The most-tweeted photo ever might surprise you, if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s election-related, but it doesn’t shout victory; it’s a simple moment, a photo of President Barack Obama embracing his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama. All you can see is her back, while his eyes are closed, relaxed in a moment of calm in her arms. It’s a couple that’s happy to be reunited.
At least, that’s a fanfiction version of what’s happening: with all photos of politicians, you can never quite be sure if what you’re seeing is a rare moment of vulnerability, what they want you to see, or both. In any case, the campaign liked it and so did the public. When the tweet was sent out by the Barack Obama 2012 team after many news organizations were calling it a win for the incumbent president, the accompanying caption consisted of only three words: “Four more years.” As in, four more years of this president, but also, four more years of commitment to this relationship. Not the relationship between him and the public, but his relationship with his wife, in plain sight for the world to sigh over.
The photographer behind the photo, Scout Tufankjian, doesn’t exclude herself from the screaming masses that love love love the Obama marriage. “Because I’m a total sap and am also relatively recently married, I find their relationship to be totally inspirational in terms of the respect they have for each other, so I always try to focus on them as a couple, rather than as public figures,” she told Gizmodo in an interview.
The campaign wanted us to find the couple an inspiration as well. They’ve sold the Obama relationship as a reason to keep the President in office arguably better than any other in history, using social media, dropped comments in speeches and the natural comfort level between the couple in interviews to push the First Couple sometimes more than the President.
Many have tried to do what they’ve done. Picking up quickly on the success of the marketing of the Obama marriage, the Romney campaign attempted to paint Mitt and Ann Romney as a couple just as strong and just as sexy as the Obamas, best demonstrated in this FOX News video about their love described as “A touching story of faith and devotion”:
“Growing up, we all knew that my mom and dad loved each other very much,” says Mitt and Ann’s son Ben in an interview with FOX News’ Megyn Kelly. “And we know that they still do and she’s really one of his best supports, as far as getting on the campaign trail, I guess he can get lonely without her.”
Responding to Ben, Kelly asks, “This may seem like a weird question, but how did you know they really loved each other?”
“You know, it’s very clear, in their actions, their words to each other, in the way they treated each other, they always treated each other with respect; we always knew,” Ben responds, a little awkwardly and not too convincingly.
Because the oldest lesson in the book is show, don’t tell. Ben couldn’t convince the nation that his parents love was real, or Hollywood-real, just like the Republican party couldn’t convince the nation to elect their nominee.
Megyn Kelly’s fascination with “How Deep Is [Their] Love” mirrors America’s. We’re a country whose fixation on classic romantic movies has shifted over the decades to reality shows like The Bachelor and, mimicking our forever fascination with the “real” lives of famous people, further into the political sphere, where every good story is about, as all good stories are, sex.
Even when conceding to losing the election, Romney still honored the pact that was Operation Sex Up The Nation. While thanking his running-mate Paul Ryan, Romney said, “Besides my wife Ann, Paul is the best choice I’ve ever made.” It might not seem like those two individuals should have been equally important to the ticket, but they carried just as much weight.
The selling of an American presidency to the American people has always been about the First Family, but only in our modern times has it been so successfully sexualized. There have been other aspirational political couples, but none as obsessed over as the Obama’s. The Kennedy’s might come the closest — they swept America away with their good looks and though Vanity Fair (and Taylor Swift) might still be unhealthily absorbed with that family, Jackie and JFK have a story largely tainted by a history full of tragedy and numerous extramarital affairs.
The Obama White House has, as already heavily noted, many similarities to the Kennedy White House, most importantly a young, good-looking family, run by a particularly good-looking woman. Michelle is so fashionable and well-liked that many have said she should run for office, despite the fact that she has indicated little to no interest.
But really, it’s the relationship between her and her husband that has been so obsessed over and so easily documented. See this list on this very site of “adorable” photos of Barack and Michelle (marked overwhelmingly as “CUTE” or “WIN”); number 18 is a famous one by White House photographer Pete Souza, taken in a freight elevator on inauguration night in 2009.
In the photo, she’s wearing his jacket and they’re sharing a moment between just the two of them, even surrounded by others — and it’s a sexy moment at that. They could be at prom together, young and happy and in the prime of life. Even the rest of that night was magical on a level not usually associated with the political sphere; when Beyonce sang “At Last” to the couple, it seemed more about their love than about the election. (Interestingly enough, Beyonce and her husband Jay-Z might be the Obama’s only true rival for Most Beloved Couple in America, especially considering the recent birth of their daughter.)
Even the photographer of the world’s most tweeted tweet (for now) knows that the image of a couple in love is much more about the couple than the quality of the photo. “I definitely had no idea that it would be as popular as it is, although I don’t kid myself that its popularity has anything at all to do with the framing of the image, etc,” said Tufankjian in the aforementioned Gizmodo interview. “It’s all about how people feel about the Obama family.”
People feel great about the Obama family — and the Obama campaign has successfully used the relative hysteria about Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Bo to get them another four years. But while they’ve been careful to shield the First Daughters, they’ve had no qualms about pimping out the relationship of the two consenting adults involved, working it into things as simple as the president’s speech the night of his win last week, when he said, “I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the woman who agreed to marry me 20 years ago. Let me say this publicly: Michelle, I have never loved you more. I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation’s first lady.”
We might not actually know anything about the Obama marriage, but we know our President is right about that last part.