Last week First Lady Michelle Obama received the White House Christmas tree from members of the National Christmas Tree Association, and several media outlets reported on the spectacle. A slideshow from The Washington Post shows Michelle Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, were also by her side to greet the tree.
This is just one example of the ceremonial duties performed by the first family in the White House. While the media flock to cover these moments, these traditional events are not the only time when the first lady and the presidential family command the media spotlight. The Obama family has graced the cover of People magazine. ABC News has a lengthy slideshow of pictures detailing the lives of Malia and Sasha. And the girls’ fashion was a major topic of discussion both on Election Night and following the election.
The American public is fascinated by the family of the man who leads the nation, and there is no shortage of news coverage feeding that interest. In the Encyclopedia of Journalism, Maurine H. Beasley wrote that first families have become symbols of the human side of the presidency, and media coverage has reflected that. In addition, she goes on to explain how expanded media coverage of the first family has propelled them to celebrity status, which can have a positive or negative effect on public opinion of the president. The image of the family that is created by the media can either be a liability or an asset for the president.
During the 2012 presidential election, news outlets discussed how important a positive image of the first family was for President Obama’s re-election. Jodi Kantor wrote an article in The New York Times about the role of Obama’s daughters in the campaign. She explained that, although the girls didn’t make public appearances often, their presence on and off the campaign trail highlighted Obama’s likability and “family-man image.” Mentions of the daughters and the Obamas’ family life were strategically highlighted in campaign speeches and videos, such as the campaign’s Father’s Day video, to create an image of a relatable, modern American family, where the children’s well-being is the first priority — even when their father is the president of the United States.
In his book The Performance of Politics, Jeffrey Alexander wrote that creating an image in line with the civic values that the American public holds dear is important for the success of a presidential candidate. A candidate’s interactions with his family are seen as a reflection of the values and characteristics he will bring to the presidency. In chapter six, Alexander writes that the president’s image as “a family man, a devoted husband, a doting and proud father” date back to our very first president George Washington who has been deemed the “father of our country.” Whether a candidate fits these preconceived notions about a man’s traditional role in the family is frequently discussed throughout presidential campaigns.
As coverage about the White House Christmas tree indicates, discussion of the president’s family continues throughout their time in the White House. Following the election, the Today Show aired a video about the first family and how Obama’s family can be an asset for him during the presidency. The video discusses past first families, including the former President John F. Kennedy’s family. Like the Kennedy family, the Obama’s are often viewed as a young and inspirational image of the modern American family. In a 2007 New York Times Magazine article, James Traub wrote that he hoped for a more modern first family, with characteristics departing from past first families, who could liven up the discussion of “family values.” He even said that whichever family moved into the White House after George W. Bush and his wife Laura would most likely offer “a more contemporary tableau of family life than the one we have witnessed” — and he was certainly correct.
Most of the research about media coverage of the first family and how that affects the image of the president focuses on the first lady. But just like the president’s image, the image of the first lady is largely constructed based on her role in the family as a wife and mother. This is indicated in media coverage of the candidates wives during the campaign. In their analysis of media coverage of the candidates’ wives during the 2000 presidential campaign, Betty Winfield and Barbara Friedman found that one of the frames the media use to discuss the candidates’ wives is the escort role, where she is viewed as a supporter and companion of her husband. They discuss how this role has evolved in recent years since Winfield defined it in her 1997 article called, “The First Lady, Political Power, and the Media: Who Elected Her Anyway?” published in Women, Media, and Politics. While the escort role has evolved as the wives have gained a more prominent role on the campaign trail, much emphasis is still placed on the wife’s performance in her traditional role as a mother. Throughout the campaign, the media evaluate whether a candidate’s wife is a campaign asset, and a large part of this is based on whether she shows the softer, more personal side of her husband. To do this, a candidate’s wife often discusses family life, reinforcing her domestic image.
Alexander also pointed this out in his book, discussing how Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention focused on her roles as a daughter, mother, sister and wife. Because of this focus on the wife’s domestic position, the image of the presidential family as a whole plays a key role during the campaign and once the president is elected.
Since the early days of the American presidency, the first family has captured the hearts and minds of the American people, but, in the past few decades, the family has been catapulted into the limelight. The first family serves as an example of the modern American family. Americans view the family’s interactions as a reflection of the president’s character and a way to relate to the man they’ve elected to lead their country, and the favorability ratings of a president or presidential candidate are affected by the image of his family. That image also holds importance when it comes to political discussion of “family values” because people look to a president’s family to understand what informs his views on this topic. So it’s safe to say that the Obama girls will be in the media spotlight for many more years to come. Americans will look to them as celebrities but also a model of what the American family looks like today.