There are two little noticed aspects of Obama and his family that I think bode very well for America.
The first is Michelle. She has, from the outset, been adamant that family came first. She demanded it of Barack, and I think it was a sine qua non of her willingness to embark upon this shared political journey. I believe she will carry this commitment into the White House.
What this means is that we will have, for the first time in memory, a First Mother who has taken that role by choice. None can doubt her talents in other areas, and she will surely choose a social cause to champion, as all First Ladies do. But I truly believe that, shining through her involvement in whatever cause she may choose, will be her commitment to raising a healthy, well-grounded and well-rounded family without hiding them from public view.
You can already see it in the girls — they are not little smiling automatons or perfectly drilled political children. They are just kids, looking with wonder at the circumstances in which they find themselves, and sharing that wonder with us all. This is a reflection of strong and steady parenting: the children can be trusted to be themselves in a public setting without fear that the selves they show will be either ill-mannered or inappropriate. Like Barack, like Michelle, they are comfortable in their own skins. My guess is that the Obamas as a family will work their way into our cultural consciousness as an honest antidote to the juvenile abusiveness of laugh track TV families, and offer a model of civil behavior to us all.
At the heart of this, as it should be, will be the strong and powerful presence of Michelle. She will be almost a post-feminist figure, not balancing motherhood and a profession, but intertwining them in a way that shows the two of them to be complementary parts of a fully realized human being. If she can do this, she will advance the cause of feminism in a way that will be equally as significant as Barack’s contributions to advancing the cause of post-racial identity.
The second contribution is potentially equally as far reaching. With the arrival of Barack, we have the return of “cool” as a viable expression of personal identity. Between gangster aggression, television talk show screaming, and glowering athletes, we have become a culture that values “hot” in the McLuhanesque sense of the term. Especially in the African American youth culture, which serves as the vanguard for popular cultural forms and identities for almost all of American youth, the idea of a “cool” identity has fallen out of favor. In its place we have lionized a “hot” aggressiveness.
Barack appears to have the capability of changing this. All through the campaign, when attacked, he either embraced and then neutralized the attack, or calmly staked out his considered position and held to it without either aggression or rancor. He respected his opponents, laughed at his own shortcomings, and made civility a virtue. In short, he modeled a measured and worthy manhood.
If, through some bit of cosmic grace, we should have found at this moment in time a woman who can model a resolved and caring motherhood as well as professional excellence, and a man who can show that strength is in embracing rather than in posturing and confronting, we will be standing in a rare shaft of historical sunlight.
At least until shown otherwise, I choose to believe this is true. It will show an America that has come of age, not merely racially, but psychologically. The young country that has so attracted and confounded the rest of the world in its agitated struggling for an identity to match its sheer physical power, will finally be able to lead by example rather than by force.
I once wrote in Letters to My Son, “Strength based in force is a strength people fear; strength based in love is a strength people crave.” The Obamas raise the very real possibility that we will manifest a strength based in love. If this is the case, their presidency will reverberate far beyond the confines of political action and discourse. They will, in effect, redefine what it means to be an American. It is, to my mind, a redefinition that is long overdue.