Models Monday: Living Other Models in the age of Obama

Barack Obama accepting his party’s nomination for the Presidency in Denver, Colorado August 28, 2008.

And Democrats, we must also admit that fulfilling America’s promise will require more than just money. It will require a renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what John F. Kennedy called our “intellectual and moral strength.” Yes, government must lead on energy independence but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient. Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can’t replace parents; that government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need.

Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility–that’s the essence of America’s promise.

In his acceptance of the Democratic party nomination for President of the United States of America, Barack Obama called for “other models by which to live,” and that seemed to be what people were longing for him to show us. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged the responsibilities of the government for people’s lives but he also stressed the responsibility that individuals had for making discreet and intimate changes that would show a commitment to the enhanced lives people claimed they wanted. “Each of us must do our part,” he said. “Programs alone can’t replace parents,” he continued and suggested that the work of parents involved turning “off the television” and making “a child do her homework,” and for fathers to provide “the love and guidance their children need.” I think that Barack Obama’s humility is authentic, and so he did not realize that people wanted him to tell them what to do everyday to make their lives reflect the kind of responsibility he was calling for them to assume. I don’t think he realized that people wanted him to give them instructions for how to go about making the decision to turn off the television. “What did that actually look like?” people wanted to know. “If I turn off the television, then what?” I don’t think that Barack Obama realized that people wanted to do more than just look at his life to see how they might live, I think people wanted him to tell us.

Michelle Obama seemed to understand this better than her husband.

In one of her earliest public efforts as First Lady, Mrs. Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House, the first of its kind since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden in 1943 during World War II (the Clinton’s grew vegetables in pots on the White House roof). In planting the garden, the First Lady offered a model of what it looked like to take seriously the health and nutrition of one’s family. She also talked about it; brought people in to see it; wrote a book about it; shared the produce. While she acknowledged that she had a lot of help and that everyone might not be in a position to plant a garden, she made suggestions for those families to begin eliminating processed foods from their kitchen cupboards. When I was a child, having a garden was not something that anyone perceived as a luxury of the elite who could afford a staff. Usually, having a garden was associated with the migration of families from the South who brought with them the skills of making the earth yield foods that corresponded to the memories of what their families grew at home. Thomas Greer, one of my dear friends and next door neighbor from Cleveland, told me once that his favorite thing to grow in the garden was tomatoes because “he remembered his mother growing tomatoes in her garden.” Thomas and his beloved wife and my dear friend Betty kept a garden for as long as I can remember; as did my grandparents. The Wilson’s who lived next door to Betty and Thomas were considered master gardeners. They actually grew cantaloupe and watermelon in addition to the peppers, tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, and sometimes zucchini that everyone else grew.

Like her husband though, Mrs. Obama made choices in her life that do not reflect a dominant trend and yet she does not seem to tout these choices as unique. I’m thinking specifically of her decision to live at home with her parents while she worked as a corporate attorney at Sidley & Austin, “one of the biggest and most prestigious corporate law firms in Chicago.” I have only ever read this detail in one place (the Chicago Magazine link that I provide here) and I have been in attendance for a Commencement address where Mrs. Obama discussed leaving the law firm for more meaningful work and accepting less pay, but she didn’t mention living at home with her parents. I wonder why?

My guess is that Mr. and Mrs. Obama both seem to take for granted the many interesting choices they make in living deliberately and in the process offering “other models by which to live.” For example, I think it’s interesting that Barack Obama lived in an apartment as a Senator that his staff told him was worse “than [where] his 25-year-old employees” lived. Michelle Obama wouldn’t even sleep there. What influences the Obamas to make choices beneath their means? When Mrs. Obama worked for Sidley & Austin one can imagine that she could have afforded a place to stay while saving money. The same is true of Mr. Obama when he was a senator. How do they think about how to spend money on property? While the President and the First Lady are thought very fashionable now, an image of Mr. Obama’s shoes during the campaign for the presidency did not sartorially reflect the jazz man’s cool that he projected.

Barack Obama’s worn shoes.
Adlai Stevenson’s “Boston Cracked Shoe.”

The image of Obama’s worn shoes reminded many of William M. Gallagher’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II. It would be interesting to hear how Barack Obama would describe his view of good shoes.

The Obamas lead very attractive lives. What is interesting to me is that they’re doing it at a time when representations of their class in popular culture are so strikingly ugly. American popular culture makes wealth appear synonymous with waste. Wealthy people are those who are marked by all of their excesses. In this climate where wealthy people and those who are striving to be wealthy desire multiple mansions, expensive cars, and costly clothes, the Obamas are interesting because they make choices to live in ways that seem within reach of more people.

As I was reading David Maraniss’s article in Vanity Fair about Barack Obama, I couldn’t help but to be impressed by the strength of his thinking as he conveyed his ideas through letters to one of his former girlfriends. It seemed to me that as much as he was struggling to define his racial identity, the importance of having an interior life that he cultivated and pruned was a significant aspect of his identity. I would be interested in hearing Obama discuss the relationship between his interior life and the exterior presentation of himself. More specifically, I am interested in his interior life and what it has meant for him to have money. It seems to me that the rich interior life that he has diminishes his need to spend money to appear wealthy–but that could just be my own bias.

The Obamas are interesting people. Despite Barack Obama’s reluctance to offer a step-by-step program on how he gets through the day and suggestions for how we should, I do think that looking at his life and his choices suggests a model. The same is true of the First Lady. Together, they offer alternative ways of approaching life and imagining what makes it good.

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