Timothy Egan: Barack and Michelle: Scenes From a Marriage

FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2017, file photo, former President Barack Obama, right, and former first lady Michelle Obama appear at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago. Obama said in a commencement speech Sunday, June 7, 2020, that the nationwide protests following the recent deaths of unarmed black women and men including George Floyd were fueled from "decades worth of anguish, frustration, over unequal treatment and a failure to perform police practices." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

He walks too slowly, a languorous Hawaiian ambler. She’s a get-to-the-point woman, in gait and gab. He’s a politician. She has no use for the type. He gets tangled up in fancy talk. She cuts through the fluff. He smoked. She loathes the smell of cigarettes.

Can this marriage be saved? We know, of course, that it can. We now have more than 1,100 pages on the extraordinary lives of Michelle and Barack Obama, as told by themselves. The two books — her “Becoming,” published in 2018, and his “A Promised Land,” out last month — broke sales records, almost single-handedly rescuing the bookstores of North America.

The national ground they cover, like the country itself, is vast: The biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The heavy lift of expanding health care. The stone-cold barnacle of Mitch McConnell. Their own historic marker: the first Black president and first lady.

But behind their national identities, there’s also the private love story, and scenes from a marriage just as complicated as any other.

Indeed, long after people stop wondering how the Affordable Care Act came to be, they’ll likely be reading the Obamas as a marriage tutorial. Though he seems to get his way on his grandest ambitions, she frequently pushes back, saying their lives have to be about we, not me — or it won’t work.

It’s been a long time, and is likely to be a long time coming, before a married couple from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have as much to say about one of the central mysteries of life. I would have liked to have seen more of the interior life of the first lady Edith Wilson, after she essentially ran the executive branch following President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke. And who doesn’t wonder what went on behind the sad gaze of the long-suffering Pat Nixon?

The Obama marriage, as they tell it, reflects both the strains of their place in history, and the contemporary aggravations of professional strivers — the hard balancing of dual careers. Seemingly opposites, Barack and Michelle actually complete each other.

At times, her subtle snubs are just right, as when the president bolts out of bed early one morning to receive the news that he’s been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “That’s wonderful, honey,” she says, unimpressed, then rolls over to get more sleep.

He knows how lucky he was to find her, and how — at the peak of his power — he misses the bond from simpler times. He says, “there were nights when, lying next to Michelle in the dark, I’d think about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered.”

Somehow, they defied the stereotype of those living their vows inside a political bubble — the wife with the adoring stare, the absentee husband who only seems to care. What’s more, their description of how the two became one and stayed that way seems, dare I say, authentic.

Here’s Michelle, a first-year lawyer by way of the South Side of Chicago, Princeton and Harvard Law School, on meeting, dismissing and then falling in love with the man who walked into her office one summer day. She’d heard he was cute, smart and ambitious. “I was skeptical of all of it. In my experience, you put a suit on any half-intelligent Black man and white people tended to go bonkers.”

And just to be clear: “He was refreshing, unconventional, and weirdly elegant. Not once, though, did I think about him as someone I’d want to date.”

But as summer went on, she fell for his weirdness and his wit, his tardiness and his tranquility, and when the mystery tug at her heart became too strong to resist, she knew she was in trouble. “He was like a wind that threatened to unsettle everything,” she writes. She spends more than 50 pages in her memoir on the courtship.

By contrast, it takes Barack, a notoriously loquacious man, a mere four pages in a book of more than 700 pages to get from meeting Michelle to their wedding day.

Going into politics proved to be one of the biggest sources of contention in their marriage. “We began arguing more, usually late at night when the two of us were thoroughly drained,” he writes. “‘This isn’t what I signed up for, Barack,’” says Michelle. “‘I feel like I’m doing it all by myself.’”

Indeed, like so many women, she made a considerable sacrifice of her own career to ensure that the family they raised would be normal, and to help Barack become the most powerful man in the world — something he consistently acknowledges.

His wife, ever the pragmatist, and the more succinct of the writers, has the best explanation of how they have stayed together for nearly three decades:

“What happens when a solitude-loving individualist marries an outgoing family woman who does not love solitude one bit? The answer, I’m guessing, is probably the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising inside a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is: You find ways to adapt. If you’re in it forever, there’s really no choice.”

Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan, winner of the National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time,” is a Seattle-based opinion writer for The New York Times.

Return to Story