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Obamas' carefully crafted image of ordinariness may be working

'If you were to create the perfect American family in the laboratory, the Obamas would be it,' says one observer.

January 25, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • The Obamas have emerged as a kind of neo-1950s vision of America's first family.
The Obamas have emerged as a kind of neo-1950s vision of America's… (Olivier Douliery / Abaca…)

Reporting from Washington — It's not the glamour French cuisine of the "Camelot" White House under John and Jacqueline Kennedy. It's not the cowboy boots and Texas barbecue of Lyndon B. Johnson, or Ronald and Nancy Reagan's mix of designer clothes and brush-cutting getaways at the ranch.

But Barack and Michelle Obama have put a distinctive stamp on the White House during their first year there, and it's not what many in Washington expected.

Instead of reflecting their barrier-breaking distinctiveness -- the first black president, the first first lady with a high-powered executive career -- the Obamas have projected a carefully crafted image of ordinariness.

What has emerged is a kind of neo-1950s vision of the first family as the embodiment of traditional "American mom, dad and the kids" values.

"If you were to create the perfect American family in the laboratory, the Obamas would be it," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "That whole family is the model of perfect, young, forward-thinking, good-looking Americans."

The president, who is known to have a passion for basketball, now also plays golf in his free time, and more recently, tennis. The first lady, who initially attracted attention for her outspoken comments and bare-shouldered outfits, grows vegetables in a backyard garden.

And she now follows the lead of most other first ladies in championing noncontroversial causes -- support for military families and healthful eating.

Nor have the Obamas made a splash on the Washington social circuit, choosing instead to stick close to old friends.

The image seems to be working.

In a recent survey, the Obamas topped the list of celebrities Americans most wanted as neighbors, beating out former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.

And a sparkling inauguration, an organic garden and scores of magazine covers have contributed to Michelle Obama's likability. In Gallup polls, her favorability rating has shot up since moving into the White House, climbing 20 percentage points in March 2009 from its 43% low in June 2008.

President Obama’s favorability is at 72%, according to a Gallup survey this month.

"I think the American people appreciate the normalcy, and that's part of why his likability remains high," said Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University in Washington. "He's a guy who likes to go and get burgers. . . . He wants to be with his kids, wants to go on dates with his wife."

That the first African American family in the White House would so quickly become the nation's "every family" was neither an accident nor inevitable.

There were moments during Obama's presidential campaign when aides worried that a biracial man, "with a funny-sounding name," was too strange for the American electorate and that his executive, straight-talking wife from the South Side of Chicago might not be an asset either.

Michelle Obama sparked a furor early in the campaign for comments interpreted as saying her husband's candidacy had for the first time made her proud that she was an American.

And Obama had to distance himself from the pastor of his Chicago church, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose inflammatory pronouncements on race threatened to derail the campaign.

Since entering the White House, the first lady has largely focused on mainstream causes.

"Who could possibly dispute or do anything but admire her involvement with military families or planting vegetable gardens?" said Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian. "Both are safe."

The Obamas have also finessed the issue of picking a church.

Although expressing a desire to find a regular church, Obama has not associated himself with one congregation, minister or church doctrine. Instead, he has been attending nondenominational services at a chapel at Camp David.

That a family in which one member is the leader of the free world can be called "normal" may be a feat of modern image-making. More than any other political family in the television era, the Obamas have opened up the White House and their family life to interviews, house tours, even a recent appearance on the Food Network.

What the Obamas sometimes project, though, is what some scholars call aspirational normality: It looks average, but is far from it.

Recently, People magazine reported that the Obama girls, Sasha and Malia, are allowed to watch TV -- the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon only -- just on the weekends.

American children watch, on average, three to four hours of television a day, according to a 2005 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, but many parents wish they hewed closer to the Obama standard.

"Their appeal," said Ted Widmer, a professor of history at Brown University and a former advisor to President Clinton, "is that they reach out to so many people."

kathleen.hennessey@ latimes.com

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