Saturday 24 March 2018

Married for 18 years and still enjoying dates...

Caitriona Palmer in Washington

It's Saturday night in Washington, DC, and a handsome couple are heading out for a much-anticipated date-night. The two kids are home with grandma and reservations have been secured for one of Washington's most talked-about French restaurants.

At 6pm the couple roll up outside the elegant restaurant and the romantic date begins -- just Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, two dozen secret service agents, a dozen or more pool reporters and a couple of hundred excited onlookers.

A marriage played out in the public spotlight can be trying for most celebrities or public figures, but when you're the president and first lady of the United States, the stakes are a lot higher.

Politics and marriage are a potent and dangerous combination. There's the lack of privacy, the public scrutiny, long absences and the sacrifice of one partner's hopes and dreams for the benefit of the other's political ambitions.

But the Obama marriage is unlike any other presidential union that America has seen. The couple has spoken more frankly about the ups and downs that politics and raising a young family has wrought on their 18-year union. In addition, they have displayed a physical attraction for the other which is unusual within the stuffy confines of the presidential office.

"To me, they are a very modern-day couple because, rather than pretending that it's a Stepford wife arrangement, there is an interplay between them that shows that they treat each other as grown-ups, in good times and bad," Richard Wolffe, who chronicled the difficulties the Obamas faced in their marriage in his book, 'Renegade: The Making of a President', tells the Irish Independent.

Wolffe, who is the only journalist to have spent exclusive time with Mr Obama on the campaign trail and in the White House, has been an up-close observer of the Obama marriage for several years.

"They are affectionate. That's one measure of a healthy relationship," said Wolffe. "They are playful with each other. And that joking, and sometimes that competition, is also a sign of a dynamic relationship."

Unlike most other political wives who have stood mutely by their husbands, Michelle Obama made headlines during the campaign when she spoke disparagingly of her husband's inability to pitch his dirty socks into the laundry basket and of his unpleasant odour when he woke up in the morning.

Michelle's sharp humour in poking fun at her husband alarmed some campaign aides who worried that her jibes might annoy the electorate.

"People think I'm trashing him," Michelle once told close friend Susan Sher, complaining that she was trying to make the larger point that no one should put any presidential candidate on a pedestal. Her husband, she admitted, was "a gifted man but, in the end, just a man".

This authentic portrayal of their marriage -- and of each other -- and their willingness to drop any pretence about the impact of political office on their relationship has won the couple many admirers. But their playful teasing can also mask some of the tensions that lurk beneath.

"They tease each other. And some of that teasing can have an edge," said Wolffe. "They'll do it privately and they'll do it publicly. They clearly love each other's company and yet that company, because of their different life choices and the pressures of their jobs, has also led to strains and tensions and those pop out, too."

Michelle was always a hesitant political spouse and worried about the impact Obama's career would have on their marriage when he first decided to run for the state senate in 1995.

"I married you because you're cute and you're smart," Michelle recalled telling her husband at the time, "but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do".

In his 2006 bestselling book, 'The Audacity of Hope', the future president wrote about how the tensions in his marriage increased when he left Michelle behind at home to juggle childcare and her own career, while he pursued his ill-fated quest for a congressional seat in 2000.

He was so busy working that "we had little time for conversation, much less romance. . . Leaning down to kiss Michelle goodbye in the morning, all I would get was a peck on the cheek. By the time Sasha was born -- just as beautiful and almost as calm as her sister -- my wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained," he wrote.

At the time, the couple lived in a modest apartment in Chicago's Hyde Park, which was crammed with kids' toys and equipment and featured a rickety dining room table that was so off kilter food sometimes slid off.

Friends of the couple have said that the Obama marriage was severely strained at this point but the president rejects that suggestion that they were ever headed towards divorce. "That's over-reading it," the president recently told the 'New York Times'. "But I wouldn't gloss over the fact that that was a tough time for us."

As the Obama love story goes, Michelle was initially unimpressed by the "cute" hot-shot Harvard law student, who came to her law firm in 1988 for a summer internship.

"I think we should go out on a date," he said to her early on but she resisted, believing it was inappropriate to date the summer intern she was meant to be advising.

Obama persisted and got his way. During an early outing to the basement of a small church in Chicago, Michelle got an early glimpse of the eloquent Obama, who would later inspire millions across America during the 2008 campaign.

"There was really something powerful there. And I was like: 'This guy is different. He is really different, in addition to being nice and funny and cute and all that'," she remembered.

"As Barack spoke in that church basement, he moved me," she said.

More than 20 years on from those early days, the couple still clearly adore one another. White House staff say they will routinely round a corner in the White House and find the couple in mid-embrace. He refers to her as "my rock". She ensures that he is "keeping it real".

And as they face the arduous pace of yet another presidential campaign, many observers expect that the couple will continue to "keep it real" in their marriage and talk about their relationship in an authentic light -- warts and all.

Michelle hopes that "my ups and downs and ups and downs in our marriage can help young couples sort of realise that good marriages take work". The image of a perfect marriage "is the last thing that we want to project".

"It's unfair to the institution of marriage and it's unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn't exist.

"The bumps happen to everybody all the time, and they are continuous," she said.

Irish Independent Supplement

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News