First in family values? How a White House image could change perceptions

December 2, 2013

Though it wasn’t about health care, Iran or the debt, it turns out that this particular presidential announcement was also newsworthy. President Obama said the decision about where the family will live when his second term is up may rest on the shoulders of youngest daughter Sasha, now 12. She will be a high school sophomore in January 2017, and may not want to leave Sidwell Friends School and friends she has made.

Obama told ABC News in an interview that aired Friday that Sasha “will have a big say in where we are” because his wife and daughters already have made “a lot of sacrifices on behalf of my cockamamie ideas, the running for office and things.”

First lady Michelle Obama with daughters Sasha and Malia walk outside to receive the official White House Christmas tree. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
First lady Michelle Obama with daughters Sasha and Malia walk outside to receive the official White House Christmas tree on Nov. 29, 2013. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

There are those who might want to see the president leave town sooner rather than later for a host of political reasons. Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post that sticking around is “a terrible idea and I can’t imagine it will last very long,” because it would be impossible to escape the politics of his successor’s term. The last ex-president to remain in Washington was the very ill Woodrow Wilson more than nine decades ago.

A lot could happen by 2017 to sway the Obamas’ final decision. But unlike recent presidents, Barack and Michelle Obama must combine parenting young children with other White House duties, and so resemble many families who try to consider their children’s welfare when making life-changing moves.

The news came and went, and references to the Obama presidency returned to criticism as usual — and the rollout of the heath-care Web site has provided more than enough material on that front.

But the holiday season, when family relationships, good and bad, move to the forefront, might be just the time to consider how the image of the Obamas in the White House — mother, father, two daughters, grandmother — has affected ideas about the American family in general, and the African American family in particular.

In this case, the personal is political because in America, the very idea of the strong black family is revolutionary in the popular imagination, if not reality.

When “The Cosby Show” first topped the ratings in the 1980s, some critics who loved the show nevertheless made sure to note that the scenario was, if not fantasy, an idealized view. A black doctor and a black lawyer raising and loving a big family in a spacious big-city brownstone? Imagine that.

Though my family’s rung on the socioeconomic ladder was situated a step or four lower, the warmth and conversations around the dinner table I shared with four siblings and two parents, including a father just as witty as the Cos, more closely mirrored that show than the screaming putdowns usually depicted as black family life. There were other similarities; we resided in a pretty roomy row house in Baltimore, though I believe the fictional Cosby clan had more than the one bathroom we shared.

As much as that show ruled, it never quite chipped away at the stereotypical “welfare queen” — greedy, uncaring and driving a Cadillac — that served Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign as well as his “Morning in America” theme. Welfare reform under President Bill Clinton to tighten requirements and time limits didn’t quite do the trick, either.

It’s true that the American family has changed in many ways, as a recent New York Times report made clear. There are all kinds of family units that work in America in 2013. But life choices and circumstances — often rightly understood or judged valid when attached to others (think Hollywood stars and children of politicians) — most often attract the label of pathology when African Americans are involved. U.S. policies don’t necessarily support the child care and other needs of all these family arrangements, but that’s the subject of another column.

I’ve always admired how the black family has survived and thrived in every form despite the societal and structural forces that worked to tear it apart. I was reminded of that history while watching a scene in this year’s film “12 Years a Slave,” when a mother sold to the highest bidder collapses in grief as her son and daughter are taken from her. Family survived even that.

It’s a far cry and more than 150 years to happy scenes of the children of an African American president walking across the White House lawn with their dog, presiding as a Thanksgiving turkey is pardoned or a holiday tree is chosen. These ordinary scenes are extraordinary in context, and wordlessly provide an example throughout the world. It’s inspiration for some and affirmation for many. Like the Cosby example, families not protected by the Secret Service nevertheless can see their reality writ large.

Yet this most “traditional” picture of family gets little credit from those who most loudly espouse that vision as ideal, as well as some of those thought more friendly to the current White House occupants.

Years ago, I wrote a column taking some white feminists to task for not coming to the aid of an embattled Michelle Obama, and it was depressing to see the same back and forth surface after a recent Politico article called the first lady “a feminist nightmare” for choosing causes and a family-first priority not deemed worthy of her time and education. The author was criticized for both narrowly defining feminism and casually dismissing work on behalf of childhood nutrition and encouraging educational goals. A chorus of columns reminded those without a sense of history that a black woman being able to choose to raise her children might be a dream rather than nightmare. The first lady’s parents sacrificed so that her mother could do the same.

In an interview in 2008, Michelle Obama told me, “Sometimes I do believe that people don’t believe I exist.” She could have broadened the sentiment to her whole family.

After the Obamas have spent years as one of the most prominent and visible families in the world, no one will be able to deny their existence, or the fact that what they represent matters.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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