WASHINGTON — Countless words have already been written about the racial barrier broken in the recent U.S. federal election. Barack Obama, who will be sworn in as the 44th president on January 20, is the first African-American to be elected to the nation’s highest office. But there’s another, less obvious aspect of Obama that he shares with another minority of Americans who occasionally get the short end of the stick in our society, and it may affect the way he runs the country in subtle ways: Obama is a child of divorce — and of a stepfamily.
In this and other ways, the incoming president represents a new generation in the White House.
Obama, 47, grew up during a period in which divorce and the non-traditional family became less of a stigma in American society. His parents, Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham, divorced when he was only three, and he only saw his father (who moved back to Kenya) once more before the latter was killed in a car accident in 1982. Dunham later married an Indonesian student, Lolo Soetoro, and gave birth to Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.
So Obama has direct, first-hand familiarity with the sorts of issues faced by much of modern American society — including the 9.2% of U.S. households headed by single mothers and 28% of children growing up in single-parent homes, according to the Huffington Post. One hopes this will motivate him to help the country’s non-traditional families during his presidency.
“Being president is a piece of cake compared to going through a divorce,” Don Gordon, the creator of the Children in the Middle program for children of divorce, told the Post. “This resilience serves [children] well in dealing with lengthy stressful situations… They can tough it out, no matter how bad it gets.”
Jeannette Lofas, who runs the Stepfamily Foundation in New York City, told the same paper that she wants the new president to support funding to measure the impact of divorce on American life. “In stepfamily life,” she said, “children reside in one house and visit another. This impacts [sic] the economics of both households, as well as the family relationships.”
Obama recently discussed his unconventional upbringing, and how it has affected his marriage, in an interview with the Huffington Post. “A part of me was wondering what a strong, reassuring family life would look like,” he told the paper, “while [my wife] Michelle, in a way, wanted to break from that model… I think that in a certain way, I’ve tried all my life to fabricate a family through stories, memories, friends, or ideas. Michelle’s family life was different, very stable with two parents, a stay-at-home mom… and I think that in a certain way, we complement each other, we represent two common models of family life in this country. One very stable and strong, another that frees itself from the constraint of a traditional family, travels, separates, [and] is very mobile.”
Judging from his political success, Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes We Can,” applies to people who grew up in broken or blended families as much as to racial minorities or any other Americans.
President-elect Barack Obama was born in Honolulu and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991 and married Michelle Obama the following year. He served as a U.S. senator for three years and is also the author of two autobiographical books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006).