The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even in a good marriage, being first lady is the worst

President Barack Obama dances with first lady Michelle Obama at an inaugural ball in 2013. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Before every campaign of Barack Obama’s political career, he knew he needed Michelle’s buy-in.

Even though she gave the go-ahead each time, the former president writes in his recent memoir, “A Promised Land,” she set boundaries around her involvement in any campaign and made it clear when she wasn’t happy. With Obama away from home so often — first in Springfield, Ill., and then in Washington, D.C. — the bulk of the domestic duties fell to her, he writes, and that’s not how they had envisioned their partnership.

When it came time for his biggest ask — What did she think of him running for president? — Michelle said no. But after some time passed, they discussed it again. When she asked why he needed to be president, Obama said that if he pulled it off, “the world will start looking at America differently,” he writes. “I know that kids all around this country — Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in — they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it.”

His appeal worked. “Well, honey,” she told him. “That was a pretty good answer.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama reflected on life at the White House and how her daughter Malia "liked to study to the sound of the chants of the protesters." (Video: Reuters)

This back-and-forth and those that came before it — Michelle saying she wouldn’t spend time in Springfield if he won an Illinois Senate seat, that she wouldn’t campaign for him as he sought to become a U.S. senator, her moving from no to yes on the presidency — fit the definition of an egalitarian marriage, in which both partners get a say in big decisions.

Michelle’s probing questions and hard lines weren’t an inconvenience for an ambitious politician; rather, they echoed what first attracted Obama to Michelle. “The weird thing was, I liked … how she constantly challenged me and kept me honest.” The lesson here is that, even in a relationship labeled “couple goals” and viewed as highly aspirational, conflict is natural. It’s how you navigate it — not how much of it you have or how far apart you might initially seem — that determines a partnership’s strength.

The examined life of Barack Obama

Overall, Obama’s memoir is a portrait of how an unlikely presidency came to be, how Obama dealt with political adversaries, what he achieved and what was left undone. Amid the nitty-gritty dissection of how government does (and doesn’t) work, and doses of yes-we-can idealism, the book also explores what happens to a marriage when one person’s dream thrusts both partners into the public eye. Michelle agrees to a presidential run, but neither she nor Obama fully realizes what they’re signing up for.

Among the unwelcome surprises is a sense of isolation, from the rest of the world and from each other. In the White House, every move has to be scheduled, calculated and approved by others — from whom they invite to dinner to where they vacation to where they would live after the 2012 election should he not be re-elected.

Such tight control, and the high stakes involved in each day’s work, can change a person. But Obama notes several times that he seemed to be taking everything in stride, even the crises. So much so that longtime friend and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett remarked several times “on how little the presidency changed me,” Obama writes.

Michelle, however, had a different response. After all, she had never had political aspirations — and yet she was propelled into a role with so many expectations. “Look beautiful. Care for your family. Be gracious. Support your man. For most of American history, the First Lady’s job had been defined by these tenets, and Michelle was hitting all the marks,” Obama writes. “What she hid from the outside world, though, was the way her new role initially chafed, how fraught with uncertainty it felt.”

The result, her husband later notes, was “an undercurrent of tension in her, subtle but constant, like the faint thrum of a hidden machine.” Obama sensed the strain his position put on their marriage. “It was as if, confined as we were within the walls of the White House, all of her previous sources of frustration became more concentrated, more vivid, whether it was my round-the-clock absorption with work, or the way politics exposed our family to constant scrutiny and attacks, or the tendency of even friends and family members to treat her role as secondary in importance.”

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And yet, she rarely shared those feelings with her husband, the former president writes. She didn’t want to add to his load, and there wasn’t much he could do to change their circumstances. “And maybe she stopped talking because she knew I’d try to reason away her fears, or try to placate her in some inconsequential way, or imply that all she needed was a change in attitude,” Obama writes. “If I was fine, she should be too.”

There were gasps of normalcy — when they’d get to snuggle under a blanket and watch TV or play with the girls and Bo, the first family’s Portuguese water dog. But most nights, after dinner they’d go their separate ways — Michelle to her study and Obama to the Treaty Room to continue working — and by the time he was finished, she was asleep. In one of the book’s most bittersweet passages, Obama writes, “There were nights when, lying next to Michelle in the dark, I’d think about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered, and my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return.”

Any couple juggling two careers and kids might experience such wistfulness for their relationship’s simpler, early days. But a large part of the distance Obama describes is unique to the presidency, and any first couple is likely to experience it. In imagining what it would be like to be the spouse of a president or vice president, Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, remarked that the job of a White House spouse is “to take the weight of the day and make it go away.” Which prompts the obvious but unanswerable follow-up: Whose job is it to relieve the burden of the first lady’s day? How much time and energy is left for her? These White House roles weren’t designed with modern marriages in mind, in which both members of a couple often share the load of working, raising children and supporting one another.

But, for the Obamas, the tension was not lasting. The book begins as the presidency ends — with a period of rest and relaxation. Obama writes of spending his first month as a former president going for long walks with Michelle, enjoying leisurely dinners and sleeping late; how they “replenished our friendship” and “rediscovered our love.” In the quiet and stillness after years of pressure and stress — like two empty-nesters who get to once again revel in one another’s company after the kids leave for college — husband and wife get to reconnect.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Valerie Jarrett’s role within the Obama White House. She was a senior advisor.

Lisa Bonos writes about dating and relationships for The Washington Post.

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