“The value of the family is enormous,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “The more you know this family and the more you think of Barack Obama in these terms, the harder it is to vilify him.”
During his presidency, Obama’s children have rarely been featured in such an overtly political way. He has been pointed about leaving family members, especially his children, out of politics. But with the first lady enjoying high popularity, his family may become an important factor this year.
Seventy-three percent of Americans hold favorable views of Michelle Obama, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. There is no polling on his daughters, but by some indications interest in Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, is also high. A portrait of the family published by the campaign last year went viral, according to a study by Socialbakers, which analyzes social media trends.
Michelle Obama has said she is “all in” for her husband’s reelection and plans to campaign about three days a week once the general election starts. She recently indicated that her daughters are up to the rigors of the campaign too, telling reporters who traveled with her last week that Malia and Sasha enjoy campaigning.
“When they were younger, when we were first running, what was campaigning? Campaigning was you fly into a city with a bunch of young campaign workers who love kids, and they took them for ice cream,” she said. “I mean, one day I counted it — this was before ‘Let’s Move!’ We were back on the plane and I found out exactly what they were doing when I was on the stage. They had had ice cream four times that day. So Sasha is like, ‘I love campaigning!’ They’re ready to go.”
It is a shift for the Obamas, who have been protective parents. Part of the change is an acknowledgment that family has always been an important part of a president’s image, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University and former analyst for Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
“It’s a way to humanize them, and it’s also a way to signal youth and vitality,” Gillespie said. “It helps when you have an attractive family to use as a backdrop.”
For Obama, his wife and apparently well-behaved daughters remind people of his biography and stable home life, she said. John F. Kennedy’s children were an important part of developing the Camelot image. Going back farther, the press often wrote about Teddy Roosevelt’s six rambunctious children and their pets, including dogs, birds and a pony.
“It contributed to Teddy Roosevelt’s image of being robust, it helps to convey a sense of propriety and empathy and connection,” Gillespie said.
In the same way, Republican presidential candidates have enlisted their families. Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, and his sons have campaigned for him. Newt Gingrich’s third wife Callista, has been at his side and his daughters have defended him against criticism from his second wife. Rick Santorum left the campaign trail in Florida to be with his sick daughter and speaks often of his family. Ron Paul’s wife has been at his side as primary election results roll in.
Obama has from time to time used selective stories about his daughters to illustrate how they keep him in the real world. The first lady mentioned recently that the president has been coaching Sasha’s basketball team.
“He hasn’t missed a game,” she said.
It is not clear how much his young daughters will be on the trail, but their image will be evoked whether or not they are on stage with him.
Obama told supporters at a fundraising event, “Our kids are going to be fine. And I always tell Malia and Sasha, ‘Look, you guys, I don’t worry about you.’ I mean, I worry the way parents worry — but they’re on a path that is going to be successful, even if the country as a whole is not successful.. . . But that’s not our vision of America.”
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