Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Academic paper: The Role of Presidential Families in the United States (2011)

“I hope both of you will take up that work, righting the wrongs that you see and working to give others the chances you've had. Not just because you have an obligation to give something back to this country that has given our family so much—although you do have that obligation. But because you have an obligation to yourself. Because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.”

In an open letter that was published in Parade magazine to his daughters Malia and Sasha, Barack Hussein Obama (president-elect at the time) expresses a father’s love to his daughters and simultaneously defines the ‘obligation’ they have as privileged presidential offspring (Obama, 2009). These two factors combined —a president’s love for his family and his family’s duty as residents of the white house – belongs to a set of social ideas that has shaped the image and expectations of the presidential families in 20th century America.
The goal of this paper is to assess how widespread ideals and values of the ’American family’ have become a standard to which the American public expects the presidential (or first) families to live up to. In a context of ever-changing household structures, family types and growing concerns about the strength and validity of marriage, scholar Andrew Cherlin claims that families in today’s America experience change at a frequency double or faster than their European counterparts (Cherlin, 2009, p. 10). But in spite of the wide variety of family experiences in America, the ideas that prevailed during the 1950’s continue to serve as the standards against which the American public measures the first family. Deviation from these standards generally earns a reactionary response from the populace.
The analysis is divided into seven parts. In the first section, I review the “problems” with families in America today based on the works of sociology and family experts. In the second part I will examine how ideas of the family are formed by looking closer at the 1950’s, a period in American history that most scholars believe set the standards of what “the perfect family” is; for this portion of the paper I will rely heavily on Elaine May’s text Homeward Bound (May, 1999). Part three addresses the feasibility of “setting standards” for family life and whether using the 1950’s family model is practical in the late 20th and early 21st century—this part of the paper will also discuss the racial facet of family life and how African Americans were legally and socially restricted from reaching those “family standards” at the time (May, 1999). By addressing the racial aspect of African American families, it underscores the significance of Obama’s election victory as someone from a marginalized group who could reach the highest position in US politics. In the fourth section of the paper, I analyze the legal changes that have taken place after the so-called ‘golden period’ of the 1950s, that is between the 1960’s and 1990’s (Cherlin, Public and Private Families, 2008). These legal reforms have led to a redefinition of individual rights (such as the alacrity of attaining a divorce). Part five leads me to families in America today, tying back in with the “problems” section in part one but with a deeper analysis and the proposed “solutions” scholars’ and experts’ offer for families today. In this part I will rely largely on Andrew Cherlin’s work. Part six of the paper I will segue into the presidential family, and how focus from the president extended to his family members (Kellerman, 1978). At this juncture I will use Barbara Kellerman’s typological framework in identifying the political roles of presidential families; and finally in part seven I will bring the Obama family under scrutiny, analyze where they “fit” in the experiences of ordinary American family life, how they break racial and social barriers as being the first African American family in the white house, and how they are generally perceived as a “nice” family. This last part will involve a myriad of primary sources (mostly popular magazines such as Times, Newsweek, GQ, Parade, etc) that highlights their family life and how the Obama’s are regarded as one that actually satisfies the “family requirements” of the 1950’s. My own analysis in the conclusion would be that the Obama’s stable family life is something Americans feel like they need from their leader and that as far as appearances go the Obama’s truly are a stable family—but one cannot deny the political benefits of having this appearance, and that the family is one aspect Obama is strong in and can use for political purposes for his reelection in 2012.
            “In no […] other country [sic] has marriage become a social and political battlefield [and] Nowhere else is the government spending money to promote marriage” (Cherlin, Marriage-Go-Round, 2009, p. 3). According to sociologist Andrew Cherlin, marriage is a central concern of family life in the United States and the concerns overlap into social and political spheres in ways unlike its Western counterparts in Europe. Kristin Cellelo states in her text “Making Marriage Work” that the fear of high divorce rates drove many Americans to look for formulaic solutions to “save” their marriages, and this transformed the nature of marriage into something that one can put “work” into—hence the title of her book, which is a double entendre for “saving” a marriage, and the process of which marriage is turned into a job (Cellelo, 2009). Both Cherlin’s and Cellelo’s work centers on the 20th century, and indeed over the century Americans have seen the divorce rate soar, drop in the 1950’s, then soar again (May, 1999, p. 13). Cellelo’s work also points out that expectations for marriage had also been raised with the boom of marriage advice since the 1920’s, as numerous “marital experts” guaranteed that if a couple (particularly women) “worked” at their marriage, the returns would be high. Ironically the transformation of a marriage into a “job” was intended by “marital experts” to actually lower expectations for marriage by pointing out the difficulties and obstacles a couple will face; but by providing a “job framework” for couples to work within, more people expected to succeed at working at their marriages, and when the rewards did not come quickly (if at all) then the chances of that marriage ending in divorce actually increased (Cellelo, 2009, p. 5).
