Popping the Question

Joshua DuBois Got Schooled by Obama, the Marriage Counselor in Chief

Joshua DuBois was President Obama’s director of faith-based initiative, and single. Learning that, the president went to work. By Joshua DuBois.

10.20.13 9:45 AM ET

President Obama has taught me a lot over the years, and I share a few lessons in my new book, The President’s Devotional. But one of the most important lessons was about marriage—even when I didn’t want to hear it.

It started on the campaign trail in 2008, when I was then-Senator Obama’s faith outreach director. We were in the back of a black SUV, heading to the Saddleback Candidate’s Forum in Orange County, California. After quizzing me on the Ten Commandments (and poking fun at my friend and his body man, Reggie Love, for not knowing all of God’s instructions to Moses by heart), Obama looked at me with a wry smile and said: “You know, you really should get married.”

“I’m working on it, Senator, I really am. Things are going pretty well with my girlfriend …”

“Well, you should get married. Time for you to settle down.”

It was the first of several inquisitions. There was the day we gathered in the Oval Office with more than a dozen faith leaders—I was director of the White House faith-based initiative at that time—when President Obama interrupted the meeting to ask, “You engaged yet?”

There was the Father’s Day in 2010, when we visited a local nonprofit, and backstage before his remarks, the president introduced me to a group of fathers and kids by saying, “And this is Joshua, my faith-based director. He’s a great guy, but he’s not a dad yet himself—he’ll get there, if we could only get him married.”

And there was the afternoon before a picnic on the White House lawn. We had invited teenage boys from local high schools to the White House, along with some famous adult mentors. I was sitting in a foyer called the “Diplomatic Reception Room” when President Obama walked in. Before I could begin briefing him on the event he interrupted me. “Really, what’s the holdup? Why haven’t you popped the question?”

Surprised, but grateful for the opportunity to have a longer conversation on the subject, I started in with a range of excuses. “Sir, I’m saving more money for a ring, and a wedding … I’m waiting for the job to slow down a bit so that we have more time to spend together.… I’m …”

And the president interrupted me again. “Listen, Joshua. Do you love her? Do you think you all are supposed to be together?”

“Well, yes. Yes sir, I do.”

“Then you can’t let that other stuff stop you. Marriage is the best decision you can make; it sounds trite, but it really does complete a person, rounds you out. If you’ve made up your mind that you want her to be your wife and the mother of your children, then that’s all you need to know. You really should think about popping the question—you need to get married.”

Marriage ran deep for President Obama. In fact, I came to know it as a mooring force in his life. Growing up with his grandparents and seeing their relationship firsthand, I imagine that the future president embraced their marriage as an island of stability in an often-tumultuous childhood.

And when this globe-trotting, big-thinking, ambitious young man met Michelle Robinson in Chicago in the summer of 1989, his itinerant legs grew roots, and grew strong. At the end of full days then and now, navigating the world and its challenges, Michelle had a way of reminding Barack of what was most important. In photos and joint interviews that shed light on their private moments, we see the president leaning on his wife, both physically and in spirit. She is his place for replenishment, for grounding, for rest, and for joy.

I remember being on the First Lady’s airplane—sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as ‘Air Force Two,’ heading to Nashville, Tennessee, where she was giving a speech to a large church gathering. It was the day that the United States Supreme Court was to rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health care bill better known as Obamacare. We were mid-flight when the telephone rang with a call for the First Lady (somehow the U.S. Air Force is able to keep consistent phone service, even at 20,000 feet). The caller said that the Court had ruled in favor of the government; Obamacare was upheld. And who was ringing the first lady to share the news and celebrate? It was the president on the line, calling to rejoice with his wife.

I realized after our conversation in the foyer and after witnessing moments like the one on Air Force Two that when it came to marriage, President Obama wasn’t just chiding me for sport. Instead, he wanted me to have what he had, something that’s so hard to find in the world of politics—a love that doesn’t fade based on circumstance, an anchor for my days.

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And I wanted that, too. So I got to work. On Saturday, May 5th, 2012, I proposed to my then-girlfriend Michelle—I loved her, she was my best friend, she was brilliant, she helped me worship, and critically, she made me laugh. The proposal story was a long one, involving a hidden ring and a crazy dog, but suffice to say, it worked.

It was an amazing weekend, and we celebrated with family and friends. That Monday I had to travel to New York for a speech, and on the way there, I received a call from a blocked number on my cell phone.

“Mr. DuBois, the president is on the line for you. Do you have time to speak?”

There’s only one answer to that question—“Yes, of course.”

President Obama joined the line and got right to it.

“So you did it! I’m proud of you. That’s the best decision you will ever make. And I have to say—it’s about time.”

I agreed with him on both points. It has proven to be the best decision I ever made. And yes, it was about time.

My wife and I were married on September 1, and the president and First Lady recently celebrated an anniversary as well: 21 years of marriage, and still going strong. I’ve learned a lot from President Obama in his role as commander in chief, but just as much from him as a husband, and a dad. He likes to say it’s “the most important job” he has; I’ve got some years to catch up, but I imagine it’ll be the same for me as well.

—Excerpted and edited for length from “The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama.” Joshua DuBois directed the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in President Obama’s first term.