It started with the fist bump seen ’round the world. Soon there were stories of rousing family Scrabble battles and date nights, in spite of election mayhem. Then President-elect Barack Obama referred to his wife Michelle as “the love of my life” during his election night victory speech, embracing her tightly and kissing her afterward, while millions of people worldwide watched.
“They took a moment to face each other, to kiss and hold one another, regardless of the magnitude and spectacle of the night,” said Camille Washington, a Bay Area blogger on Soulbounce.com, a music and culture site. “That says a lot.”
The Obamas represent a welcome change as an openly affectionate and romantic couple for many Americans. Some experts say that the soon-to-be first couple embody the ideal healthy relationship, and that they can stir up love around the country. The New York Daily News even predicted a baby boom attributed to election night friskiness inspired by the Obamas.
“Michelle and Barack are so obviously in love it's actually helping me to believe in love again,” Washington, 25, wrote on her blog.
Icons of love
For African-Americans, the image of a powerful black couple in love is particularly meaningful. In the 2005 census, 51 percent of American women reported they were living without a spouse. Among African-Americans, this number rose to 70 percent.
“With such a high percentage of black people unmarried, everyone is looking for images of black love,” said Michael Perry, 47, a librarian at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “[The Obamas] personify that. It makes people say, ‘Wow, we want to be like them.’ ”
Washington, who is black, told TODAYshow.com that she and her friends look up to the couple, saying that “they want a love like that someday,” and added that she thinks the Obamas might inspire songwriters to pen soulful, emotional lyrics.
But some say the Obamas, who have been married for 16 years, aren’t the exception, and it’s the media that has created a one-dimensional caricature of African-American relationships.
“There are many types of families of African descent, and many families that are like the Obamas — two professional parents with children,” said M. Belinda Tucker, a social psychologist and professor at the University of Los Angeles who has done significant research on black families and relationships. “But the predominant image we see is of the single-mother household. The [president-elect] and his wife represent a counter-image.”
But the effect of the couple’s love for each other transcends the black community, and according to relationship expert Kathlyn Hendricks, author of several books including “Conscious Loving” and “Lasting Love,” Americans should see the couple as a role model for a healthy relationship.
“Not only does [Barack Obama] love his wife, he respects her,” said Hendricks. “The model of harmony, shared humor and easy communication that the Obamas reveal really is a new model — if ordinary citizens practiced this each day, our world would transform very quickly in positive directions.”
In general, the relationship between the American president and his wife has always been an important one, and does have an impact on the public, said NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
“We know that a person’s partner [choice] is one of the biggest clues to what that person is all about,” he said.
Beschloss said that in the past, how a political figure interacted with his or her spouse didn’t matter as much, and as with the Kennedys, the media often looked the other way when it came to philandering.
“Presidents are so intensely covered, we know so much about their personal lives, that it’s inevitable that the public is going to know a lot about, and make judgments on, what happens between political wives and husbands,” he said. “John and Jackie Kennedy almost never held hands or showed affection in public — nowadays, people would think something was wrong.”
Former President Richard Nixon and his wife Patricia almost never showed affection to each other in public, either. Beschloss pointed out that Nixon was criticized for not thanking her enough in his speeches, marking a turning point in how presidential relationships were seen by the American public. Such a misstep today, he said, would be a major faux pas.
The Clintons were the first presidential couple to present a more egalitarian working relationship, but public perception of them quickly eroded due to scandal after scandal involving former President Bill Clinton's infidelity. In contrast, the Bushes have represented a more “traditional” relationship model — with first lady Laura Bush standing behind her husband, but maintaining a seemingly loving relationship.
The Obamas have the best of both worlds, said Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University and author of “Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.”
“The Obama marriage is a modern partnership between equals; they are a working couple just like the Clintons,” he said. “But, unlike the Clintons — and more like the Bushes — the Obamas appear to be a solid couple, devoted to each other, with no fidelity questions hovering overhead.”
For love or politics?
But could the affection and appreciation between the Obamas be scripted for political gain? Maybe, but those close to the couple say the feelings are real.
“Their friends have observed that they have a very positive relationship,” said Liza Mundy, author of “Michelle: A Biography.” “One of Barack’s friends pointed out how effusive he is in his praise of Michelle — he knows how much his career has demanded of her, and he’s very appreciative of that.”
Based on their body language, relationship expert Hendricks also says that the Obamas’ interaction is genuine.
“The Obamas’ body language, expressions and gestures all match. That's an indication of harmony rather than conflict,” she said. “When Michelle came out on election evening, she and Barack spoke and touched as if they were alone. Then they turned to the audience. If they can communicate that way in public in front of hundreds of thousands of people, their bond is very solid and real.”
Essence magazine editor Mikki Taylor saw this genuine quality in the couple as well when she interviewed the Obamas in their Chicago home for the September issue. “They talk to one another — they sit at the table and discuss what happened at school, what happened with the campaign,” she observed. “They were warm, loving and engaging.”
The couple, who have weathered Barack Obama’s ascent from the state legislature to the Senate and the long presidential campaign, now face life in the White House, with kids and possible puppy in tow. In order to keep their relationship strong, Hendricks said, Barack Obama may have to take breaks from leading the world to make time for his leading lady.
“Michelle and Barack [should] continue to schedule time to enjoy their private relationship,” she advised. “Times of listening to each other's feelings, dreams, daily experiences, will continue to keep them balanced and refreshed as Barack, with Michelle's counsel, faces the enormous challenges he's inherited.”