            At the societal level, stress was put on the appropriateness of private and public behaviors, and works like Greer Litton Fox’s “Families in the Media: Reflections on the Public Scrutiny of Private Behavior” delineate the juncture at which these spheres intersect (Fox, 1999). Fox argues that in American society there are sets of behaviors that are considered appropriate in private or in public only, and the two are mutually exclusive. By enacting private behaviors in public, the public reacts by ‘punishing’ the offenders: either through condemnation or marginalization. The reverse is true as well, as a public ‘rewards’ people who correctly adhere to public norms in public, and for presidential families I find Fox’s insights highly relevant with the acceptance of the Obama family (a family that adheres to the appropriate/inappropriate norms) and the rejection of past presidents and their failure to adhere to these tacit rules (i.e. President Clinton).
            The second part of the paper will describe how ideals shaped in the 1950’s still prevail in a contemporary context. In Elaine May’s Homeward Bound, she explains how political forces contributed to the boost in marital confidence:
“[…] In the early years of the cold war, amid a world of uncertainties brought about by World War II and its aftermath, the home seemed to offer a secure private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world […] the self-contained home held out the promise of security in an unsecure world” (May, 1999, p. i)
            The main idea in her text is that as a result of fear and competition with the Soviet Union, Americans made the first “wholehearted attempt” to embrace traditional gender roles and nuclear family household structures as a way to strengthen themselves and their country (May, 1999, p. i). By focusing on ‘The American Dream,’ Americans had given themselves a goal to reach that would (in their minds) increase their standard-of-living way beyond that of their Soviet counterparts, thereby maintaining a status quo that capitalism is the better system, as it yields happier people. ‘The American Dream’ in a few short words is the goal of attaining a harmonious marriage where the husband works and the wife stays at home, a residence in the suburbs, and this residence is comprised of parents and two or three children. May states that by the 1950’s standard-of-living had indeed risen high enough for this to be a goal many Americans could achieve. Suburban development grew as more and more people moved, and class lines began to blur as working and lower-income classes moved into the white suburban neighborhoods (May, 1999, p. xviii). Furthermore ethnic distinctions also began to blur as Italians, Irish, Greeks and Polish families joined ranks with white protestant Americans in the suburbs, eventually merging as a Caucasian middle class that outwardly looked similar and practiced similarly when it comes to family life.
The third part of my paper questions how practical the family model of the 1950’s was, and how African Americans faced more obstacles than Caucasians did in attaining ‘the American Dream.’ The dream of moving to the suburbs was both directly and indirectly denied to African Americans in several ways: One, African Americans were on the “wrong” side of the law, which stated at the time that African Americans were not allowed to own property in some areas (May, 1999, p. xx). So while class lines began to blur, racial divides between Caucasians and blacks sharpened. Another reason African Americans were barred from obtaining that dream is due to socioeconomic realities. In contrast to the Soviet Union, the United States valued individuals over collective groups because they felt that any form of collectivism is representative of socialist tendencies, which is abhorred. Therefore, initiatives towards improving welfare in the US or other projects to elevate the poor were seen as too socialist and mostly obstructed. The Soviet Union used America’s race problems as an example of the failings of the capitalist West, which is why American leaders became lenient towards the civil right movement.  The government stance on this was to prioritize political freedom over economic equity and equality, so African Americans were allowed to march and peacefully demonstrate, but their socioeconomic standing is not helped. The civil rights movement provided political avenues for minorities to voice their concerns and asks for equal political rights. The belief that one only has to work hard enough to get what they want emerged from this era too, as political rights became more available to all. But the association went to a person’s socioeconomic standing too: If a person’s socioeconomic standing was poor, it was therefore believed that the victim did not try enough to improve themselves.
