Barack Obama is renowned for his ability to respond with cool eloquence to tough questions on virtually any subject — but when a New York Times reporter asked him and first lady Michelle Obama how it’s possible to have an equal marriage when one of them is president of the United States, his smooth stream of discourse came to a screeching halt.
“The Obamas are usually so eloquent and usually answer so equally, and they had a lot of trouble with that one,” New York Times writer Jodi Kantor told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York. “The president took about four attempts to answer the question. He said things like, ‘I have to be really careful here’ as Mrs. Obama is looking at him. He finally makes a joke. And then Mrs. Obama has to sort of gallantly come in and rescue him, and she basically says, ‘In terms of our jobs, we’re not equal right now. In our private lives we’re more equal.’ ”
Bumps in the road
The awkward moment was one of the highlights of Kantor’s interview with the first couple, which provides an intimate look inside the marriage of two high-powered lawyers who went on to take up residence in the nation’s most famous address. Kantor’s story appears in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.
In the story, the Obamas confess to rocky times in their marriage — especially in 1999, when Barack Obama was unsuccessful in a run for the House of Representatives. And the president reveals that the only time he’s been frustrated in the White House was when his opponents turned the couple’s cherished date nights into a political issue. Even in a town in which everything’s political, that seemed to go too far, he said.
It was the Saturday in May when, trying to be a good husband, he kept a campaign promise to take Michelle to New York after the election for one of their “date nights” — dinner and a Broadway play. Conservative commentators and Republican officials criticized him for doing so.
"People made it into a political issue," Obama told Kantor. "If I weren't president, I would be happy to catch the shuttle with my wife to take her to a Broadway show, as I had promised her during the campaign, and there would be no fuss and no muss and no photographers,” he said. "That would please me greatly ... The notion that I just couldn't take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy with."
How things have changed
It is ironic that the Obamas had to move into the White House to finally live full-time together as a family under one roof, something they hadn’t done since 1996 when the president began his political career as a state legislator in Illinois.
At first, Mrs. Obama took little part in her husband’s political career, choosing to pursue her own path as a lawyer. But when he began his campaign for president, she became more of a presence on the campaign trail, where she became a hit with the public and the media.
Today, the fact that polls show her to be more popular than her husband does not go unnoticed. “She has an approval rating higher than his, which is the subject of much joking in the White House,” Kantor said.
But if the move to the White House has made it possible for the president to be full-time father to the couple’s two daughters, it’s also forced Michelle Obama to put her career on hold to fill the role of first lady. Kantor said that while the couple maintain their relationship is the same as it has always been, it’s actually vastly different.
“It’s changed it hugely,” Kantor told Vieira. “One of the ways they rose to power is by saying, ‘We are just like the rest of you,’ and they know that that’s not exactly true anymore. In the interview, I could hear them struggling with that. They made the argument that they are very connected to their old lives, and yet they acknowledge that things are very different.”
Part of the presidency
At the same time, their marriage is very much a part of how the Obamas present themselves to the nation and how they are perceived.
“In fact, this marriage is very central to this presidency in two ways,” Kantor said. “One, when we think of the Obamas now, we think of them together. We think of the inauguration, which was almost like a wedding. She wore a white dress and they danced to a first dance. And also, they are true intellectual partners, and Mrs. Obama is much more involved in politics than ever before.”
Mrs. Obama said marriage doesn't necessarily become easier just because a couple moves into a big white house with servants and security at every turn.
"The strengths and challenges of our marriage don't change because we move to a different address," she told Kantor. Mrs. Obama said "the bumps" happen to everybody all the time "and they are continuous."
"The last thing we want to project," she said, is the image of a flawless relationship.
"It's unfair to the institution of marriage, and it's unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn't exist," the first lady said.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.