Labor Day marks the end of summer and, along with it, the highly photogenic vacations of the first family. No more pictures of President Barack Obama riding a bike or swinging a golf club before taking his daughters for ice cream.
Obama’s vacation time was hardly your average American’s week at the lake. The family stayed in a house they rented for $25,000 per week on an island known as a playground for celebrities and CEOs, their every move shadowed by Secret Service and a press pool. They capped it off with a few days at the presidential retreat at Camp David, world’s most exclusive collection of rustic cabins.
Nonetheless, the much-publicized R & R was likely to cement a connection with a significant portion of the electorate. More than any recent first family, the Obamas have come to personify a middle-class lifestyle that, while rarefied, is something with which many Americans can identify. And it helps explain Obama’s continuing personal popularity, even as his policies draw more fire.
“Ever since the election of Andrew Jackson, having the common touch has been essential,” says H.W. Brands, author of the FDR biography “Traitor to His Class.” “These days, no one in politics claims to be of the upper class. Everybody wants to be part of the middle class.”
But not many recent presidents have been able to pull it off. George W. Bush tried to be down-home, with a modest ranch in Crawford, Texas, but he could never quite escape representing both East Coast old money and Texas new money. Bill Clinton was beloved for his hardscrabble Southern story, but his everyman populism was mismatched by his calculating style — his adviser Dick Morris famously polling on where he should vacation — and his overtly ambitious wife, who, as she memorably put it, was not one to sit home and bake cookies. George H. W. Bush exemplified a patrician upper class — even though he professed his love of pork rinds and NASCAR. Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood fame, paired with his humble origins and advanced age, made him likable yet an anomaly, while his wife, Nancy, was the sine qua non lady who lunches.
In the Obamas, however, a wide swath of Americans can see themselves. One major reason is their relative youth and the age of their children. Not since the Kennedys has a first family with young children lived in the White House, and the normal rites of child-raising — from taking kids to school to playing with them in the backyard — enable the Obama’s to seem to have the same concerns as millions of other parents.
But much about their lifestyle has the same effect. Renting a vacation house — rather than the annual return to the family estate — is a quintessentially middle-class thing to do. So is playing basketball with your buddies, assenting to a live-in mother-in-law, planting a garden, shopping out of the J. Crew catalog and going out for burgers.
“They are positioning themselves as a successful family that has made it to the top,” says Larry Samuel, author of “Rich: The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture. “He is living the American dream, but in a way that is consistent with the times — inconspicuous consumption.”
As a presidential candidate, Obama had to overcome an initial unease with many Americans because of his race and foreign-sounding name (still a source of problems for at least some voters). But by presenting themselves as regular folks — the sort of couple that folks can both admire and identify with — they connect to the broadest segment of society, not through ideology, partisanship or race but through the murkier prism of class.
Nearly four out of five Americans consider themselves “middle class,” according to a September 2007 poll by the Tax Foundation, though a precise definition of what that is depends on all sorts of variable such as income, geography and education. And what the Obamas seem to embody are the tastes and behaviors of that broad segment of the population, despite the ability the presidency gives them to adapt a far wealthier lifestyle — a private plane ride to New York for dinner and show, jaunts through Europe, personal cooks, private gym and in-home theater.
In so many of their lifestyle choices, they are appealing directly to the ways in which Americans with some disposable income spend their time and money. Michele Obama’s now-famous Alaia belt and Lanvin sneakers are stand-out accessories from high-priced labels. But none of it is out of reach for professional women who shop at Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus. She balances out the high-end pieces by embracing J. Crew cardigans, which, even in cashmere, typically cost less than $200.
“It makes her accessible, as if she’s a soccer mom but at a private school,” says Clifford Pugh, editor of CultureMap, who covered fashion for the Houston Chronicle for 10 years. “It’s not a look that’s different or groundbreaking. It’s old school and sensible.”
In their food choices, the Obamas exhibit a level of enthusiasm that is now standard in a nation of Whole Foods shoppers. They’re no snobs — as the president’s repeated visits to hamburger joints and greasy spoons suggest. They dine at elegant restaurants, such as Citronelle, in Washington, but they also embrace healthy home-cooking by growing their own herbs and vegetables.
“The Obamas' approach to food and dining reflects the approach of many middle- and upper-middle-class Americans who genuinely appreciate the culinary transformation that this country has undergone over the past couple of decades,” said Bret Thorn, food editor of Nation's Restaurant News. “They don't just like its fashionableness, they like good food.”
Obama reinforces his everyman status with his need for fitness, his emphasis on family time and even in the fact that his mother-in-law moved in to help take of the his two daughters. Not everyone has room for live-in in-laws, but those who do — and those who want their children to be close to their grandparents — understand the dynamic.
“When reporters write about it, it’s something that makes him ordinary,” says Brands. “When they say that he used to teach constitutional law, very few people can identify with that.”
Another way that middle-class Americans can identify with Obama — and one that can help him as he encounters turbulence — is the extreme workload he has so publicly embraced. From the number of news conferences (planned and impromptu) to the aggressive agenda that he set, he’s aiming to make a big impression in a new job — while also staying fit and spending time with his kids. The feeling of running oneself ragged is something that Americans know well: One-third of respondents to a 2008 study by the American Psychological Association said they find it somewhat or very difficult to balance work and family, and 67 percent of respondents said that work is their top cause of stress.
When Obama tries to do it all, he’s doing what plenty of Americans are also attempting — to keep up with the punishing pace of life. It’s not a challenge that can be faced effortlessly, even with the benefit of assistants, staffers and a private airplane.
He’s taken a beating for it: His job approval ratings tumbled in August. Even so, his personal ratings, as of late July, have remained high. A George Washington University Battleground poll found that 72 percent approve of Obama as a person. A Pew Research Center poll found that 74 percent of respondents find him personally likable. In a Gallup Poll, 66 percent of respondents said he understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives.
Despite the wealthy trappings of the presidency, the Obamas give many Americans something to aspire to. If you’re not already beating a path between J.Crew and Whole Foods, then over to the gym, at least you know what will get you into that middle-class lifestyle.
The Obamas may be post-race, but they’re not post-class.