In July of 2008, Access Hollywood’s Maria Menounos secured an interview with the Obama family during a campaign stop in Montana. It was a coup, this sit-down with the whole gang. Sasha (then seven) and Malia (whose tenth birthday was that day) had been present on the trail, two adorable reminders that the senator from Illinois was a young, vital man, but the campaign hadn’t truly capitalized on the younger Obamas’ nascent star power. Still, the week it aired, the man who would become president declared the interview had been a mistake. As is de rigueur, we’ve seen little, and heard still less, from the president’s children in the years since.
The video lends credence to Barack Obama’s assertion that his daughters simply snuck into what should have been an interview with the grown-ups: dad is weary, mom poised; Sasha, still chubby with youth, drapes an arm across her father’s leg; Malia, nearing adolescence, almost rolls her eyes. Michelle prompts Malia to answer the reporter’s questions; Barack cracks wise and Sasha seems appalled. The entire family is unguarded, almost over it.
It’s telling that Obama felt this video was an error. It’s too honest, too real, in a business in which those traits are mostly liabilities. But on some level the senator and his handlers had to have known that the way to win is to be the person Joe Public wants to have a beer with. What better way to sway the voter skeptical of the guy named Hussein than by revealing him to be just another dorky dad?
Obama-as-dad is my favorite Obama. Obama-as-executive, with his stubborn faith in reasonableness in times absent of reason, presided over the country during its descent into madness; I find it a comfort that Obama-as-dad presided over a family that leaves the White House healthy and happy. (Needless to say, Obama-as-dad doesn’t work alone; equal, indeed probably greater, credit belongs to Mrs. Obama and her mother, who lives with the first family.)
Naturally, I only think the family leaves the White House healthy and happy. It’s because the elder Obamas are possessed of this fascinating charisma that makes you feel you know them, even as they remain essentially unknowable. It’s no wonder the McCain campaign in 2008 dismissed the man as mere “celebrity”; this is the kind of thing on which great Hollywood careers have been built. Obama-as-dad is little more than fan fiction.
It’s a seductive ideal even if I can’t explain why it pertains to Obama in a way it never seemed to for Bill Clinton, who also raised a child in the White House. I suppose I must face that it has to do with the fact that I became a father myself in the Obama era; it’s not the reason Obama got my vote, but, as the McCain machine suggested, file it under Stars—They’re Just Like Us!
My elder son was born in 2009, during a time that a man with kinky hair and a name unlike his 43 predecessors sat in the Oval Office. Had Obama been an utter failure, lasting only a single term, these facts alone would still have been a boon to me. Surely every parent raising a child who meets the bar of any sort of difference in this country—indeed, the world over—has used Obama as rhetorical prop at some point these past eight years. I haven’t even been subtle. I’ve told my sons: “This is Barack Obama. He is the most powerful man in the world. He’s black like you. This is his wife, who is a brilliant lawyer and also very beautiful. She’s black like you, too. These are his daughters, who he adores and are absolutely lovely. They, too, are black like you.”
The first family’s value to me has been as an example of the best of what the world might hold for my sons. But Obama-as-dad is something more personal. When I read that Sasha Obama had a summer job at a seafood shack in Martha’s Vineyard it squared with the fan fiction I’ve composed in my mind of Obama-as-dad (and indeed, Michelle-as-mom). Of course, this powerful, intelligent dad would want his daughter to experience the satisfaction of a first job in a restaurant. Of course that’s the sort of father I myself should aim to be: loving but firm, guided by a belief in the value of hard work.
For all I know, that’s nonsense. Maybe Sasha was consigned to this job as punishment for lackluster grades in Chemistry; maybe she wanted the gig because her best friend worked there too. Whatever the truth, the president’s timing has been impeccable. Just as Bill Cosby set out to assiduously destroy his legacy as America’s great black dad, Barack Obama arrived on the scene.
For me, Obama-as-dad is very much about Obama-as-black-dad. I’m not black myself, but my sons are. Obama (and the many black fathers who have come to prominence during the Obama years, including Eric Holder, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Van Jones) gives the lie to the more pernicious myths about black fatherhood that persist in this culture. He’s dogged, he’s stern, he’s loving, he’s there.
My feelings about the president as paternal role model may be silly. But the personal truly is political. It’s not that I want my sons to aspire to the highest office in the land; it’s that I aspire to be like Obama, a man who, we’re told, set aside the work of running the country to dine with his daughters five nights a week. I have tried to follow suit, remembering that the work I do is considerably less important. It can wait, I try to tell myself. Family matters more.
That very old Access Hollywood footage of the younger Obama family continues to surprise. I see in seven-year-old Sasha’s easy embrace of her father’s body an echo of my own seven-year-old’s tendency to thoughtlessly, maybe by some animal instinct, reach for his father’s hands or legs, to wiggle into hugs. It’s something little kids do, something the parents of older kids have told me to enjoy while it lasts, because this easy affection ends, as all childhood’s small comforts eventually do. The Obama daughters are young women now, and seeing them in their finery at the state dinner for Justin Trudeau was a shock. Were they ever so young? In my fiction, Obama-as-dad wouldn’t mind my asserting that his daughters having grown into poised, intelligent women is his true legacy. I think he’d see it as a job well done.