Comparisons between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama surface occasionally—with good reason. First, because Obama himself said that he considered Reagan a “transformational” president, and it’s now abundantly clear that Obama has the desire—and potential—to be one, as well. Second, because like Reagan, Obama’s personal popularity exceeds the popularity of many aspects of his policy agenda—some voters seem to admire him regardless of what he’s proposing. And third, because it’s impossible to look back at Obama’s rise, which in addition to his improbable presidential run included the uncanny implosion of his lead primary opponent and his general election opponent in the 2004 Senate race, without concluding that he has enjoyed a generous dollop of another key Reagan attribute: luck.
But Obama shares one more trait with Reagan that contributes to his success in powerful ways: Barack Obama loves his wife.
Every marriage includes elements of stagecraft. (How else to explain the shock some—though rarely all—of the neighbors experience upon hearing news of a pending divorce?) As a public entity, the Obamas necessarily employ more stagecraft than most. But not since Ronnie and Nancy has the White House been home to a couple that seemed so genuinely at ease with, and devoted to, each other. It’s a powerful—and power-enhancing—sight.
When Nancy Reagan stood by her man, deploying her great, misty saucers upward in admiration at the president—Garry Wills called it “the Look”—conservatives swooned and liberals gagged at the corniness of it all. Mrs. Reagan’s goo-goo eyes, which never seemed to vary, may have been performance. But the loyalty behind them was real and it was returned in kind by her husband. As Reagan Chief of Staff Donald Regan later made clear, when Nancy’s saucers turned to daggers they had the full faith of the president of the United States behind them.
Reagan didn’t just defer to his wife at key moments (goodbye, Don Regan), he visibly delighted in her. And being a good husband made him seem more of a good president. It also made him seem a better father than he actually was, giving him more credibility in the underemphasized but very important role of national father figure. Conversely, Bill Clinton’s recurring troubles with the basics of marital fidelity undermined his standing not just as a public husband but as a public father—and consequently as a leader. (As for George W. and Laura, it’s already hard even to recall images of the couple together; their stiff-backed rapport seemed to require at least three paces of dead air between them at all times.)
Obama’s choice of his Chicago church and even his embrace of religious faith itself have a somewhat suspect air about them. Both were politically convenient. But unlike plenty of other ambitious men, Obama did not marry into political connections or money. Obama’s marriage seems like a central fact—an authentic one—of his experience. Obama’s great political achievement and his equally awesome ambition could easily put him out of reach of the common man and woman—perhaps too far out of reach to be trusted. Michelle and their children ground him, and in the process tether him to the rest of us.
The icing on this wedding cake, of course, is that his marriage allows Obama to draw on the remarkable popularity of his wife. Having shed the defensive layers she wore through most of the campaign, Mrs. Obama has acquired near perfect pitch as a mother in chief. She now displays a bit of political genius all her own. Having won over a skeptical public, does anyone doubt that she will deploy her political capital when push comes to shove on the health-care front?
The essence of a marriage is notoriously difficult to gauge. But some things are too hard to fake. Without Michelle and his daughters, Obama is at risk of seeming like a political Spock—a complex and highly sensitive calculator. With a different demeanor, he might come off more like Richard Nixon, too self-absorbed ever to give a damn about his family. Fortunately for him, he’s more in the Reagan mold. Because it’s no small thing when the president loves his wife.