Barack and Michelle Obama: their (honest) love story, from that first kiss to ‘10 bad years’ as First Couple

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(Getty Images)

Black and white Instagram tributes for each other’s birthdays. Speeches about being best friends. Books, movies and documentaries about the highs and lows of their 30-year marriage.

The love story that is that of Barack and Michelle Obama must be one of the most openly and honestly-discussed in history. But this week saw one of the power couple’s most frank and human admissions yet. “There were 10 years where I couldn’t stand my husband,” the former First Lady told the Black news station Revolt TV last week as she described how raising children had put strains on her marriage to Barack. “And guess when it happened? When those kids were little.”

For those who’ve watched the Obamas with interest and envy over the years, the comment marks a milestone moment. The couple have long spoken openly about the challenges of marriage — Michelle wrote about how they went through marriage counselling in her memoir Becoming, and both she and Barack have been honest about the work it takes for a marriage to survive — but this latest confession is widely regarded as their most admirable, in some cases relatable, yet.

After all, as Michelle put it herself in an interview back in 2009: “It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist...The image of a flawless relationship is the last thing that we want to project.”

From their meet-cute 30 years ago to their decision to have marriage counselling, this is their perfectly imperfect love story, in their own words.

Makings of a power couple

Barack, now 61, and Michelle, now 58, met in the summer of 1989, when Michelle was 25 years old and Barack was 27. Michelle — who was then Michelle Robinson — had been working as a law associate at Sidley & Austin for a year.

To her apparent dismay, she was assigned to mentor a first year law student who would be working with her as a summer associate. Enter the love of her life: Barack Obama.

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(Getty Images)

Sidley & Austin didn’t typically take on first year law students for the summer, according to Business Insider, but Barack had apparently impressed them so much they decided to make an exception.

She told Good Morning America, “I have my suspicions when a bunch of white folks fawn all over a black man because I sorta think, 'Okay, he can talk straight so they think he's wonderful.' So that was my theory. And his name was Barack Obama and he was from Hawaii. I thought, 'What?' You know, so I didn't really know what to expect.”

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She also told ABC News that as the pair were both Harvard alumni, she believed “the firm thought, ‘Oh, we’ll hook these two people up.’” Barack ended up arriving late at their first meeting, which didn't help.

Michelle told Good Morning America, “And then: in walks Barack Obama. And Barack Obama has always walked like Barack Obama — like he’s got all the time in the world, and I was like, ‘Dude, you’re cute.’ But in my mind, I was like ‘off-limits’. I’m not going to date one of the few black summer associates.”

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(Getty Images)

Michelle told ABC News that Barack asked Michelle out “about a month in."

She said she initially shot him down, “I thought, ‘No way. This is completely tacky.’”

Eventually, she wound up saying yes, describing his behaviour as “very straightforward” — "he was not a game player”.

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(Getty Images)

The two made a day of their first date, taking a stroll and heading to see a Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. The site of their first kiss has now been commemorated with a plaque in Chicago.

Michelle told Good Morning America, “When we stopped for ice cream and he got the sense that I was starting to open up, and he played it real smooth. He just leaned in for a kiss and that really was it. From that kiss on, it was love and he was my man.”

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(Getty Images for Live Nation)

The commemorative plaque is outside a former Baskin-Robbins in Hyde Park, Chicago and features a photograph of the pair on the verge of kissing. It’s accompanied by a quote from Barack that he gave to O magazine in 2007.

“On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate,” he said.

A wedding fit for a (future) president

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(Getty Images)

According to Michelle, Barack was initially skeptical about marriage. She told The New Yorker, “We would have this running debate throughout our relationship about whether marriage was necessary. It was sort of a bone of contention, because I was, like, ‘Look, buddy, I’m not one of these who’ll just hang out forever.’”

Barack eventually took his girlfriend out to a restaurant in Chicago called Gordon, ostensibly to celebrate him passing the bar exam. She said, “[Barack] got me into one of these discussions again, where, you know, he sort of just led me down there and got fired up and it’s like you’ve got blah blah blah blah, and then dessert comes out, the tray comes out, and there’s a ring!”

The pair were married on October 3, 1992, at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Apparently Michelle’s brother walked her down the aisle and Barack’s brother was best man.

In a throwback posted to Instagram, she wrote, “You can’t tell it from this photo, but Barack woke up on our wedding day in October, 1992 with a nasty head cold. Somehow, by the time I met him at the altar, it had miraculously disappeared and we ended up dancing almost all night.”

Their first dance was to Stevie Wonder’s 'You and I,' after which they headed to California for their honeymoon.

A rollercoaster three decades

Since then, many highs: two daughters, Malia and Sasha; nine years in the White House; a glittering post-Presidency career as authors, documentary-makers and public speakers.

