Michelle to Barack: 'I Gave You Good Gifts Last Year'

At the White House recently, Oprah Winfrey asked President Obama about his ability to select the right Christmas presents. "Is there more pressure to give a good gift when you're the President?" she asked. Obama said that he generally gives "nicer stuff than I get." To which his wife retorted, "No way! I gave you good gifts last year."

No doubt we'll hear more about it on Sunday, when ABC airs Christmas at the White House: An Oprah Primetime Special (10 PM ET). But I was reminded of their remarks last night, while watching 30 Rock. "In my family everybody just writes down what they want, and then we give it to each other, and everybody has a great Christmas," says Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). But Jack (Alec Baldwin) won't make a list. "Gift giving is the purest expression of friendship," he says. "I'm going to think about what I know and like about you, and that will lead me to the perfect gift. And you do the same." Panic flashes over Liz's face, and she makes a desperate stab at what Jack might like. Bath salts in a coffee mug? Bzzzzt. No, try again.

I can relate to 30 Rock's scenario here. I prefer the Liz Lemon approach to present giving. Tell me what you want, and I'll buy it. But my husband sees things more like Jack does. He wants us to surprise each other.

And that's why I also relate to the Obamas, and their good-natured jabs about who gives the best gifts. When my husband and I surprise each other, we both feel like we give nicer stuff than we get. ("Can't we just exchange lists next time?" I ask, every year. But no.)

Three years ago, I read a great article in The New Yorker about this predicament. "Christmas shopping in the U.S. has been a reliable source of anxiety and stress for well over a century," wrote James Suroweicki. "Why aren’t we better at gift giving? A lot of the time, we don’t know the people we’re shopping for all that well. [But] a recent study…finds that familiarity can actually lead us astray."

The study's researchers asked couples to predict each other's taste in furniture. In general, they were horrible at it. They relied on “'pre-stored beliefs and expectations,' rather than paying close attention to what their partner really liked," said Suroweicki. "People did a good job of predicting their partner’s preferences, in fact, only when they shared those preferences. My idea of what you want, it turns out, has a lot to do with what I want."

This sounds like a great topic for an Oprah episode. Maybe the Obamas will inspire her to organize a show around the Christmas present predicament. She could book a panel of gift-giving experts. Hey, if she schedules it after the big day, Santa will have some time on his hands.

Plus: Barbara Walters picked Michelle Obama as the most fascinating person of 2009!

Do you prefer gifts to be a surprise? Chime in below!

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