The Obamas? Oh, they're just the first family next door

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

The pundits say the president took a beating at the polls, but Barack Obama won a very different kind of contest last week.

With his BlackBerry, his burger runs and his pickup basketball, "he and his family have brought dramatic social change to the nation's capital and to the country's collective image of its first family," USA Today declared.

Barack and Michelle "have spoken more frankly about marriage than most intact couples, especially those running for office, usually do," the New York Times Magazine reported, explaining how she was "seduced by his mind, his charm, his promise of social transformation." The first lady also dispensed dating advice in a Katie Couric sit-down for Glamour magazine, saying, "Cute's good, but cute only lasts for so long."

The president's health plan is stuck in the Senate, his Afghanistan strategy remains a muddle and Republicans captured the two off-year gubernatorial races. But he has shrewdly managed his personal image, an undeniable asset in this Oprahfied age. The more that media outlets highlight his lifestyle, his charismatic wife and their children, the more goodwill he is able to bank.

Whether it's granting the Times a nearly hour-long Oval Office interview about their marriage -- or allowing backstage access to their family for an HBO film that aired last week -- the Obamas are providing an unusually revealing glimpse of their life beyond politics. That is, if the two can really be separated.

By all appearances, they are a personable couple, with attractive young children, who are comfortable talking about themselves in ways that would have seemed foreign to most previous White House occupants (even the Kennedys, who cultivated a royal mystique). And their role as racial trailblazers has only fueled the public and media fascination. Had the election gone the other way, it is hard to imagine this sort of intimate coverage being lavished on John and Cindy McCain.

Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W. Bush, says of the Obamas, "By revealing problems in their marriage, they make themselves more human, more real, more accessible. And more likable. And ultimately, if voters find the president more likable, and more like themselves, they are more likely to support him."

In retrospect, says McKinnon, "I wish President Bush would have allowed the press behind the curtain more often," but the former president liked his privacy, was wary of the media and had an aversion "to anything that smacks of self-promotion."

Democratic strategist Mandy Grunwald, who showcased Bill Clinton's family during the 1992 campaign, says Obama "struggles with being seen as intellectual and a bit aloof. The more the focus is on his family and Michelle and his marriage, it makes him more accessible to people. The difficulty is that it's always a slippery slope. You want to protect what shreds of privacy you have left in your life."

As for the media's voracious appetite, Grunwald says, "I assume you guys would not stay interested if these stories weren't selling magazines and increasing ratings."

Most married politicians feature their families in campaign ads and rallies. Sarah Palin, who faced questions -- many of them unfair -- about juggling five kids and the vice presidency, rolled out the family, including her current archenemy Levi Johnston, at last year's Republican convention. In a Facebook world, voters want to see the whole wall of pictures.

But a cultural barrier has fallen when the first couple talks about the strains in their marriage, at least without being forced to do so by a Monica Lewinsky-type scandal. In the Times interview, the Obamas acknowledged that they struggled when he was an Illinois state senator spending much of his time in Springfield.

"I wouldn't gloss over the fact that that was a tough time for us," the president said, adding: "You know, I mean, I think that it was important for us to work this through. . . . There were points in time where I was fearful that Michelle just really didn't -- that she would be unhappy.''

But the personal lens on the Obama presidency captures more than his marriage. Just as some journalists are fascinated by Obama the husband, father, athlete and dog owner, a growing number of commentators -- especially on the left -- are questioning his political character.

"More and more lately," wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who recently golfed with Obama, "I find people asking me: 'What do you think President Obama really believes about this or that issue?' I find that odd. How is it that a president who has taken on so many big issues, with very specific policies -- and has even been awarded a Nobel Prize for all the hopes he has kindled -- still has so many people asking what he really believes?"

The answer, in part, lies with Obama's relatively recent arrival on the national stage. Most journalists came to know him only as a presidential candidate, and a largely undefined one at that. After a "Yes We Can" campaign, many prognosticators look at Obama's conciliatory style and question what he will truly fight for.

Against a backdrop of huge expectations -- fueled in no small measure by media coverage that sometimes verged on adulatory -- Obama has crashed into the Beltway's ossified culture of dealmaking and dithering. In a largely positive Newsweek cover story examining why the president hasn't accomplished more, Anna Quindlen wrote last month that "perhaps because of his race and his age, much of the electorate, especially those of us who are liberals, succumbed to stereotype and assumed that he was by way of being a firebrand. A year in, and we know that we deceived ourselves." Instead, she wrote, "Barack Obama is an incremental man."

Incrementalism may ultimately succeed, but it's pretty dull fare. The media are drawn to oversize figures doing oversize things. There seem to be fewer of them in this age of bailed-out banks, steroid-shooting athletes and bankrupt newspapers, and for the moment the presidency seems cut down to size as well. Little wonder Obama doesn't mind talking about his own life -- the one narrative that he can control.

Nothing is private

A 23-year-old Minnesota teacher, who has been blogging about her pregnancy at a site called MomsLikeMe, plans to transmit live video of the birth online. Lynsee (who has been withholding her last name) told that she wants to "give women a sense of empowerment and joy because it's a very miraculous everyday event."

Signs of this share-everything ethos are everywhere. In August, Sara Williams, the wife of Twitter chief executive Evan Williams, tweeted about her pregnancy: "My water broke. It wasn't like Charlotte in 'Sex and the City.' Now timing contractions on an iPhone app."

But do we want to know all the intimate details? Penelope Trunk, who runs a social-networking site, tweeted in September: "I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a [expletive] three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin."

Writing about the uproar in London's Guardian last week, Trunk said: "People were shocked at my response to the miscarriage. But I was shocked by their outrage. I am not sure why people think there is a 'correct' emotion for miscarriages. . . . Some people say that a miscarriage is too private to discuss at work. But why? It's an important part of a woman's experience. It is not dirty or evil or shameful."

In an technological age that practically demands real-time updates, we'd all better get used to this sort of breaking news.

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company