Which image of President Obama with his daughters is your favorite? Is it the goofy-faced shot riding bumper cars with Sasha at the Iowa State Fair? Is it one of the photos snapped on the beach when the family vacationed in Hawaii in August? Or is it the moment that Sasha, talking to her father on a huge screen during the first night of the Democratic National Convention, punctuated his remarks with “I love you, Daddy,” a declaration sure to claim a permanent spot in the annals of political campaign adorableness?
At this point, it’s a truth more or less universally acknowledged that the Obama girls, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, are irresistible. Moreover, there’s something about watching them interact with their father that feels not just heartwarming but somehow exhilarating. The campaign and the transition team clearly knew this; the girls, though they were used mostly sparingly, were instrumental in making their father knowable to a public that, in some corners, saw him as a stranger. They appeared in magazines, on television and, of course, in those officially sanctioned photos of the president talking to his daughters before their first day of school in Washington.
The latest homage to the president’s hands-on paternalism came in the form of a “letter to my daughters” in the Jan. 18 issue of Parade magazine. In a two-page spread, the president thanks his daughters for their patience during the campaign and explains “why I decided to take our family on this journey.”
His motives, it seems, are personal as well as political. “When I was a young man,” he writes, “I thought life was all about me. ... But then the two of you came into my world. ... And I realized that my own life wouldn’t count for much unless I was able to ensure that you had every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment in yours. In the end, girls, that’s why I ran for president: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation.”
To my ear, it seems unlikely that this syrup dripped directly from Obama’s pen. Presumably he signed off on it; maybe he even sent some notes to whatever staff member (or Parade editor) was charged with the task of making a “personal” letter suitable for a publication with 71 million readers. Let’s hope, at any rate, the man doesn’t talk to his children in such “Chicken Soup for the President’s Kids” platitudes.
If you gobbled it up nonetheless, and even if you didn’t, it’s worth asking why we’re so punch-drunk in love with Obama’s role as a father. Is it simply because he’s charismatic and his girls are photogenic? Or does it have to do with something many Americans -- of all races -- are perhaps aware of intuitively but don’t want to admit or say out loud: that Obama is a black man in a culture that’s starving for images of responsible black fatherhood?
Of course, the nation also reveled in photographs of JFK Jr. playing under his father’s desk in the Oval Office and, to a lesser extent, Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton spending quality time with their dads in chief.
But the romanticization of Obama’s role as family man speaks to more than the country’s usual infatuation with first-family details. Put simply: Watching him with his kids feels redemptive and vindicating. In many of the same ways “The Cosby Show” did, it does double duty as both an allayer of white guilt (“he’s just like us”) and an image makeover for black communities that resent their monolithic reputation for absentee fatherhood. Meanwhile, it sets an example for all fathers of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, suggesting that just as there’s seemingly no barrier to becoming president, there’s no excuse for not being an involved parent.
That, of course, is the role of role models. Nothing wrong there. What’s problematic is the way the president’s parenting, in its public presentation, has devolved into a kind of kitsch, some of which looks pretty strategic. Obama is not just a dad, he’s Cliff Huxtable writ large, a post-racial, post-feminist, fun-loving-yet-limits-setting pater familias who just happens to be president.
Never mind that, in all likelihood, he’s like a lot of good fathers who have demanding careers: proud, loving and not around all that much. Never mind that the time he can spend with his daughters will be a fraction of what it was before he began pursuing the presidency. Never mind that his daughters have had to sacrifice that commodity so precious to children -- normalcy -- for the sake of their father and the people who elected him.
Obama is already burdened with a load of superhuman qualities we’ve imposed on him. Not least among these is the idea that he might be capable of signing executive orders with one hand and checking his kids’ homework with the other. Worse, given our culture’s persistent anxieties about race, that “world’s greatest dad” figurine sitting metaphorically on his desk is perhaps more about quelling a nation’s fears about black masculinity than it is about a family ideal.
That’s not only a pity, it’s beneath us. This president has enough of a job keeping us safe from outside threats. Let’s let the man stop wasting his time trying to make us feel safe from him.