Three Families in the White House

There is no question but that the family and family life of Barack Obama has been a singular part of his presidency. It’s also been a singular part of how we as the American public and people have lived in his presidency. Press and media coverage have emphasized the Obama marriage, the Obama parenting, and the Obama family generally. I’d say that’s been a good thing.

Here’s the bigger point. When you look at the past century or so, only three presidents have had such an experience in terms of family and children. I think Obama shares this with John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps because of their comparable ages, these three American presidents have seen their families and family life highlighted in their public relations. They’ve also initiated a fair amount of it themselves.

So, what you’re seeing with the Obama family is what Americans in the early 1900s and the early 1960s saw with TR and JFK. I think it’s interesting that these three generations of Americans share this trend across more than 100 years.

Here’s a final and even larger point. Historians often warn us against using the present–the here-and-now–as a lens for looking back into the past. They tell us it is unfair to judge people of an earlier time with the standards, practices, and ways of life from our own time. OK.

But if you’re able to avoid judging, your use of the present to look back into the past can be a good thing. It’s good that you recognize the common points you hold with those who have lived before you. It helps to put your own experience into the context, maybe making you more likely to endure things you wouldn’t otherwise have the patience or fortitude to endure.

We see the kids, the spouse, and the family now in the White House. They saw it too, 50 years ago and 105 years ago. These sights are different in some ways, to be sure, but to a surprising degree, in some ways they are the same.