Sarita Sarvate

The Obamas - The First Modern First Couple?

Feb 06, 2009

India Currents

BY SARITA SARVATE

One of the benefits of having the Obamas in the White House is that we will now have a couple we can all look up to as role models. In the age of divorce and single parent families, it is nice to look at Michelle, Barack, Malia, and Sasha and be moved by their beautiful family. Of course, almost every president who has moved into the White House has had a wife and children. But Jack Kennedy’s womanizing, Nancy Reagan’s unhealthy adoration of Ronald, Bush’s daughter’s drinking citations, and Bill Clinton’s Troopergate made them less than idyllic symbols of the American family.

Public interest in the Obamas is heightened because they are an intact African American family. But America’s focus on their marriage also stems, I think, from the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama have a more modern partnership than we have ever witnessed before from a First Couple. If Barack is a post-racial guy, Michelle is a post-feminist gal.

In the ’60s, American women like Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem were writing feminist manifestos and encouraging women to burn their bras, even as Jackie Kennedy was speaking in a soft falsetto about White House china. There seemed to be a disconnect between the American common woman and the First Lady. I wasn’t in the States then, but I can sense it when I watch old films of Jackie, the surrogate queen, seemingly trying to play the part of the royalty America never had.

That disconnect between First Ladies and common American women continued into the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. American First Ladies were ceremonial figures, dainty and well-groomed, somewhat like lilies of the valley.

Michelle is a different story all together. She seems physically, intellectually, and psychologically strong. She exudes confidence. Her relationship with Barack seems to be grounded, earthy, secure, and based on something much more real, day-to-day, and wholesome.

Barack does not seem to suffer from the kind of angst many intellectuals seem to possess. Michelle does not seem to sport the huge ego that normally goes with an Ivy League education, a law degree, and a successful career.

Barack could have had any number of girls but chose Michelle because she was the place where his search for identity ended. Michelle could have been a single, successful career woman like Condi Rice, but was lucky to run into Barack, for whom she became the earth mother.

What is fascinating for me to watch in Michelle’s eyes is the gratitude that seems to shine through, and the acceptance of the love that Barack showers on her.

When quizzed as to what she wanted to ask former First Ladies, Michelle simply responded that she wanted to know how to raise well-grounded children in the White House. She is a woman who knows she can have it all but has deliberately chosen to focus on her daughters.

I suppose baby boomer women like Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, had seen their mothers’ ambitions and dreams get suppressed and could not settle into contented maternity. Michelle’s generation has overcome that pressure. They know they can have a career and a marriage. They are not forced to choose between the two. And their husbands know how to listen. Men of the prior generation did not have a clue as to what women wanted.

Thankfully, neither Barack nor Michelle seems to have any black sheep in their family or skeletons in their closets. Jimmy Carter had his drunken brother Billy, Reagan was famous for his icy relationship with his children, Bill Clinton had a dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, W. had drinking problems and an Oedipal complex.

Michelle and Barack, ironically, have that picture perfect family life that the “family values” proponents are always hollering about.

More importantly, Michelle seems to have escaped the curse of hating her mother.

When I first came to America, I was surprised to hear my female classmates speak of their mothers as if they were hysterical, unreasonable, mentally unstable basket cases. Perhaps such attitudes were justified back then. Some mothers, I learned, had had drinking problems; others had suffered from depression.

I immediately began to identify with my classmates. After all, on the other side of the earth, my mother, too, had suffered from a “nervous breakdown” brought on by the suppression of her ambition and spirit.

The hip thing in the ’70s and ’80s for us women to do was to deny any affection or liking for our mothers. Now that my mother has passed away, I cannot write these sentences without a gut-wrenching sorrow welling deep within me. Michelle, I sense, did not suffer from our curse.

Mothers like me who raised their children without the help of their mothers look upon Michelle and her mother, Marian Robinson, who is moving into the White House to help her daughter raise her children, with envy.

Feminists and liberals have long asserted that personal character is not important in a president. Perhaps the hippie “me-generation” felt compelled to put personal pleasure above the common good. But I beg to differ. The way our leaders live their personal lives affects us all in a very deep way, I think. There is a difference between a policy wonk and a leader. The former can develop brilliant proposals for healthcare, welfare, economic stimulus. The latter can inspire and motivate and set an example.

The picture of a bony, broad-shouldered Michelle can only encourage women to stop worrying about their weight and to focus on their health. The sight of a happy, loving, supportive family in the White House can only uplift our children and teach them how to love.

The personal and the political are, after all, two facets of a person, a country, a world. You can never entirely separate the two. Fortunately, in the Obamas, we have a beautiful melding of the two. The next eight years should be a treat to watch.