For several months in 2011, the world of hopeful romantics was tilted on its axis. Rumors swirled and swelled and were splashed across gossip sites and magazines “reporting” the end of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s then-15 year marriage. Pinkett-Smith finally addressed the hearsay head on with French magazine Gala: “Every year, one celebrity couple is under the microscope. This year, unluckily, it’s us!”
Well, it’s a new year, and an unlikely couple has taken The Smith’s unfortunate spot. A pair of gaffes by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama has drawn new scrutiny upon their 20-year marriage and folks have been steadily weighing in.
The president’s “big” gaffe
During a recent speech at a Democratic National Committee luncheon in California, President Obama gave a “shot out” to California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough,” Obama said. “She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general … It’s true! C’mon,” he added.
The remark was swiftly derided in many circles. Writing for New York magazine, Jonathan Chait called Obama’s comments “disgraceful.” “Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits,” he wrote. “Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse.”
The president apologized to Harris anyway, the same night.
The first lady calls herself “single,” the press runs with it
However, it was a misstep by the first lady on the same day that turned up the attention on the state of the first marriage. Mrs. Obama described herself as a “busy single mother” during a recent television interview, but quickly corrected her mistake. “You know, when you’ve got the husband who’s president, it can feel a little single — but he’s there,” Obama told a CBS local station. She then described herself as a “busy working mom” instead.
New York’s Daily News referred to these twin slips of tongue as “double trouble for the First Family,” stirring up an air of negative innuendo around the Obama’s relationship. Some commenters on the highly-covered story even wondered how Mrs. Obama felt about his public compliments of another woman — especially in the context of misstating herself as being a “single mom.”
As much as I love to generate a juicy story on an otherwise slow news day, there’s not much to see here, folks. These slip ups don’t reveal anything about the Obama marriage other than that the participants in it, despite their fame, are regular folks who make ill-timed comments and may struggle to find a work-home balance just like the rest of us.
What to make of “much ado about nothing”
I fall somewhere in the middle regarding the president’s remarks about Harris. His comments weren’t “disgraceful” or offensive, as I’ve also heard them referred to as being, but “merely” inappropriate. They weren’t disrespectful to his wife. It’s fine that he thinks Harris is attractive; he’s married, not blind and not dead. And it’s also fine to give a woman a compliment on her beauty. However, a professional setting was the wrong occasion to make that observation. I’m glad he apologized.
As for the first lady’s misstep, she simply misspoke. It’s not like the couple got a secret divorce and none of the American public knew about it. Does her slip tell us something about the ongoings of the Obamas’s marriage? Perhaps. But nothing that we should be surprised by.
President Obama is well, the president of the United States. He’s managing the situation with Syria and the threat of North Korea, pushing for stiffer gun control and a hundred other things all at once. With a husband doing all that, it should come as no surprise that much of the heavy-lifting of managing a family falls on the first lady’s shoulders. Of course, there are times where she may feel like she’s doing it alone while her husband is running the country. Are we really shocked by this?
If so, I don’t understand why.
The obvious truths of a high-pressure marriage
The Obamas have been candid about the struggles in their marriage. In a revealing New York Times interview about their union in 2009, writer Jodi Kantor summarized an ongoing conflict between them as a struggle to “combine politics and marriage: how to navigate the long absences, lack of privacy, ossified gender roles and generally stultifying rules that result when public opinion comes to bear on private relationships.”
Mrs. Obama acknowledged in the interview that, “the bumps happen to everybody all the time, and they are continuous,” about barbs such as reactions to their twin bloopers.
Just because we’ve been privy to countless photos of the Obamas gazing at each other affectionately, stealing kisses and holding hands, doesn’t mean their marriage is perfect. And just because they’ve each made a flub, doesn’t mean their marriage is falling apart.
They have struggles. Every marriage does. Let’s not be so quick to assume the worst.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk.