New York Times writer Judith Warner gets into the psychology of those who have both healthy, unhealthy and borderline devastating emotional attachments to the First Couple — even though we don’t really know them at all.
One woman wrote that when she couldn’t get to sleep at night, she “lay in bed and thought about the Obama girls in their rooms at the White House. I thought about Marian Robinson up on the third floor. And about Barack and Michelle, a couple who clearly have a ‘thing’ for each other, spooning together in bed. It helped me relax.”
I understood perfectly where these cozy dreams of easy familiarity came from. It was that sense so many people share of having a very immediate connection to Barack Obama, whether they’re black or biracial, or children of single parents or self-made strivers; or they’re lawyers or community organizers or Ivy League graduates or smokers or basketball players or Blackberry users or parents or married or Democrats. A lot of people share the fantasy that having the Obamas over for “dinner and a game of Scrabble,” as one daydreamer put it to me, is something that really could just about happen.
“This is the first president I’ve known who looks, talks and acts like a peer,” is how one Washington man explained it to me. “Notwithstanding his somewhat exotic life story, I feel like I understand what he’s like and where he’s coming from. And despite his incredible achievements, he still seems like a lot of people I know. If you stopped the clock in 2004, in fact, or maybe a couple of years earlier, he’d feel roughly like a peer in terms of accomplishments, too. Of course I know nobody with his political gifts, speaking skills and confidence, and he’s also a gifted writer and thinker. But I feel like one or two different turns for Obama or me and he could have been someone my friends and I wouldn’t think it extraordinary to have in our circle.”
The article got into everything from the droves of women mired in sexual fantasy, folks overly invested in the Obama marriage, kids who dream of playdates with Sasha and Malia to former Ivy-Leaguers doing their best Brando, crying, “I could-a been-a contenda!”
These are people for whom the Obamas are not just a beacon of hope, inspiration and “demigodlikeness,” as a New York lawyer put it, but also a kind of mirror. And the refracted image of self they see is not one they much admire.
“I keep thinking about how I squandered my education and youth,” the New York lawyer wrote to me. “I went off to college from high school being completely community-minded, doing a lot of volunteer work for the homeless and for hunger and tutoring poor kids. Then I got to college and forgot my ideals. Barack was my year at Columbia. Why wasn’t I hanging out with him and being serious and following my ideals instead of hanging out in clubs? Same with law school. I partied my way through instead of taking advantage of all that I could have. Both Obamas were there when I was. I feel like if I’d been a better person I would have gotten to know them.”
A Washington lawyer expressed similar sentiments: “I feel like I know Barack, that I have worked grassroots and have created change in the way that he has. I [also] have feelings of a mom who had possibility but ended up running school auctions and mediating family business matters rather than having the opportunity to be out there on a national level creating change. So when I watch Barack I feel like: I can do that … and what am I doing with my life? Even though he is way smarter and more articulate than me.”
And for some, that desire can cause this fantasy of admiration to border on contempt.
For some, not knowing the Obamas has almost turned into a feeling of being snubbed or excluded. Like in middle school. It’s funny. Almost.
“Why won’t my kids be sleeping over at the White House? And as my daughter noted, why couldn’t she get to sit front and center and see the Jonas Brothers and Miley perform at the kids’ inaugural concert? If she went to Sidwell, then she might have these chances, she said …” wrote a mother whose kids are not at Sidwell Friends school with Sasha and Malia.
“Will Michelle stay down to earth? She could prove it by joining our book club,” wrote a Sidwell mom.
As much as people love the Obamas, I often joke (but seriously) with my family that with such high hopes, there is bound to be a gaggle of folks about six months from now running around screaming “the emperor has no clothes” because there was never anyway for the Obamas to live up to the fantasy that exists in the heads of the faithful.
Most of us are rational in our admiration. But we all have that friend, co-worker, relative or neighbor who has become a little too invested in the Obamas. Not quite creepy stalker, but a little delusional, perhaps believing President Obama’s election will truly lead to Martin Luther King’s “Promise Land” and cure all that ailes us. And when the honeymoon ends and their life is still what they made it, they will either be crestfallen, laugh at their naivete or turn on him like a jilted lover.
I like the Obamas. I’m a fan. But my expectations for all presidents always teeter between cautiously optimistic to low, because I’ve watched politics long enough to know how hard it is for any one politician, even the president, to get things done. Success is never guaranteed no matter how brilliant a mind you have. I believe he’ll do well, but I’m not going to be shocked if he makes mistakes along the way. I’d suggest that people enjoy their Obama highs, but brace themselves for when reality conducts an intervention on your fantasy role playing.
Pictures below are from a recent prayer breakfast The Obama’s attended. For more pictures of the Obamas and the Administration’s First 100 Days, check out the Flickr page.