It's been clear from the start: Michelle and Barack Obama are a happy couple. Like no First Couple before them, they frequently reveal signs of affection and mutual respect, holding hands in public, gazing into each other's eyes, and alluding to private jokes in public. They go on dates. They co-parent. In short, they are true partners.
The president had made this clear publicly in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago last November: "I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years... the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady... Michelle Obama."
Writer Gaby Wood of 'The Guardian' in Britain put it this way in a 2008 story: "Together, they present the most collaborative, romantic, intelligent and relaxed couple that has ever been anywhere near the White House... As a couple they are 'almost telepathic,' [according to a campaign worker] and such public displays of private affection as they have offered have not existed in politics for decades."
Not even during the Camelot days of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, noted for their glamour and optimism, was there such overt romance. The Kennedys, who married in a high society, high visibility wedding in 1953, were rent by numerous sexual affairs the president conducted during the years of their marriage. In his book 'An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963', author Robert Dallek wrote about Kennedy's relationships with other women, including a teenage intern. Jackie, he revealed, suffered mightily because of her husband's infidelities, and even made angry remarks about them in public settings. In one episode recounted by Dallek, she chastised aides for making her shake the hand of a woman with whom President Kennedy had had an affair. On another occasion, she is reported to have said to a French reporter, "This is the girl who supposedly is sleeping with my husband."
Another president famously conducted a relationship with a White House intern, although he swore he "did not have sex with that woman." That president was, of course, Bill Clinton. The Clintons are known to have a strong allegiance to each other; some call it a political marriage. Still, they are clearly a close couple. In January 2008, Hillary Clinton told 'People.com', "I really had to dig down deep and think hard what was right for me, what was right for my family. I never doubted Bill's love for me ever, and I never doubted my faith and my commitment to our daughter and our extended family. The momentary feelings - you know, you are mad, you are really upset, you are disappointed - all of that goes through your mind...I have found you really shouldn't make decisions in the heat of those moments."
According to people close to them, the Clintons have weathered many storms together. Leon Panetta, who served in the Clinton Administration and now heads the CIA, is quoted in 'NYTimes.com' in 2006: "They've been through a lot of challenges as a couple, though in the end if you're with them together, you know there's something there that basically bonds them."
Then there are the Edwards, who made a run for the White House. John, a Kennedy-esque liberal and his popular wife, Elizabeth, seemed like another perfect couple on the campaign trail. They'd weathered a lot together, most notably the loss of their teenage son in 1996 in a car accident, and they seemed like a real team. While John took some heat for his expensive haircuts, their most pressing problem was Elizabeth's diagnosis of incurable cancer as the campaign got under way. Then another shock hit the news: John had begun an affair with a campaign worker and continued that liaison even after Elizabeth's diagnosis. Elizabeth Edwards' book 'Resilience', which hit the best seller lists several weeks ago, is her somewhat public attempt to come to grips with what has befallen her, and her marriage.
But like the Clintons, people close to the couple think their marriage will survive. One family friend is quoted as saying, "John and Elizabeth still love one another. I think they will make it through." In recent months the couple, who have children aged eight and 11, have been seen out together in their hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "They are taking each day as it comes," says the same friend. "It's obviously a difficult time in their lives." But as Elizabeth Edwards told TV host Oprah Winfrey recently, "neither one of us is out of the door."
Other White House couples may or may not have had such publicly aired problems to deal with, sexual or otherwise, but it seems fair to say that none of them garnered quite the public adoration of the current First Family. Although she is very selective about the interviews she grants, Michelle Obama is on record about why she thinks the marriage works so well. For example, she told one interviewer from 'The New Yorker' that being a political wife was hard. "That's why Barack is such a grateful man," she said. In another interview with 'Ebony Magazine' in the early days of the campaign, she said, "Our future is making sure Barack can get to our daughters' ballet recitals and balancing the demands of this current set of responsibilities with our need to build a strong family." She also pointed out that Mr. Obama was "breaking his neck to get home on the weekends."
The president's comments to the press have been equally grounded in the reality of what it takes to make a relationship work. "She appreciates flowers, but to her romance is that I'm actually paying attention to things that she cares about, and time is always an important factor," Obama told 'Ebony'. "It is important when I'm home to make sure that I'm present...As Michelle likes to say, 'You are a good man, but you are still a man.' She lets me know when I'm not acting right."
Perhaps Obama's most telling remarks were shared with Ian Kerner, author of '5 Lessons We Can Learn From the Obamas', as reported by MSNBC.com: The president is quoted in that article as saying, "Sometimes, when we're lying together, I look at her and I feel dizzy with the realization that here is another distinct person from me, who has memories, origins, thoughts, feelings that are different from my own. That tension between familiarity and mystery meshes something strong between us. Even if one builds a life together based on trust, attentiveness and mutual support, I think that it's important that a partner continues to surprise."
Michelle added simply, "Our relationship was first a friendship. It took off from there."
An article from the Associated Press earlier this year may put it best: "The Obama marriage represents a much more modern kind of White House romance - two people who've both had important careers, who are trying to balance professional success with family stability, who are both playful with each other and mutually respectful, and who aren't afraid to display their affection and chemistry, again and again."