First couple Obamas make time for family

First published in Newsday.

We've come a long way, baby, when the president of the United States is worried about getting home in time for dinner at least five nights a week.

That's my takeaway from "The Obamas," a new book by journalist Jodi Kantor that promised a close-up account of the first couple's marriage. The book has stirred a number of tempers, including that of first lady Michelle Obama, who told talk-show host Gayle King that she hadn't read it, but what she had heard made her seem like an "angry black woman."

The Obamas probably have had to defend themselves against that stereotype their entire public lives. But anger has several welcome cousins: determination, strong will, commitment. The first couple, in Kantor's tale, employ these to wrestle with the time binds that constrict many modern families: how to have two careers, raise "normal" kids and find together time.

We're a busy country. The average American has added around a month's worth of work - 164 more hours per year - in the past two decades. The number of dual-income households has risen, as has the number of people working multiple jobs.

Glimpses of life with "The Obamas" gives us a comparison we Americans seem to love: Our celebrities' struggles are somewhat like ours.

Except in special circumstances, Kantor reports, the president turns down cross-country trips, dinner parties, gala invitations, fund-raising or working dinners that would keep him from the family table more than two evenings a week. By 6:30, he walks the few minutes' journey from the Oval Office upstairs to have dinner with Michelle, Sasha and Malia.

Barack Obama is one of several parent coaches for Sasha's basketball team - not at the games, where his presence would be a distraction, but at practice drills. Kantor writes, "Finally, he was what his own father had never been, what he had never been, what his wife had always wanted: the kind of dad who was around to coach basketball."

Michelle Obama is the parent who keeps standards high. If the girls take a trip, they are required to write a report about it for their parents. When they ask for a snack, the first lady questions whether they are really hungry - or just bored. That's probably a tip she picked up from her campaign against childhood obesity.

The girls are not allowed to surf the Internet or watch TV during the week. And they are very active: swimming, tennis, soccer, lacrosse, basketball.

Certainly it's easier to keep such a busy schedule with the help of a White House staff. But they could also be sitting on the couch watching "Big Bang Theory" or "Two Broke Girls."

To be sure, the good father image works for President Obama politically. When he was running for president, polls said that was one of the things voters liked best about him. At the time, scandals were engulfing other men in public life: Think Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards.

Other presidents have been doting fathers. George W. Bush certainly comes to mind. But it's rare to sneak such a peak behind the scenes while a first family is still in the White House. Kantor is to be commended for looking through the eyes not only of a political reporter but also of a wife and mother.

The Obamas of this book are good role models, not only making time for each other but determined to create a rich, rounded childhood for their girls - even in the extraordinary circumstance of growing up in the White House.

The rest of us have our own circumstances - and for most of us, far fewer resources - that make family life challenging. But we shouldn't give up on these ideals, either.