“Miche, After 30 years, I’m not sure why you look exactly the same and I don’t. I do know that I won the lottery that day—that I couldn’t have asked for a better life partner,” Barack wrote on Instagram in October.

The post was one of many anniversary tributes the couple have shared about each other on social media since they married, but they’ve not been afraid to talk about the tough times either, from the miscarriage Michelle suffered before having Malia and Sasha through IVF treatment to the marriage counselling they went through when stress started to take a toll on their relationship.

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(Getty Images)

“I know too many young couples who struggle and think somehow, there’s something wrong with them,” Michelle told Good Morning America many years ago. “I want them to know that Michelle and Barack Obama — who have a phenomenal marriage and who love each other — we work on our marriage and we get help with our marriage when we need it.”

She added, “What I learned about myself [over the course of our marriage] was that my happiness was up to me and I started working out more, I started asking for help, not just from him but from other people. I stopped feeling guilty.”

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(AFP/Getty Images)

Barack has spoken honestly about this too. At one point he gave one of his former staffers - co-host of podcast Pod Save America Dan Pfeiffer - advice ahead of his marriage to Howli Ledbetter.

Pfeiffer wrote in his book Yes We (Still) Can that Obama said to him, “Here’s the advice I give everyone about marriage - is she someone you find interesting? You will spend more time with this person than anyone else for the rest of your life, and there is nothing more important than always wanting to hear what she has to say about things.”

He also added, “Does she make you laugh? And I don’t know if you want kids, but if you do, do you think she will be a good mom? Life is long. These are the things that really matter over the long term.”

Since then, Michelle has admitted that of course her husband makes her mad at times and that the image of a flawless relationship is “the last thing [she and Barack] want to project” - and her latest comments are true to that word. “People think I’m being catty by saying this – it’s like, there were 10 years where I couldn’t stand my husband,” she told a round-table forum for Revolt TV last week, while promoting her new book, The Light We Carry.

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(REVOLT)

She refers to a period when her daughters were little. “And for 10 years while we’re trying to build our careers and, you know, worrying about school and who’s doing what and what, I was like, ‘Ugh, this isn’t even,’” she explained. “And guess what? Marriage isn’t 50/50 – ever, ever.

“There are times I’m 70, he’s 30. There are times he’s 60, 40, but guess what?” she continued. “Ten years – we’ve been married 30. I would take 10 bad years over 30 – it’s just how you look at it. And people give up … [saying], ‘Five years – I can’t take it.’”

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(Getty Images)

Marriage, in their own words

If there’s one thing the former First Couple do best, it’s speaking from the heart. The pair have opened up about many things over the years: their love story, the challenges of raising a family in the White House, the realities of growing up. Some of their highlights include:

"There's no doubt I'm a better man having spent time with Michelle. I would never say that Michelle's a better woman, but I will say she's a little more patient." - Barack speaking to American Vogue, 2013

Former US President Barack Obama kisses former US First Lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony to unveil their official White House portraits, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, (AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President Barack Obama kisses former US First Lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony to unveil their official White House portraits, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, (AFP via Getty Images)

"Our job is, first and foremost, to make sure our family is whole. You know, we have small kids; they’re growing every day. But I think we were both pretty straightforward when we said, ‘Our number-one priority is making sure that our family is whole.’" - Michelle speaking to American Vogue, 2013

"What I realize as I get older is that Michelle is less concerned about me giving her flowers than she is that I'm doing things that are hard for me — carving out time. That to her is proof, evidence that I'm thinking about her.” - Barack speaking to Ebony, 2007

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(Getty Images)

"He is steady. Has he made me mad? Yes. Does he sometimes do things that I don't like? Absolutely. But as a human being, he has never disappointed. And I would hope he could say the same about me." - Michelle speaking to O Magazine, 2009

"I've got to say, I always found it great if she was making all kinds of money. I didn't feel threatened by that at all. My grandmother generally earned more than my grandfather when I was in high school, so that probably makes me more comfortable with some of these issues than others would be." - Barack speaking to Marie Claire, 2008

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(Getty Images)

"You don’t want to be with a boy who’s too stupid to appreciate a smart young lady. I want to encourage all of us as young women, as older women, we have to raise our own bars. If I had worried about who liked me and who thought I was cute when I was your age, I wouldn’t be married to the president of the United States today." - Michelle speaking at a Glamour-hosted panel, 2015

"There are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person." - Barack speaking in an interview published in The New Yorker in 2009

"Barack has helped me loosen up and feel comfortable with taking risks, not doing things the traditional way and sort of testing it out, because that is how he grew up. I’m more traditional; he’s the one in the couple that, I think, is the less traditional individual."- Michelle speaking in an interview published in 2009

"Michelle’s like Beyoncé in that song, ‘Let me upgrade ya!’ She upgraded me." - Barack speaking to American Vogue, 2013

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(Getty Images)

