PHILADELPHIA — For eight years, the Obamas haven’t just been America’s first family as a matter of political title. They’ve been (particularly for Democrats) the nuclear family ideal for their era, in the same way the Cleavers and the Huxtables were in theirs.
With his wife and daughters, Barack Obama — Where the Wild Things Are–reading, dad jeans–wearing, stupid-in-love-with-his-wife, ooh-look-at-this-stalactite dragging-his-family-through-a-cave-on-vacationer — is first dad. And Michelle Obama, arguably even more than she is first lady, is — elegant, gently eat-your-vegetables-naggy — first mom.
More than anything, the Obamas are classy. Barack Obama is cool as a cucumber (or a constitutional law professor). Michelle Obama is always charming and chic.
But during her speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, Michelle Obama revealed to America, a little bit, just how much work — and pain — went into putting up a unified front of imperturbable classiness for eight years.
In part, what Michelle Obama is saying is something that we know instinctively to be true: It’s really hard to raise children in fame. In part, it’s a slight against Donald Trump — the question, "You don’t want your children to grow up with a bully for a president, do you?" was something a lot of speakers hit during the first night of the DNC, and it’s probably one we’ll continue to hear for the last months of the election.
But while most of the speakers have focused on the danger that Trump (and his party) poses to America’s immediate future, Obama offered a gentle reminder that some parents have had to have awkward conversations with their children over the past eight years as well — about why everyone is so obsessed with the "real" birthplace, religion, and loyalties of the first black president, and about why some Republicans think his first lady is so inelegant and angry.
Or about why their neighbors look at them funny. Or why shopkeepers trail them at the convenience store. Or why they get stopped by police. Or, or, or.
What Michelle Obama describes — on a cosmic, 24-hour news cycle scale — is the struggle that a lot of Americans of color (particularly middle-class ones who live in predominantly white neighborhoods) go through: how to make sure your children understand how dangerous and cruel the world can be to them, while doing everything in your power to prevent that from actually happening.
It makes all the sense in the world, on hearing it, that the Obamas dealt with it with a simple motto: "They go low, we go high." It explains the cool demeanor, the elegance, the studious, even pointed adherence to a modulated tone and middle-class etiquette. And it’s the choice that a lot of parents in the same situation end up making; in many cases, there’s no other choice.
But the flip side of "When they go low, we go high" is an attitude of President Obama’s that’s long frustrated many black Americans. It echoes "respectability politics": the idea that black people must take more responsibility for themselves, and behave in a manner that is more conducive to success, to be taken at all seriously — never mind equally.
Parents who tell each other, "When they go low, we go high," may end up sending the message to their children — implicitly or explicitly — that going high is necessary to prevail over those who go low; they may end up endorsing the idea, as generations of black parents have told their children, "You have to be twice as good to get half as far."
And even if they don’t endorse that message themselves, they may find themselves — as the Obamas have — lifted up as an example of a "good" black family to shame members of their community whose families don’t look like theirs.
It’s not a fair choice to ask any parent or any family to make. But it’s never fair, really, to ask anyone to act both as an individual and as a representative of a broader group.
All first families have that burden. So do many, many black families. It’s impressive that the Obamas managed to bear the burden of both at once; it’s both unsurprising and dismaying to see, however briefly, just how much effort it must have taken.