Some GOP stalwarts defend first lady's anti-obesity campaign from Palin's shots

This year produced a number of winners and losers -- from the tea party and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to President Obama and the House ethics committee.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 10:35 PM

Some Republicans watching the cluttered 2012 presidential field may have found an unlikely point of disagreement: the first lady and flab.

Sarah Palin has taken to assailing Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative on her reality show and elsewhere, while former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the Republican Party's resident authority on obesity and a potential Palin rival, has been defending it from Palin's salvos. Two other possible GOP presidential contenders, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), have also praised Obama's efforts.

In a recent broadcast of "Sarah Palin's Alaska," the former governor, high school basketball player and avid runner prepared s'mores (ingredients: marshmallows, Hershey's chocolate bars and graham crackers) and said the treat was "in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert."

In fact, the first lady has never suggested that sweets be banned from the dinner table, cafeteria or campground. She says she tells her daughters, Sasha and Malia, that "dessert is not a right" and that meals should be balanced with fruits and vegetables.

In a recent interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham to promote her latest book, Palin again dismissed Obama's anti-obesity effort as "some politician or politician's wife's priorities," which amount to what she has in the past called a "nanny state run amok."

She told Ingraham that the first lady should "get off our back and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions." And, apparently, to make as many s'mores as they want.

Palin's criticism tracks closely with those of many other conservatives who have complained of government overreach and consider Obama's initiative and the recently passed child nutrition law as intrusions into the school cafeteria.

When asked about Palin's comments, Obama told Barbara Walters in an interview last month that the issue "transcends politics."

"We've always said throughout this campaign that this, solving this problem, is going to take all of us," Obama said. "Parents, families, communities have the largest impact on how kids think about anything, particularly what they eat. But ultimately it requires all of us."

To the White House's probable delight, some of Palin's possible competitors in the coming GOP primary seized the opportunity to lend a hand, exposing possible divisions among Republicans about where to draw the line between government power and private choices.

Conservative broadcast hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have also criticized Obama's efforts, as has commentator Michelle Malkin, who named Obama to her list of "Big Nannies of the Year."

But Huckabee, who famously shed more than 100 pounds in part by cutting out processed sugar and white flour, quickly came to the first lady's defense.

In an interview with New York radio personality Curtis Sliwa, Huckabee said, "With all due respect to my colleague and friend Sarah Palin, I think she's misunderstood what Michelle Obama is trying to do."

He said the first lady is "stating the obvious: that we do have an obesity crisis in this country." He added: "The first lady's campaign is on target. It's not saying that you can't or should never eat a dessert."

Huckabee also made Malkin's "Nannies" list.

Barbour offered praise for Obama's efforts in March, when the first lady toured Mississippi, the nation's fattest state for the fifth straight year and one that has its own statewide efforts to fight fat.

"As Mrs. Obama takes this campaign nationally, she'll be a catalyst. . . . She'll be a fantastic spokesman, leader," he said.

And Santorum said Wednesday that it is "a proper role for the first lady to highlight something as important as childhood nutrition and what parents can do."

"This is just basic good health and we as parents can sympathize with what she's doing," he added.

Yet Santorum also said that there are legitimate concerns about the intrusiveness of government - in curbing junk food at schools, for instance.

The opinion page of the Wall Street Journal on Monday quoted Palin's own past health-centric comments and said, "Mrs. Obama's campaign is grounded in similar sentiments." It then offered this rare shot at Palin:

"Mrs. Palin would be more effective if she made some distinctions among the Obama policies that really are worth opposing."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company