Opinion

Dog days ahead for the Obamas

In case you hadn't heard, Barack Obama's daughters are getting a dog. They were promised one after the election regardless of the outcome and, as the president-elect noted at his first news conference, the subject is generating "more interest on our website than just about anything." He said this in the same somber tone with which he also discussed Cabinet appointments and Iranian nuclear proliferation, referring to "criteria that need to be reconciled" (the need for a hypoallergenic dog and a preference for a shelter dog) and calling it "a pressing issue in the Obama household."

And many, many others. Type "Obama, new puppy" into Google and nearly half a million search results appear, including more than 3,000 news stories and blog posts with such headings as "Cuteness Overload" and, from Treehugger.com, "Will the Obama's [sic] New Puppy Be Green?"

As for all that talk about how an Obama victory would repair America's image throughout the world, the puppy back-channel is already open. Last week, the Friends of Peruvian Hairless Dog Assn. offered the Obamas a 4-month-old pedigreed Peruvian H.D. named Machu Picchu. The good news: It doesn't cause allergies; the potentially less-good news: It's completely bald.

Back here at home, dozens of experts and animal groups are weighing in on the matter. The American Kennel Club, whose survey last summer determined that a poodle would be the best dog for the Obamas (poodles have hair, not fur), is now offering links to poodle rescue groups. The Humane Society of the United States has an online thank-you card to the Obamas, with more than 4,000 signatures praising the family's desire to adopt from a shelter (it's also encouraging the Bidens to follow suit).

Meanwhile, Cesar Milan, known as the "Dog Whisperer," offered tips for the Obamas in that well-known animal training guide, People magazine. His most sapient observation: "The dog won't know he's Barack Obama and won the presidency."

Don't be so sure. Considering the amount of CNN my dog has been exposed to lately, I'm willing to bet he knows who won.

The real question though, is how long the fixation on the presidential pup will continue -- reports say the Obamas won't actually be getting their pet until the spring -- and why it appears to have taken on about the same level of importance as, say, the global economic crisis.

One obvious theory, of course, is we're star-struck. With all due respect to the Fabulousness Industrial Complex of Brangelina and family, the Obamas are heading for a higher Q score. Even formerly committed detractors like New York Times columnist Bill Kristol are clinging to the Obama bandwagon (or at least reluctantly walking behind it) and getting a little bit high from the exhaust fumes. Kristol did, after all, call Obama "formidable" and pronounce his news conference "not bad."

Why such sudden capitulation? Kristol thinks talking about dogs is a sign of good political instincts, as if people need constant reminding that they've elected a real American with real American dilemmas, like whether to get a mutt or a purebred and how to get their kids to walk it like they said they would (with Rahm Emanuel in charge at the White House, I doubt this dog will go unattended).

But are symbolic notions of real Americanness why so many people, regardless of their political leanings, really, really, really want the Obamas to get a dog? I don't think so. Nor do I think the canine question is grabbing headlines simply because dogs are easier and more fun to think about than, say, auto industry bailouts. Instead, I suspect that we want the Obamas to get a dog for the same reasons a lot of us want dogs. Our favorability ratings tend to be consistently positive in their eyes.

Dogs not only never think we're fat, they generally don't notice when we make a mistake. Even if they did, they'd never judge us for it, or rate us negatively in a poll, or hand Congress back to the GOP at the midterms.

The same cannot be said of the American people. For all the giddiness and unalloyed optimism of the interlude between Nov. 4 and Jan. 20, for all the ways in which the freshness of Obama's victory masks the stink of the world's problems, most of us know that right now is the easy part. No matter what, Obama will never again be loved quite the way folks are loving him right now. He will never again be in the position of not yet having screwed up. He will never again be the beneficiary of such unconditional, drool-inducing love -- at least not from humans.

Someone get this man a dog immediately. And maybe one for his daughters too.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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