Barack Obama with his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, on Election Night in 2008
Barack Obama with his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, on Election Night in 2008

There is a touching photograph from 2008 of Barack Obama and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, seated on a sofa in suite at the Hyatt Regency Chicago watching the election returns on television. His historic victory assured, the two hold hands across a space that had just been occupied by Michelle. The photo speaks to the closeness between Barack and Marian.

Soon thereafter, Michelle would ask her widowed mother to leave her beloved South Shore bungalow to move with them to Washington. Michelle wanted Malia and Sasha, long accustomed to their grandmother’s attentions, to have a sense of stability and continuity as they gave up their friends and school in Hyde Park for a new life in D.C. Grandma, after all, had nurtured the girls while their mother traveled during the campaign and before that too. She had been a steady, reassuring presence all their lives.

The late night comics—Leno, Letterman, and Kimmel, for example—had some fun at the new president’s expense with the notion of his mother-in-law invading his household. But the country, no matter political affiliation, was taken with this family, and there seemed to be a general feeling of good will and admiration for the Obamas as they established an extended family in the private White House quarters.

These days, not so much. As Obama’s approval ratings plunge—and as Republicans and some Democrats began to describe him as weakened, easily bullied, and ineffectual—the mother in law references and bad jokes, especially on talk radio, have increased. Suddenly, having Robinson, 74, under his roof is just another indicator of his impotence and fecklessness—as in Republicans tell him what to do, just like Michelle and her mother. "There's a $376 million semi-secret construction project happening at the White House,” joked Jimmy Kimmel, “and it's rumored that a tunnel is being built underneath. That's a lot of work for President Obama to get away from his mother-in-law. Let the man have a cigarette."

In a brutal column earlier this month titled, “One and Done?” the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd described Obama as humiliating himself by giving into Republican Speaker John Boehner and moving his jobs speech “…because there’s nothing the Republicans say that he won’t eagerly meet half way.” She continued by quoting from number two on David Letterman’s “Top Ten List of the president’s plans for the Labor Day”: “Pretty much whatever the Republicans tell him he can do.” From there she touched on the touchy mother-in-law issue, although she did so by quoting from an 11-month-old Onion parody of the president, describing him as “…express[ing] his aggravation on subjects as disparate as the war in Afghanistan, the sluggish economic recovery, his live-in mother-in-law.…”

In the course of writing a profile of Michelle Obama, I interviewed many friends who know her mother. Based on what many sources said, I’d bet that the president feels gratitude for Robinson's calming presence. Should he overcome what seem to be insurmountable obstacles and win reelection, the negative mother-in-law references will play themselves out—but until then, watch for these hoary, misogynistic jokes to become a theme of what promises to be one hell of a harsh campaign.


Photograph: David Katz/Obama for America