“As parents and as a couple, the Obamas are very different,” historian Doug Wead, author of the book All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families, told The Root. “Not even the Reagans were as publicly affectionate as the Obamas.”
A former adviser to George H.W. Bush, Wead has firsthand knowledge of how much the often decadeslong journey to the White House can take its toll on a political couple.
“Most recent presidential families have been dysfunctional, going all the way back to FDR,” Wead said. “The couple is so stressed — they’ve endured long periods of separation and they’ve had to make so many sacrifices — that by the time they make it to the White House, they’re a wreck.”
He recalled riding in a motorcade with the senior Bush couple during a campaign just before they both boarded separate planes. “I remember them squeezing each other’s hand like, ‘Oh, boy, when will this ever end.’ “
The Obamas’ near-meteoric ascent to the top of the political food chain, according to Wead, has probably been a boon to their marriage, eliminating so much of the built-up stress involved in building a long political career.
From Barack Obama’s election to the Illinois state Senate in 1996 to moving into the most famous address in Washington in 2009, the Obamas have spent less time in the public eye than other veteran political couples like the Clintons, who stepped onto the national stage in 1974 when Bill ran for Congress. Time out of the spotlight, according to Wead, has helped the Obamas strengthen their marriage and family.
Sociologist Bradford Wilcox, however, pointed out that the first couple did “have their struggles as younger professionals. But obviously they managed to come through all that with their marriage intact,” continued Wilcox, who is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “That’s all to the good in terms of the example the Obamas are setting for the country as a whole.”