Marriage on parade

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009; 10:36 AM

As best we can tell -- and you never really know about these things -- Barack and Michelle Obama have a pretty good marriage.

It is, of course, a marriage increasingly lived in front of the cameras.

It might not be too much to say that they market their marriage -- indeed, perhaps that has become a requirement for living in the White House.

Thus it was that the president, grappling with two wars, rising unemployment and a stalled health-care bill, sat down with the first lady to talk to the New York Times Magazine about. . . . their relationship.

That was a journalistic coup, given the level of public interest. Most people seem fascinated with both Barack -- from his BlackBerry to his basketball games -- and Michelle, with her dresses and her garden and her mom role. The Clintons' marriage also was obsessively analyzed, but for a very different reason.

The media may play a role in whipping up this interest, but the first couple could simply decline to talk about their private life. I don't remember hearing George Bush hold forth much about Laura. But the Obamas, with their much-ballyhooed date nights, have done this since the campaign, when Michelle played an important role in humanizing her sometimes aloof husband.

And here's the brilliant part: By admitting to strains in their marriage, they enable millions of American couples to identify with them. It's like that Us Weekly feature, "Celebrities . . . They're just like us!"

Asked about the strains in their marriage when Barack was often in Springfield as a state senator and Michelle wished he was out of politics, the president brushed aside a suggestion that they contemplated splitting up. "But I wouldn't gloss over the fact that that was a tough time for us."

Here's some of the piece, by Jodi Kantor:

"We were in the Oval Office, nearly 40 minutes into a conversation about the subject of their marriage. Watched over by three aides and Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, the two sat a few feet apart in matching striped chairs that made them look more like a pair of heads of state than husband and wife. The Obamas were talking about the impact of the presidency on their relationship, and doing so in that setting -- we were in the room that epitomizes official power, discussing the highly unofficial matter of dates -- began to seem like a metaphor for the topic itself.

" 'If I weren't president, I would be happy to catch the shuttle with my wife to take her to a Broadway show, as I had promised her during the campaign, and there would be no fuss and no muss and no photographers,' the president said. 'That would please me greatly.' He went on to say: 'The notion that I just couldn't take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy with.'. . . .

"The Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before. Almost 10 months ago, they swept into Washington with inauguration festivities that struck distinctly wedding-like notes: he strode down an aisle and took a vow, she wore a long white dress, the youthful-looking couple swayed to a love song in a ceremonial first dance and then settled into a new house. Since then, photograph after official White House photograph has shown the Obamas gazing into each other's eyes while performing one or another official function. Here is a shot of the Obamas entering a Cinco de Mayo reception, his arm draped protectively around her back. Next, a photo of the president placing a kiss on his wife's cheek after his address on health care to Congress. Poster-size versions of these and other photographs are displayed in rotation along the White House corridors. It's hard to think of another workplace decorated with such looming evidence of affection between the principal players.

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