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 is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

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

Read more about Lori

Join the Conversation

  • Athenia

    Unless the president is unmarried or divorced or widowed, I highly doubt we’ll have FLOTUS as a salaried position—part of the FLOTUS allure is that she has an intimate relationship with the president–even Harriet Lane was the president’s niece.

  • Robinee

    Just to clarify, there have been other “unmarried” presidents. For instance, Thomas Jefferson was a widower when he took office. His daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, served as the presidential hostess from 1801-1809. There are other times that this situation occurred and always a daughter took the role of First Lady. (This situation seems even more problematic in modern times as how many daughters would drop everything to bring their entire household into the White House so that her father can have an official hostess?)

  • Robinee

    Make that a female relative of the president rather than only daughters taking the role of First Lady.

  • Becca Stareyes

    Something like this makes me wonder what would change if Hillary had been elected*, or when a (married to a man) female candidate becomes President. Would the assumed duties of the President’s spouse change when it was a First Gentleman, not a First Lady? (probably) Would this cause us to rethink the role of a F(L/G)OTUS even when a woman again is in this position after our first First Gentleman**? (dunno.)
    * Or McCain was elected and died in office, causing Palin to assume the presidency. While President H. Clinton would be different than President Palin or President Jane Doe, I suspect the first female President’s husband will have some of the same problems. (Though Bill Clinton would be different than many other politicians’ husbands in that he was not only a politician, but sat behind the desk himself.)
    ** Apologies for assuming a heterosexual couple, but I’m feeling cynical about the ability to get an openly gay couple into the White House in the near future. But a same-sex Presidential couple would also raise questions about our assumptions of the duties of the First Lady/Gentleman.

  • cattrack2

    I think we’re making progress here. I think Bill & Hillary were the 1st to experiment with this. And while it was a giant step forward, there was a huge backlash to it. Clearly while Michelle is BO’s partner, they’re trying to juxtapose their idea of partnership from the Bill & Hillary example.
    And frankly they need to be careful here. I was surprised during the Demo primaries at the number of feminists who disliked the power sharing arrangement Bill & Hill had simply because Hillary was unelected. So there is much left to do in terms of negotiating the ‘appropriate’ dynamic here.
    I think anyone who says that a politician’s spouse (male or female) is doing anything other than subsuming their own personal ambitions is being unrealistic. And that’s just the facts of political life.

  • nthomas00

    “Yawn-inducing celebitician/politicity pop-love drivel.” I think you hit the hammer right on the nail here, because that’s exactly what this is.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Sometimes it’s the very lack of structure or specified responsibilities about FLOTUS that are liberating about it. Though I would certainly hope that the unwritten gender values that are an unfortunate legacy might fall away, in truth, as a student of American History, even the office of President is a work in progress, and one that every person who holds the office is attempting to make over according to his/her own wishes.
    Had Hillary Clinton been elected, Bill would have paved a path as a brand new kind of role and function within the Executive Branch. What will we call the husband or even the partner of the first female President and what will be his/her role?

  • IronOxideCorset

    I think we need to break out of our view of what is considered “power” from our Western, male view. The way we are measuring productivity is no better than how Westerners judge third world countries. In many developing countries the women by far to most of the work, they easily work harder than anyone else in the world but this endeavors are not considered “productive” by capitalist definition.
    Eleanor Roosevelt was by far the single most influential first lady yet. She was no wilting flower and she accomplished this during a much more sexist time. She carved her own path and did use her position of FLOTUS to her advantage (or course she didn’t strictly rely on this). I am looking forward to seeing what Michelle will do.

  • raq

    I’m not an American, and I have trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of the First Lady. It seems like they are expected to be these paragons of virtue, and wifeliness, in such a way that that detracts from any form of power that they may possess. And can a woman be elected as president if there will always be this expectation of a picture perfect partner? Why should a politician’s personal life be any business of the public’s, or bear any impact upon their ability to govern? Shouldn’t there be more of a divide between the private and the public? What if the President has a complicated personal life, including divorce, or mental illness, or anything? Why is a picture perfect ‘marriage’ expected?
    I mean, my perspective here is that of a Canadian, and we’ve had an number of Prime Minister’s with really seriously weird personal lives: there was R.B. Bennett, who was single his entire life, living in hotels, creepily stalking the object of his affections (with letters and flowers); there was Mackenzie King, single, and the less said about his seances with his dead mother, the better; there was Pierre Trudeau, who, at 52, married a 23-year-old, while in office, and divorced, while still in office; and then there was Jean Chretian, whose son was convicted of sexual assault. All these Prime Ministers had highly questionable personal lives, yet, it did not impact their public policies or decision making skills. And, oh, our only female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, divorced her husband shortly before becoming Prime Minister. Trudeau once said that “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”; perhaps the nation should have no place in the bedrooms of the state.
    I understand that the office of the First Lady gives power & voice to women– but isn’t it painful to watch intelligent women being relegated to symbolic duties? And, shouldn’t women be able to gain this power on their own, rather than through their husbands? And, while the emphasis on perfect marriage partnerships is maintained, won’t this continue to encourage women to sacrifice their own ambitions for their husband’s, thus rendering it more difficult for women to achieve meaningful political power? Also, if the political power of the White House remains segregated in traditional gender roles, can a single person become president? A woman? Or a gay man? Or anyone who does not possess a ‘perfect’ wife to fit into the role of First Lady?

  • Toongrrl

    Great view of a marriage (well, a hetero one). I am still waiting for fantastic homosexual partnerships to be just as praised

  • NellieBlyArmy

    Dolley Madison also served as hostess for Jefferson.
    Who was Grover Cleveland’s hostess before he married Frances Folsom? He didn’t have a daughter.