In an America still riven by racial prejudice, the first family live by values that the whole nation can recognise and applaud
When he was re-elected to the White House on Tuesday and stood before tens of thousands of euphoric supporters, President Barack Obama paid tribute to his family, who were at his side.
“Sasha and Malia,” he said to his 11- and 14-year-old daughters, “before our very eyes, you’re growing up to become two strong, smart and beautiful young women.” Then he addressed his wife Michelle: “I have never been more in love with you and I have never been more proud than when I watched the rest of America fall in love with you too as our nation’s first lady.”
It was a heartfelt, if rather mushy, tribute, but then Obama has reason to be grateful to the women in his life. As a technocrat who is often accused of being aloof and arrogant, they have done a great deal to humanise him in the eyes of voters and have contributed enormously to his success. Michelle Obama has campaigned tirelessly this year – her speech nominating her husband for a second term at the Democratic convention in North Carolina was genuinely thrilling. She has probably been a more valuable adviser than any hotshot political consultant.
Americans have always been fascinated by the lives of first families, much as Brits are with the royal family. The people who live in the White House however, unlike the occupants of Buckingham Palace, are meant to reflect ordinary lives and hopes and dreams. It rarely happens, of course. Nobody would say the Kennedys, the Reagans, the Clintons and the Bushes were normal folks. But many Americans do recognise themselves in the Obamas.
“From the kids with braces and basketball games to the Portuguese water dog and the date nights, the Obamas are right out of central casting as an upper-middle class American family with, of course, the very big exception that they live in the White House,” says Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer prize for journalism and the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, a book that documents the migration of black Americans across their own country.
“I think they’ve exposed the country and the world to a slice of African-American family life that is larger than many people realise – college-educated people with high ideals for their children. They’re like The Cosby Show come to life. They have endured an intense amount of attention and scrutiny and come out about as normal and quintessentially American as anyone might hope to see.”
Nor is it only black (and Latino) America that sees itself reflected in the first family. Obama got at least 40% of the white vote – admittedly the numbers were down from 2008 – but that still amounts to many millions of people. In blue-collar states such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio, he did well among the white working class during the election. That support was largely driven by the president’s rescue of the car industry in 2009 because he understood that jobs are not just about taking home a pay packet every week. They are about self-respect, a desire to provide a better future for yourself and your children – aspirations that have no colour prejudice.
Obama’s background, unique to any president, is well known. His mother, Ann Dunham, was a white woman from Kansas and his father, Barack Obama Snr, was a black Kenyan who saw little of his son after the couple divorced when he was a toddler. The future president spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, and then in Hawaii where he lived with his maternal grandparents. He married Michelle Robinson, whom he met at a law firm in Chicago when he was an intern and she was assigned to be his mentor.
The first lady’s background has also been well documented – she was brought up on the south side of Chicago by black, working-class parents who stressed the importance of education. However, the story has been fleshed out in recent months as the fight for a second term intensified. Voters heard how the first lady and her brother slept in twin beds in a tiny bedroom that their parents had carved off from the living room. Her father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, went off to work on crutches. Michelle Obama, who graduated from Harvard Law School, said it is only in retrospect that she realised how her father struggled to pay bills and the loans for his children’s college tuition.
All this resonates with many single mothers and couples who want to do the best for their children in a struggling American economy. These modest beginnings fuelled Michelle Obama’s support of the underdog, a theme she returns to again and again. “If any family in this country struggles, then we cannot be fully content with our own family’s good fortune because that is not what we do. That is not who we are,” she said recently.
After a shaky start, the first lady has grown into her role and as the Obamas start a second term in the White House she has a higher approval rating than her husband. She takes a special interest in fighting childhood obesity and in supporting military spouses. Her top role, of course, is motherhood. Here too, the Obamas embody the modern family ideal. Michelle Obama is the “mom-in-chief” but she expects the president to do his share.
When the children were younger, she has said she would rise early to go to the gym and her husband would feed and dress the girls. The family sits down to dinner at 6.30 most days when he is in Washington, and on Sunday afternoons the president has a standing date to play basketball with his daughters. They try to make their White House quarters as much like a normal home as possible. The girls have to clean their rooms and make their beds, and Malia does her own laundry. There is no TV until homework is finished.
With four more years in the White House, the Obamas are aware that their daughters will spend their formative teenage years in the spotlight. The press corps in Washington has agreed not to routinely write about the girls unless they are with their parents at formal events. Both girls are regularly spotted around town with their friends and they have been allowed rite-of-passage experiences such as attending summer camp – though with secret service agents in tow.
“I think they are the first kids in the White House growing up where everybody’s got a cell phone and everybody’s watching,” Michelle Obama told the women’s website iVillage last month. She has warned her daughters not to be “bratty”. “You may be having a moment but somebody could use that moment and try to define you for ever,” she told them.
So far, it seems the girls are making their parents proud. There was a touching moment on stage last week when 11-year-old Sasha nudged her father several times as he celebrated his win. “Turn around, Daddy!” she said, urging him not to forget the people on the other side of the stage. He duly heeded her advice and the crowd roared its approval.
Not everybody approves of the Obamas, of course. The president got 51% of the popular vote while Romney got 48%. Some Americans just do not think he is the right guy to run the country while others are openly hostile, describing him as “a racist with a Marxist agenda”. Interestingly, a poll carried out by Associated Press in October revealed that 51% of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes compared with 48% in a similar 2008 survey.
In her book What’s the Matter With White People? Why We Long For A Golden Age That Never Was, Joan Walsh says that as the “browning” of America continues, “Americans will have to learn how to talk about race more sensibly. We now live in an America in which you can have an African-American mayor, a Chinese-American school supervisor and a Puerto Rican teacher. This idea that whites have all the power is simply wrong. When we talk like that, it is no wonder working-class voters feel excluded because that’s not the whole story. We need more empathy.”
The American dream at its best should be colour blind, she says, and the Obamas, are “the genuine American story”.