Besides racial barriers to attaining the dream, there were other problems with having one standard (or one dream) for everyone. Anybody that did not fit the suburban profile were stigmatized and ostracized, and this could range from a middle class Caucasian couple who are not able to have children, to a husband who lost his job and his wife must find work, to unhappy marriages, and beyond (May, 1999). There are more exceptions to the “suburban rule” than there are adherents, but this fact has not hindered the widespread support for the suburban family lifestyle.
         The fourth part of my paper goes into the period of the late 1970’s-1990’s where legal codes are written or changed to respect individual rights (Cherlin, Public and Private Families, 2008). After studies emerged on domestic abuse and high rates of violence between married couples as opposed to assault by strangers, the ability to obtain a divorce was made easier with time (Cherlin, Public and Private Families, 2008). The ideals of the 1950’s shed in light of cases of abusive or unhappiness, and the stigma surrounding divorce shrunk as more people found more reasons to end a marriage. According to a graph in Cherlin’s work “Public and Private Families,” divorce spiked in the mid-1980’s before declining a little and hit a plateau since (Cherlin, Public and Private Families, 2008). With more legal codes protecting an individual’s right, it was easier to leave a marital arrangement. While this had benefits for those who genuinely were in need of divorcing their abusive spouses, other people would obtain a divorce from things like dissatisfaction with the marriage (Cherlin, Public and Private Families, 2008).
            The fifth part of my paper will return to the “problems” that American families experience, but this time expert advice on how to “solve” those problems are provided. When it comes to marriage, divorce, cohabitation or lone parenting, Andrew Cherlin’s advice for Americans is to “slow down” (Cherlin, Marriage-Go-Round, 2009, p. 11). While there are government and social initiatives to get Americans married and stay married, Cherlin does not see stability by grounding two people in a union. He sees stability as asking Americans to consider their next steps in life and what their priorities are as an individual or a family member. Cherlin’s concern with stability lies with the children of America, as his research has shown that American children are twice or three times as likely to experience a household restructuring in their lives as opposed to children who are raised in Europe. Children who are raised in constantly-changing households often mean that the parent (or parents) is distracted with their personal lives, which leaves the child to his or her own devices. Cherlin expresses the importance of raising children in a stable environment with plenty of attention, as it leads to the healthy development and growth of America’s future societies (Cherlin, Marriage-Go-Round, 2009, p. 12).
            With the observations and insights provided in the first five parts, we can now observe how presidential families fair in this American context, and in particular the Obama family. Barbara Kellerman offers a typology for presidential family members in her work “The Political Functions of the Presidential Family” (Kellerman, 1978) and though somewhat outdated, her work is still relevant at identifying the roles of each family member today. She provides six typologies, but I will only use the ones that apply to Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama.
            Before delving into the typologies, Kellerman first explains how presidential families entered into the attention of the public. She narrows the conditions for attention down to four factors: The growth of the imperial presidency; the impact of television; the increase in the number and importance of primaries; and the advent of the women’s movement (Kellerman, 1978, p. 303). Kellerman argues that because the president’s movements are followed, he has become in people’s view the personification of the US government, and his personal life becomes a mystery that people are interested in. Because his family is evidence of a personal life, they become a subject of interest. The impact of television has helped familiarize the president and his family to millions of Americans, bridging the distance between citizens and their president and creating a feeling of closeness for the people to the presidential family. Primaries are part of the electoral campaign process whereby a presidential (or reelection) hopeful would visit cities and towns and make campaign promises in exchange for support. This process literally brings the president home for some people, as they are able to personally approach the president-hopeful and ask their questions or even just to take a picture with them. The advent of the women’s movement has highlighted the role of the “first lady” as one that should be utilized in order to empower the women of the country. Because of this, the “first lady” comes under scrutiny that can sometimes rival that of her first husband (Kellerman, 1978, p. 304)
            With all these factors combined, the relationship and structure of the presidential family holds a lot of weight and real consequence for the people as well as the first family. Whereas a divorce or a rebellious teen may be a personal problem for most families in America, for the presidential family these can be seen as an occupational hazard (Fox, 1999). Under such scrutiny of the public the behavior of the first family is judged, and any indication that there are problems would call the president’s qualification into question.
