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When Barack Obama was elected president, some credit was given to what pundits called the "Cosby Factor."

The 1980s television show about an African-American family with a doctor dad and a lawyer mom, who were raising a rambunctious brood with a firm but loving hand, supposedly made it easier for white America to accept the Obamas, an African-American family with a lawyer dad and a lawyer mom, raising a couple of rambunctious daughters with a firm but loving hand.

The Cosby Factor thinking went further.

Perhaps the Obamas in the White House would, as the Cosbys on the small screen had failed to do, provide the model of traditional, intact family life that is missing in the poorest neighborhoods in this country, where children are most often born to single mothers.

That's a tall order for any couple.

The fact of the Obamas' race, combined with our People magazine appetite for the smallest detail of celebrity life, has resulted in an almost voyeuristic prying into their marriage that hasn't been seen since Bill admitted that he'd caused pain in his marriage to Hillary.

So it is no surprise that The New York Times would devote almost 8,000 words in its Sunday magazine to "The First Marriage," written by Jodi Kantor.

As it turns out, the Obama marriage might provide more of a road map for the latest generation of two-career marriages than it will for young, poor African-Americans who don't see much in their neighborhood that looks like a nuclear family.

While Hillary Clinton might have been perceived as the driving force behind her charismatic but dithering candidate husband, Michelle Obama was so reluctant and resentful of her husband's political career and frequent absences that there are hints that the marriage almost folded.

"I married you because you're cute and you're smart," Michelle is quoted as saying to her husband when he decided to run for the Illinois statehouse. "But this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do."

After her first child was born, she was tempted to stay home but felt compelled to work to keep the family afloat.

"Well, you're gone all the time and we're broke," Barack Obama recalled her saying. "How is this a good deal?"

She was a single mom, and that was never her plan.

Much has been written about how Michelle Obama was won over to her husband's ambitions, that she listened to him speak at a rally and had a kind of epiphany. But if she is a cooperative first lady and wife, she is not the kind that gazes adoringly as he speaks.

When Ms. Kantor asked the first couple how a marriage can be an equal partnership when one of the partners is president, Mrs. Obama gave a kind of snort of derision. And there is a moment, described in the article, when she finds him sitting behind his desk in the Oval Office and asks mockingly what he thinks he's doing.

So when the president says to the reporter, "She can puncture the balloon of this," you find yourself rooting for her. Ms. Kantor writes that after four or eight years in the White House, the Obamas will renegotiate the terms of their marriage once again, and it might be Michelle's turn, much as it was Hillary's. Yet another example of the negotiation that is modern marriage.

What about the example the Obamas are expected to provide of two parents, living under the same roof, working together to raise the children? Trouble is, the house is the White House.

It may be, as Harvard professor Orlando Patterson wrote in an essay for The New York Times, that "my students have found that many young inner city blacks, while they admire him, find him too remote from their lives to be a role model." He suggests that the Obamas are more likely to "influence the racial attitudes of middle-class blacks and younger white Americans."

And, perhaps, shape the attitudes of the next generation of two-career couples trying to decide who stays home with the sick child - whose dreams come first.

I don't know if we will ever be post-racial in this country. But it is possible we will be post-Second Sex. The Obamas may see to that.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays.

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