distract them, no doubts about the worthiness of the pursuit dogging them. Theirs is by no means a co-presidency; aides say the first lady has little engagement with banking reform, nuclear disarmament or most of the other issues that dominate her husband’s days. But their goals are increasingly intertwined

And this one, from page 8:

“After years of leaving his family behind, he now turned to his wife to help carry him to the presidency.”

From page 9:

Michelle Obama has gone from political skeptic to political partner to a woman with a White House agenda of her own, and an approval rating higher than the president’s….

And from the last page:

The question [how any couple can have a truly equal partnership when one member is president?]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.”

Hmmmm. So to recap:
a) Barack Obama needs Michelle Obama, both to get elected and to sustain the presidency throughout his term;
b) This need has become a public duty for Michelle, and has required Michelle to take on her husband’s goals as her own;
c) This pattern is not uncommon for presidential couples – in fact, it is so much the norm that it was expected of her, and would raise eyebrows (and damage the effectiveness of her husband’s leadership) if she did less.
I think this is a fascinating set of expectations for the public to enforce in their political leaders, and for the couple to choose to uphold, one rife with the same crucial but contradictory values and fundamental but frustrating double standards that even women who don’t happen to be married to the President of the United States often face. The FLOTUS is a crucial staple of the presidency- in fact, the U.S. has only ever had one unmarried president, and that was over 150 years ago- but not crucial enough for official duties, or, you know, a salary. Although technically, you don’t have to be a president’s wife to serve as First Lady, and in fact, several women who were not presidents’ wives have served as first lady, romantic or not, the presidency is usually presented as a partnership, in which the two partners make different kinds of contributions to achieve the greater good, contributions which typically adhere to traditional gender norms.
I’m a big fan of Michelle Obama and I appreciate what she represents, especially to the Black community. I by no means intend to take anything away from her or her accomplishments, as I respect her a great deal. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.
The truth is that the high profile/high stakes nature of the Obamas’ union makes their situation particularly emblematic of American gender norms, not less. Their presidential partnership is a prototype for the kind of partnership created when America’s expectations surrounding gender are appeased. But perhaps because of their unique position in the public spotlight, a lot of questions about this kind of union are left unanswered, and a lot of scenarios left unexplored.
For example, however improbable, what would happen if a President’s partner didn’t want to take on that role of First Lady? Why are single people not being elected to office? Why doesn’t the First Lady get paid for her duty, as the President does? Should she? What if she were to get divorced from her husband during his term, but wanted to keep her position as First Lady? Or what if she wanted to reside in the White House after she and her partner divorced, and he was still President? Is her autonomy within the partnership compromised because of her willingness to serve? Does a partner of someone with power automatically receive power of their own? What are the rights of someone whose role is only formalized to the extent that it complements the role of their partner?
I don’t have any easy answers, but I think it’s an interesting thought experiment, and one that is relevant to other situations in which women (or men) play a role that is either completely informal or conditionally formal, such as stay-at-home parents.
Also, what does it mean that Michelle’s success and relative popularity comes, in part, from the fact that she is commonly considered to be the anti-Hillary, in many ways, because of her seemingly happy marriage and lack of political ambition? While the NYT article did mention some of their similarities, it also discussed the efforts the campaign took to juxtapose the two women. (“[Michelle] 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.”)
Black vs. White, Candid vs. Guarded, [Apparently] Faithful Hubby vs. Unfaithful Hubby. Sure, I get it. But there’s one similarity between the two women the article fails to mention: both projected a deliberate- if unspoken- sense of biding their time while their husbands served their terms, Hillary seemingly “paying her dues” until she could make her own bid at the White House, and Michelle, the article implies, waiting it out until she can have more of a say regarding the terms under which she and her family live. Is this a sort of unspoken sacrifice expected of presidential partners? Do you think it’s noble? Necessary? Outdated?
I guess it’s fitting that the article ends by assuring us that when Barack’s political career ends,

“…the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more — this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.”

We’ll probably never know the results of the Obamas’ renegotiations behind closed doors, but maybe that’s the point: We’ve made the figure of the publicly touted FLOTUS an American institution without, well, institutionalizing her experience. While bringing a FLOTUS on board seems to practically comprise a constitutional requirement for any presidential hopeful, the experience of the FLOTUS herself is wildly, perhaps tellingly informal and unlegislated, regulated only in social expectations and a set of American gender values so rigid, they need no constitutional requirements to bear their force. I’m not advocating that we salary this unelected position (although I’m not advocating that we don’t), but I do think a more progressive, inclusive, and yes, feminist society will acknowledge the partnership aspect to the presidency itself, rather than relegating recognition to a separate title with nebulous paths to power and a nonexistent formal mandate.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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