Kiss cam: the president and first lady Michelle Obama at a sporting event July 17, 2012.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

(The Root) — Betty Everett sang it best in 1964: "If you want to know if he loves you so, it's in his kiss." Nearly five decades later, that maxim still holds true for smooching purists and presidents alike. Just ask Michelle Obama.

Earlier this month, while taking in a Team USA basketball exhibition game at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the Obamas were caught by the arena's "kiss cam," not once, but twice. The first time, the president tried to get away with just a hug. Nope, not good enough, booed the folks from courtside to the nosebleeds.

On the second go-round, with some help from 14-year-old first daughter Malia, the president turned to face his wife and plant one on her. And the crowd went wild.

But why?

Certainly, married couples kiss. Before love, marriage and the baby carriage, one would hope there was time set aside for a kiss or 10. For the Obamas, expressing their love has never been an issue.


Since hitting the campaign trail in 2008, Barack and Michelle have stood out as the couple to watch. Their hand holding during rallies and after conventions seemed more than an easy photo op. Aides joked that after a long separation from his wife, the then candidate could get moody — but after a brief visit from Michelle, he was back to normal.

And the Obamas have taken their hands-on approach to their relationship to the White House. In Washington their date nights are as ubiquitous as a presidential motorcade. A quick squeeze of the hand or a forehead kiss before greeting dignitaries isn't uncommon.

But the Obamas, obviously, are no ordinary married couple. Often their blissful image is considered a reboot of the 1960s Camelot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., when the Kennedys reigned supreme. Yet there is something special, more genuine, perhaps, about the Obamas' love story than those of past presidential couples, according to several experts.


"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."

Despite not entering the national arena until fairly recently, the Obamas have appeared on television more than any other presidential couple, a record 195 appearances since 2004. The second-most-televised first couple was Ronald and Nancy Reagan, with 175 appearances. The Clintons followed in third place with 59 appearances, all according to information culled from the Internet Movie Database.

"What people see and what they read about in everything from Entertainment Weekly to People is important. The Obamas project a great image," said Wilcox, whose research focuses on the effects of marriage stability in American family life.


And what exactly is the image the rest of the country is seeing? According to body-language expert Blanca Cobb, the Obamas look like a "sincere and genuine couple."

Watching a video of the kiss-cam moment, which in all likelihood will enter the annals of the Library of Congress, Cobb noted the Obamas facing each other, briefly locking eyes and pausing before going in for the kill — all of which suggests genuine intent.

"The key is, they both move towards each other. It shows that they're into each other. The kiss isn't just a peck; it's a lingering kiss, which is considered a more passionate kiss," explained Cobb. She also pointed out more subtle presidential PDAs throughout the game: Mrs. Obama caressing her husband's elbow with her fingers. The president kissing his wife's forehead as she leans in. Holding hands and wrapping one arm around the other. All in a day's basketball game.


"It's great to see a successful African-American couple with an intact marriage and beautiful children," said Wilcox, whose research suggests that marriage as an institution has gotten stronger among college-educated Americans.

"The Obamas clearly remind all of us that what we consume on the newsstands or TV doesn't necessarily comport with the reality for all Americans."

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 


Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.