Throughout most of American history, people didn’t really give the president’s family much thought. But starting in the ’50s, American society greatly emphasized the idea of the family as the antidote to the psychological pain of the Depression and war. The first family became America’s royals.
Yet many of those families who occupied the White House, at least in modern times, have largely looked the same: a heterosexual couple who have been long married, a couple of kids, and a dog.
That is beginning to change. Besides being the most diverse field of presidential contenders in the history of U.S. elections — men and women; black, brown, and white — the families of the 2020 group represent a range of experiences, giving modern American families a new and different idea of what a first family can look like.
Kamala Harris, a senator from California, is a stepmother — her two stepchildren call her “Momala.” Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, is divorced and remarried but still uses her first husband’s surname. And like Sen. Lindsey Graham, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, Sen. Cory Booker is unmarried. So is single mother Marianne Williamson. If either took the White House, they’d be the first single president since Grover Cleveland, who got married in his first term. The only president who was single his entire term was James Buchanan.
Perhaps most notably in this field, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is married to a man. Less than five years after marriage equality became the law of the land, an openly gay candidate is a serious contender for president.
“It’s one of the most stunning turnarounds in public opinion that we’ve ever seen,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Texas. What that means for children with same-sex parents can’t be overstated, she said. “My gosh, to have a model and feel like ‘I don’t have to be ashamed of my parents. They could run for president.’ That’s got to be a powerful thing.”
It is for Alison Pottage, an immigrant from Scotland who recently became a citizen and who, in 2014, married Anita, the woman she’d loved for more than 15 years. Today, the couple lives in Oreland, Montgomery County, with their two kids, 13 and 11.
“How exciting is it that American culture has matured to the point of recognizing that there’s more than one way to skin this cat, that there isn’t a sort of one-size-fits-all,” said Pottage, 44. “And how much better for politics and for society that you’ve got people making decisions that have experienced multiple ways of being and living and growing in this society.”
The picture of a first family has long been, at least in its public image, idyllic, in which the first couple has had a long-term marriage, said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies. Jellison said that even the country’s first divorced president, Ronald Reagan, had been married for 30 years to Nancy when they entered the White House.
Those precedents began to really break down a decade or so ago. While the Obamas are certainly traditional in their family structure, they for the first time gave black Americans a family with which they could identify.
“Americans have always found a sense of comfort when they could relate to people in the White House, like, ‘Oh, I like the way Mrs. Kennedy is doing her hair,’ ” Jellison said. “We see with the Obamas in the White House, African American families for the first time could say, ‘Hey, I see some of my experience reflected in this family.’ ”
And then there was Donald Trump. He’s the first president to have been married three times and to have had children with each of those women. Trump’s family life, however complicated it may seem, “probably better reflects the reality in America as a whole than this happy, no-problems, don’t-look-behind-the-curtain kind of first family story that the American public has been fed in the past," Jellison said.
The reality is that presidential families have been as imperfect as the rest of us, said Doug Wead, a former adviser to George W. Bush and the author of All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of the First Families.
“You look at this field and you think ‘Oh boy, there’s nothing like this before,’ ” Wead said, “but the only thing that’s new is we know about it.”
George Washington had two stepchildren. Some historians speculate that Buchanan was gay. Warren Harding had a child out of wedlock, and FDR’s five children had 19 marriages among them. And then there was whatever was happening with the Kennedys.
For some, that lasting image of one type of first family has created “a damaging understanding for what it means to be a president,” said Brian Walker, a 30-year-old singer and songwriter from Mount Airy who was raised by his grandparents and considers his upbringing atypical. He added: “We’ve consciously or unconsciously created social mores that to be a president, you must come from a perfect background.”
Walker, a registered Democrat who plans to vote for Warren in the primary because he likes her plans for Medicare-for-all and student loan debt, said the 2020 field of Democratic contenders gives him hope that future presidents will bring with them a variety of backgrounds and experiences to inform their decisions and policy.
“When you see a president that has that perfect family,” he said, “I always want to question ‘Well, what issues did you have to face? And how can you have opinions about things that you haven’t experienced?’ ”
Jellison said these shifts in what a first family can look like are good for American society. For so long, its image was stage-managed. Now families in all their variations can see themselves reflected in the White House.
“Maybe there is no going back,” she said, “now that so many precedents were shattered with the Trumps and the diversity of the types of families — and couples and individuals — who are vying to replace him.”