Kanye West is a tough act to follow—unless you are a middle-aged couple slow dancing to tuba music. It's unlikely that anyone watching last month's Youth Inaugural Ball on TV noticed much difference between how the crowd of millennials welcomed the Louis Vuitton don and how they reacted, a few minutes later, when Barack and Michelle Obama took the stage. But if you were actually in the audience—like me, and my eardrums—the change was impossible to ignore. The young people screamed. The young people sighed. Several young people even began to weep. "I hope my husband looks at me like that someday," said one girl. When the song stopped, Obama leaned into the mike. "That's what's called 'old school'," he cracked. The new-school crowd responded like a bunch of banshees.
At the time, I attributed the scene to inauguration-induced hysteria. But since Jan. 20, a dozen peers have confirmed that what I witnessed in Washington wasn't a fluke. "Yeah," a friend admitted. "I'm totally obsessed with the two of them together." Which got me thinking: have the president and his wife become for 20-somethings what the stars of "Twilight" are for tweens—the swooniest couple around? And if so, what does that say about us?
My hunch is that millennials are going gaga over Barack and Michelle because they want to be Barack and Michelle. It's not that other generations can't admire the Obamas' bond; their marriage—a union of self-sufficient equals—embodies the post-'60s ideal. But unlike their elders, most millennials have yet to experience marriage firsthand, and what they've experienced by proxy hasn't been particularly encouraging: a 50 percent divorce rate, a steep rise in single parenthood, a culture captivated by cheap celebrity hookups. Even America's most visible household hasn't offered much hope, veering from '50s-era subservience (the Reagans) to boomer dysfunction (the Clintons). But now the Obamas—two independent individuals who also appear to be (surprise!) in love—have filled the void. For young people who have rejected the tired "wife in the kitchen" template but resolved not to follow their parents to divorce court, it's a relief to see that the sort of marriage they hope to have—equal and devoted—can actually exist.
Recent studies show that millennials are approaching the altar more cautiously than their forebears. Thirty years ago, the average American woman wed at 20 and gave birth by 22. Now the median age for both is 25. Why the shift? Sociologists say that an increased desire to establish a personal and professional identity before settling down—especially among women—has prolonged the period between college and adulthood. The result is that millennials as a whole are more likely than their predecessors to be self-reliant individuals when they finally do wed—and less willing to marry for reasons (such as financial stability or social pressure) other than love.
The first couple reflects this new reality. After college both Michelle and Barack spent years focusing on personal and professional advancement, waiting until they were 28 and 31, respectively, to tie the knot—a reassuring model for millennials who worry that "putting themselves first" could mean they'll end up alone. But more important is the egalitarian relationship the Obamas have maintained since marrying. When the two met in 1991 at a Chicago law firm, Barack was a summer associate; Michelle was his mentor. Until recently her résumé (mayoral assistant, nonprofit exec, hospital veep) was more impressive than his, as was her six-figure salary. And while Michelle sacrificed for Barack's bid, she did so only after establishing an identity outside of the relationship—and authority within it. In Illinois, Barack told friends he "would never [cheat]. Michelle would kick my butt." Afraid of emulating his absentee father, he'd often nix meetings because he was unwilling to "miss … bedtime for this." At home, Obama has practiced the same consensus-driven process he preaches on the stump—a process that resonates with pragmatic millennials. His marriage is as "post-boomer" as his management style.
But ultimately I think it's the Obamas' willingness to act in public much how they act in private—open, informal, flirtatious—that has incited most of the swooning. At the Youth Ball, I noticed the president do something that's impossible to imagine any of his predecessors doing: resting his head, eyes closed, on Michelle's shoulder. It reminded me of other times Obama has let himself seem vulnerable, even submissive. When his wife told fans that he wakes up "snorey and stinky." When, in "The Audacity of Hope," he described Michelle ordering him to run errands after he'd called to crow about a Senate victory: "I … wonder[ed] if Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home." And when, in a newly published 1996 interview, he explained that "it's [the] tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of … mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person." These unguarded moments once led Slate's Melinda Henneberger to ask "whether a husband who not only bows to his wife but admits it conforms to our notion of … strength." For millennials inspired by the first couple's modern marriage—a group that sees greater strength in celebrating domestic equality than concealing it—the answer is apparently yes. After all, anything less would be, like, totally old school.