As much as people may want to say that Barack Obama was an unconventional politician, he was very traditional in his approach, just modern in his techniques. Ever since Andy Jackson doubled the size of the American electorate to his advantage, following a frustrating loss in 1824, the name of the game in politics has been to reach as many voters as possible. It’s called retail politics; meet voters personally and engage them in your campaign. Obama became the first presidential candidate to utilize all the bells and whistles that are available through social media and internet solicitations.
This game is incredibly intense and exhausting for the candidates. There’s never a time to stop because there’s always another voter waiting to be convinced. This is nothing new, but what is so revealing in Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, is the toll that campaigning takes on a modern marriage.
Michelle Obama clearly reveals the stress that her husband’s campaigning and life in politics put on her, her marriage and the entire family. When she fell in love with Barack Obama and they mutually decided to be one another’s life partners, she was not aware of how his ambitions would strain the relationship. She knew that he was unusual; that he had passions beyond his personal life, but that held true for her as well.
She knew that there was a side of him that was largely nurtured by solitude. In every home where they lived, he needed to have an intellectual’s man cave – a room where he could work alone on his projects. First among these was trying to better understand his roots and how he had become who he was. This was the work on his first book, Dreams from My Father.
The first time that Michelle met Barack, she quickly learned that he was a procrastinator and his S.O.P. was to be late. Such was the case with the deadline that his publisher gave him for his manuscript. Obama concluded that the best way for him to finish the work was for him to go far away to a lonely spot to work without distraction. That took him to Bali, where he had lived for part of his youth, where he spent five weeks writing a complex narrative.
Michelle Robinson had grown up in a very traditional household on the south side of Chicago where presence, punctuality and personal engagement were the norms. To the extent that she thought about marriage as she was growing up, it did not include extended absences and pre-occupations that were largely outside her orbit.
If Barack was not in Bali sorting out and writing about his personal metamorphosis, he was in the very ordinary burgh of Springfield, IL, three hours southwest of Chicago, where as a state senator he was learning the skills of effective politicking and trying to advance a progressive agenda amid a Republican majority.
During that period, at least Obama was able to confine his campaigning to his senatorial district in Chicago (although he had already developed a wide network of funders). But when he ran for the U.S.Senate in 2004, he had to reach out to southern Illinois (aka Little Dixie) where his sophisticated persona was sometimes at odds with the locals such as when he ordered Dijon Mustard in a downstate Applebee’s.
No sooner was he elected to the U.S. Senate than he was campaigning across the country, first for other candidates and then for his own presidential campaign. He tried to keep his commitment to Michelle for a “Friday date” every week, but that too became impossible.
Michelle Obama understands that her husband is not just a soul mate, but also someone with extraordinary gifts, skills and commitments. He is very altruistic. The money that he pursued was not for personal gain but rather to advance a political agenda that helped those among us who are most in need. She is torn between her desire for traditional family life and honoring the goals and lifestyle of someone as extraordinary as her husband. She said,
“In an ideal world(my ideal world, anyway), Barack would do something like become the head of a foundation, where he could have an impact on issues that mattered and also make it home for dinner at night.”
Michelle Obama is not the only spouse of a driven politician. In one sense, it does not matter whether someone running for office has the compassion of many progressives or the intense commitment to individual liberties of a conservative. When it comes to running for office, the demands are the same for each. It is not a pretty sight.
It is interesting how corporate America and other workplaces have made advances in recent years to help employees keep a balance between work and family life. We have had maternity leave for some time, but it has been expanded. Paternity leave is new. So is flex-time and tele-commuting.
But absent in these reforms is anything that would allow the politicians who make some of these rules to have balanced lives while they are running for office. Calls for reform are few and far between, even from the progressives who are the primary sponsors of laws to provide balance between work and family life.
Barack Obama is clearly a global thinker. In light of that, what can he do to honor the concerns of Michelle and others like her who must sacrifice so much for their spouse’s ambitions.
In a nutshell, what is needed are logical and sensible reforms in the way we do politics in America. These include:
- Shortening campaigns. In other countries, campaigns last as few as six weeks.
- Get over the dysfunction of retail politics, at least for those running for office with more constituents than a state representative. As Michelle said about campaigning in Iowa:
“I’d never been one who’d choose to spend a Saturday at a political rally. The appeal of standing in an open gym or high school auditorium to hear lofty promises and platitudes never made much sense to me. Why, I wondered, were all these people here? Why would they layer on extra socks and stand for hours in the cold? I could imagine people bundling up and waiting to hear a band whose every lyric they could sing or enduring a snowy Super Bowl for a team they’d followed since childhood. But politics? This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.”
- Educate the citizenry. Our decisions about our leaders is much more important than what brand of floor wax we purchase. Why do commercialize politics as if we’re selling an everyday product? Why do we go negative when it only sheds heat rather than light on the issues at hand?
Are we doing anything to promote an educated citizenry, one in which voters can make up their minds about candidates and issues without being pandered by politicians?
If we bring humanity to politics, we will honor the concerns of Michelle Obama and so many others. It’s a new kind of reform, and now retired, Barack Obama can take the lead. But if he does so, he must do it in a way that keeps a health balance for him and his family.