"When the kids go to bed and after he's done a little reading, we're usually curled up in our den, and we'll watch a show together. Or we'll talk and catch up. It's nothing major, but that's what marriage is about. Not the big, splashy stuff.” - Michelle talking to Good Housekeeping, 2010

"The quality I love most about her is she's honest and genuine. I think that comes across to people. They get a sense that they can trust her. You know, the word 'authenticity' is overused these days. But I do think it captures what folks are looking for – not just in leaders, but also in friends and in coworkers – and that is, folks who are on the level. People like that tell you what they think and don't have a bunch of hidden motives. That's who Michelle is." - Barack speaking to Ladies' Home Journal, 2012

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(Getty Images)

"Even though back then Barack was a senator and a presidential candidate ... to me, he was still the guy who'd picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger-side door." - Michelle speaking at the DNC in 2012

"For the past 25 years, you’ve not only been my wife and the mother of my children, you’ve been my best friend. You took on a role you didn’t ask for and you made it your own with grace, grit and style." - Barack addressing Michelle in his final speech as president

The singerU.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, with daughters Sasha and Malia, take part in the conclusion of a Christmas In Washington celebration (Getty Images)
The singerU.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, with daughters Sasha and Malia, take part in the conclusion of a Christmas In Washington celebration (Getty Images)

"[Barack's] temperament for the stressful part of the job is amazing. When I'm getting antsy and frustrated and tense, I just say, 'Talk me through it. Tell me why this is OK.' He's incredibly even-keeled, and he's always been good at understanding the bottom line of what's important. So the mission, the goal, is always out there. And sometimes you need to be reminded of that when things feel a little tough. So he helps a lot." - Michelle speaking to Good Housekeeping, 2010

"Anybody who knows her well knows she's got the best sense of humor of anyone you'd ever want to meet. She's the most quintessentially American person I know." - Barack speaking to Marie Claire, 2008

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(Getty Images)

"I think my husband is wonderful; I view him as the leader I've always wanted to have for this nation. I want him to succeed because I think his success is ultimately our success as a nation." - Michelle speaking to Good Housekeeping, 2010

"If you were going to list the 100 most popular things that I have done as president, being married to Michelle Obama is number one." - Barack, after his State of the Union address in 2010

Love on canvas

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(Getty Images)

It’s customary for American presidents and First Ladies to have their portraits painted as they leave office, which are then hung next to their predecessors' portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s Hall of Presidents at the Smithsonian. As America’s first black presidential couple, it was an historic moment when the Obamas’ portraits were finally unveiled on February 12, 2018.

The portraits were striking for a number of reasons, particularly because two leading black artists had been commissioned to create their paintings. For Barack Obama’s portrait, the talents of Kehinde Wiley were called upon. He depicted the president against one of his signature oversaturated backdrops, complete with greenery and delicate florals. Although Wiley initially wanted to “depict Obama on a throne, holding a sceptre or perhaps even riding a horse” according to The Guardian, Barack quickly shot down that idea and was painted sitting in an ordinary wooden chair.

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(Getty Images)

After the unveiling, Barack wrote, “To call this experience humbling would be an understatement. Thanks to Kehinde and Amy, generations of Americans — and young people from all around the world — will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this country through a new lens. They’ll walk out of that museum with a better sense of the America we all love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Inclusive and optimistic. And I hope they’ll walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.”

Michelle Obama’s portrait was painted by Amy Sherald. According to Artnet the painting was so popular the gallery had to move it to a completely separate room.

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(Getty Images)

The weight of the moment was not lost on Michelle, who took to Instagram and wrote a meaningful message about the representation of black women in art. “As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment" she wrote, "Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait - there are no portraits of the Robinsons or the Shields from the South Side of Chicago.”

She added, “This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history.”

Barack and Michelle by numbers

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(Getty Images)

According to the latest reports, Barack and Michelle Obama are estimated to be worth “more than $70 million” - around £58 million.

Since leaving the White House the pair has made some pretty lucrative deals. The Financial Times reported that the Obamas’ combined book deals for Michelle’s Becoming and an upcoming Barack-penned book about his time in the White House were worth $65 million (over £50 million) after Penguin Random House snagged the rights at auction.

The Obamas also made a deal with Netflix to produce various programmes and films for the platform, including Becoming, which a source at the New York Post valued at more than $50 million (over £38.6 million) at the time.

There's also Barack’s $207,800 a year pension (about £160,270) as well as various speaking engagements.

 (Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)
(Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

The New York Post also reported that Michelle’s speaking engagement fee is $225,000 per appearance (£173,540) while her husband comes in a $400,000 for an engagement (£308,500).

And that's just the beginning, apparently. A study conducted by Analytics@American, a business analytics department from American University, estimated that the family could make another $242 million (over £186.7 million), with more books, documentaries and media appearances expected in years to come. Which taboos will they decide to break next?