            The roles that Kellerman defines for each member of the presidential family are created to handle the potential “public attacks” on the presidential family, as well as to support the president. Michelle Obama can be seen as fulfilling many of the roles defined by Kellerman: the decorative role of a presidential family member is one where they make the president look good, and Michelle as well as her two daughters fills this role. By accompanying him to primaries, speeches, and important events, the Obama ladies make Barack appear to be a friendly and happy family man with a sound support group. Michelle also serves the role as an extension of president Obama by appearing at events that the president could not make himself, or organizing some of her own. Her goodwill and appearance translates to that of the president, and even though he may be absent, her presence compensates for it. Michelle also serves as the humanizer, as she recounts personal stories of the president from the time before they were married. This serves to make the president less of a distant government figure and more of a personal individual that one could imagine meeting with. Finally, Michelle is seen (especially during the campaigns) as the president’s moral support, as images of them privately hugging behind the scenes flooded the media primarily through Arianna Huffington’s news/blog site “Huffington Post.” The image of an empowered woman in a suit hugging her presidential-hopeful husband doubles as a signal to feminists that her role is diverse, and to American families that feeling of a strong spousal relationship.
            Finally, the Obama’s must be evaluated based in the context of the history and various experiences of the American family. Somewhat ironically, the Obama’s are a picture-perfect representation of the ideal family model of the 1950’s: one with a heterosexual couple with their two daughters. The irony is that this family ideal was usually attributed to white families. Only a year after taking office, Obama invited his mother-in-law to live in the White House with the family, augmenting the nuclear family structure to a more extended family structure that closely represents the kinds of households African Americans usually live in. The racial barriers that the Obama family has broken are numerous; after two centuries the president no longer represents only the Caucasian constituencies but now the biracial ones. Born from a Kenyan father and a white woman from Kansas, Obama is the product of a long and rich heritage on both sides of the family. Through his maternal grandfather’s side specifically he can trace his ancestry back to prominent political leaders in US history.  He consolidated his African American image by marrying Michelle Robinson, a direct descendant of America’s slavery history. She has done much for his image as she is regarded as a fiercely talented and bright woman who in fact mentored him while he interned at a law firm. She is praised by many Americans for opting to take a modest role in the political sphere in order to raise her daughters in the private sphere, despite her political and professional experiences.
            Consequently, my analysis of the role of presidential families is that Americans expect them to lead not just as leaders of the country but lead as healthy families too. I believe that this is why whenever a presidential family has problems, the nation becomes divided between anger at their apparent mismanagement, or sadness at the difficulties they experience. According to Fox, families in the media are given a privilege to dictate and set the bar at how appropriate behavior should be, and I believe that the Obama’s have thus far been an excellent example of a healthy and supportive family. Going back to Cherlin’s concerns, perhaps the image of a stable family in the white house is exactly what families in America need as a model to take after in their own lives.
            Some skeptics claim that the happy family image of the Obama’s are a political tool to further Obama’s agenda as president, while others argue that the love the family has for each other is real. Whichever the case, it is true that Obama can only benefit politically from being a member of a functioning and loving family; while at the same time it can be said that the nation too can benefit from having a family like the Obama’s leading the nation and changing its policies with familial priorities like healthcare and education at the fore. Whether the Obama’s presence in the White House positively or negatively impacts the demographics of American family life is yet to be seen.


Bianchi, L. C. (2002). Continuity and Change in the American Family. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
Cellelo, K. (2009). Making Marriage Work. NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
Cherlin, A. (2009). Marriage-Go-Round. New York: Knopf.
Cherlin, A. (2008). Public and Private Families. Boston: McGraw Hill.
Fox, G. L. (1999). Families in the Media: Reflections on the Public Scrutiny of Private Behavior. Journal of Marriage and Family , 821-830.
Kellerman, B. (1978). The Political Functions of the Presidential Family. Presidential Studies Quarterly , 303-318.
Marilyn Coleman, L. G. (2007). Family Life in 20th Century America. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
May, E. T. (1999). Homeward Bound. NYC: Perseus Books Group/Basic Books.
Obama, B. (2009, January 13). Parade Magazine. Retrieved December 22, 2010, from Parade Magazine: http://www.parade.com/news/2009/01/barack-obama-letter-to-my-daughters.html
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