The Obamas in June 2012
The Obama family in June 2012

It’s tough to make a case for political conventions these days. No more smoke-filled rooms out of which emerges a top-of-the-ticket nominee. No more drama of announcing the predetermined identity of the running-mate pick. Not even a battle over planks in the party platform. These days the only point of the platform is as a battering ram—the Democrats will smack the Republicans with the no-rape exception, and the Republicans will smack the Democrats with the gay marriage plank.

The one purpose conventions do serve, more now than ever, is to humanize the candidate, and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama—who are more similar in temperament than different—can use some humanizing. 

Romney’s convention was a smooth trip down biography lane with two potholes: Chris Christie and Clint Eastwood. The five handsome Romney sons, the pretty daughters-in-law, the cute grandchildren, the adoring wife, and the new VP, whose good looks qualify him to be the sixth son (not to mention his own camera-ready family). 

So this week, central to Barack Obama’s push to boost his approval ratings will be his popular wife—her approval rating at 66 soars above his at 43—and his lovely and sheltered daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha 11.

The Obamas took advice from both Bill and Hillary and George and Laura about raising daughters in White House. Both the Clintons and the Bushes insisted on, and largely maintained, a strict zone of privacy. When Malia’s vacation with school friends to Mexico last March made the news because of drug war violence there, the president was furious. And that level of enforced privacy has been pretty much the White House policy for the Obama girls.

Except when it’s not.

The president, more than the First Lady, has occasionally shifted the zone—and he has done so to gain political advantage. Some examples:

+ He told two rallies in swing-state New Hampshire last month that his daughters had just returned from summer camp—in New Hampshire. 

+ He voiced his support of abortion rights last March via Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke after Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut.” In answer to a question at a news conference about whether Limbaugh’s apology to Fluke was “heartfelt” and whether it’s right for sponsors to withdraw from his show, Obama said,  “….I thought about Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about….I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way. And I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re good citizens.” 

+ He supported Planned Parenthood last July at an audience of donors in Portland, Oregon. The president blasted Romney for wanting “to get rid of funding for Planned Parenthood. “I’ve got two daughters. I want them to control their own healthcare choices.”

+ In explaining his personal endorsement of same-sex marriage, he said: “‘It wouldn’t dawn on’ Malia and Sasha, who have friends with same-sex parents, `that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them, and frankly that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.’” 

+ He displayed empathy for the loved ones of those killed and injured during the Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre massacre: “My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theatre as so many of our kids do every day?” 

+ Struggling to deal with the BP Gulf oil spill in the face of increasing criticism, he recounted at a news conference: "You know, when I woke up this morning and I'm shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?'"

+ In Sunday’s Parade Magazine interview with the president and First Lady, Barack said that “…being a father of two daughters makes me want to make sure that every woman is getting equal pay for equal work, `cause I don’t want my daughters treated differently than somebody else’s sons.”

+ In that same Parade interview, the president described his pleasure at eating dinner with his wife and girls. He explained that “…there’s nothing I enjoy more than just sitting around the dinner table with them ….Every night at 6:30, I can come up and have dinner with them and get their perspective on what’s happening at school and in their social lives, but also on—“And here Michelle finished her husband’s sentence: “On the world.”

The president’s supporters will have to hope that he doesn’t bring those perspectives on the world to the upcoming debates with Mitt Romney. In a tough debate against Ronald Reagan in 1980, President Jimmy Carter, like Obama running for reelection, told the audience that he had asked his daughter Amy, then 13, what issue she thought was the most important in the election. “She said she thought [it was] nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms,” Carter said. It ruined the debate for Carter—Reagan mocked him relentlessly—and Carter ended up losing one of the more bitter battles in recent presidential history.  


Photograph: Chicago Tribune