Politicians' marriages are not very different from yours or mine: ultimately mysterious to everyone on the outside, and probably somewhat mysterious to the two people on the inside. But there is at least one critical distinction. The marriage of a presidential candidate, and of a president, has wider implications than virtually any other marriage, for the forces that shape the personal worlds of those in power also inevitably play a role in shaping the political one as well. Abigail and John Adams, Dolley and James Madison, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, Edith and Woodrow Wilson, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Hillary and Bill Clinton: with them, the marital has mattered to the rest of us.
Understanding the spouses of those who would be president, then, is both interesting and important. This week Richard Wolffe profiles Michelle Obama, the formidable Princeton- and Harvard-trained lawyer from Chicago who is emerging as one of the most intriguing characters in an intriguing election year. Her husband calls her his "rock," the force that keeps him grounded in reality—a busy role given the senator's flights of oratory.
With two young daughters, Mrs. Obama is also fascinated by the issue of how women maintain a balance between their work and family lives, a fascination that will no doubt resonate with many voters as the campaign goes on.
She can be interestingly candid. When Richard asked whether she and Obama have time for a "normal relationship," she replied, "Normal is relative." "Her evolution on the national stage is striking," says Richard. "As with her husband, it's happened in full view—stumbles and all. Both were self-confident and polished when they first stepped out, but they were also unused to the scrutiny. I first saw her campaigning in Iowa last summer. At that time, she traveled by minivans driven (often badly) by young volunteers. She had no Secret Service detail (unlike her husband) and would talk to small but respectable crowds of a few dozen at a house party, or 100 at a hotel. She'd slip off her Jimmy Choo shoes and deliver a punchy sales pitch for her husband—the kind of hard sell he hadn't mastered at that time. Today she has her own security protection, draws 1,000-plus crowds (easily equal to, and sometimes bigger than, Bill Clinton's), and her SUV moves in a motorcade. Perhaps more telling than the trappings of co-front runner: her voice. She's more personal in her stump speech, better able to follow the rhythm of the crowd, more rehearsed and at ease."
Raina Kelley contributes an essay on the complexities of the image of a strong black woman, Howard Fineman writes about a new power bloc: Ivy League-educated African-Americans, and Arian Campo-Flores sends in a letter from Texas, which, along with Ohio on March 4, may be Hillary Clinton's last stand. If it is Obama-McCain in November, Jonathan Alter writes, "Once their niceties about one's heroism and the other's inspiration are dispensed with, Obama would try to make the Arizona senator look like a hypocritical, clueless and warlike geezer, while McCain would suggest that the Illinois senator is a naive, liberal and dreamy kid."
Of Mrs. Obama, Richard adds: "Can you fully rein her in? Not really, and that's part of her freshness and, yes, greenness. She's a bold character—strikingly tall (even without her Jimmy Choos), always well dressed, with a commanding presence and a competitive spirit. But she's also a hugger, someone who can put people at ease and give the impression that the Obamas are still 'normal' people, not that far removed from real-life concerns like student loans. If her husband keeps on winning, they surely won't be normal for much longer."