It was a tantalising glimpse of family life inside the White House, carefully calibrated for maximum political effect. In a picture released by his office, Barack Obama curled up on the sofa with his daughters, a paternal arm draped around each, as they watched on television the First Lady deliver a stirring speech to the Democratic convention.
Two nights later, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, emerged beaming into the spotlight on to the same stage in Charlotte, North Carolina, to greet and hug their father. Mr Obama had just urged the country to give him another four years in office in a closing address that was all about the virtues of patience and pragmatism, rather than the promise of four years ago.
“It will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades,” he said. “It will require common effort, shared responsibility.”
His speech – described by one critic as “befuddlingly flat” – left many Americans less than overwhelmed, as he offered a stark choice between his own attempts to elevate the middle class, and those of Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, who he said would lead America into even worse financial difficulties.
“His speech was weirdly anti-climactic,” wrote columnist Peggy Noonan, who penned some of the loftiest phrases used by President Ronald Reagan, in the pages of the conservative-minded Wall Street Journal. “There’s too much build-up, the crowd was tired, it all felt flat.”]]>
But when his daughters appeared, looking chic but composed, enthusiasm among delegates and Democrat supporters reached fever pitch. Somehow their presence touched a chord that Mr Obama himself had not quite managed to reach – and gave Democrats an upbeat closing image to inspire them, and voters, for the campaign ahead. That entered its final furious two months this weekend as the president and Mr Romney headed from their back-to-back conventions in Florida and North Carolina to key battleground states across the US – criss-crossing one another’s tracks in Iowa and New Hampshire in a frenzy of electioneering that they will try to sustain until Nov 6. While some might question the morality of making so much of his family, Mr Obama seems to feel that rewriting his own official playbook is the way to go – using Malia and Sasha as key visual and verbal props in his re-election strategy. They appear increasingly frequently in Obama advertisements and videos. Their voices may never be heard, but their words are regularly invoked by the president in political speeches as inspiration and explanation for his actions. He addressed the second sentence of his convention speech directly at them. “Malia and Sasha, you make me so proud,” he said, adding: “But don’t get any ideas, you guys are still going to school tomorrow.” More significantly, discussing his personal conversion to support of same-sex marriage recently – a switch that upset socially conservative voters – he used them as a shield from the political fallout. “It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently,” he said of his daughters. “It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.” And interviews with Michelle Obama are dotted with anecdotes about her girls, from their favourite pop stars to laundry duties – carefully targeted at a mostly female and often younger audience, voters whose support the campaign sorely needs. Yet the couple came into office with a clear message to the media that they their children were off-limits, outside occasional public appearances with their parents. In that respect, they had taken the advice of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who fiercely protected the privacy of their daughter Chelsea during their eight years in the White House. When a news agency reported earlier this year on the scale of the Secret Service deployment to protect Malia during a holiday with school-friends in Mexico, the White House persuaded media outlets to remove the story from their websites. Now, though, it is Mr Obama himself who is giving a push to the girls’ visibility. For Malia and Sasha also underscore traits that are at the heart of his re-election prospects, particularly among women voters: his personal likeability and his commitment to family life. And if there is one thing clear about the US president it’s that he doesn’t like to lose. Friends describe a man who is extremely confident in his abilities – overly so, his critics would say – and fiercely competitive in everything he does. From impromptu games of basketball on the campaign trail and rounds of cards with staff on Air Force One, to running for office: winning comes first. Aides talk of a man who, despite his more measured language and his travails over the last four years, has lost none of his appetite for the job. “He will do everything it takes to get re-elected,” said James Carville, a former Clinton adviser who came up with the slogan “It’s the economy stupid” to focus his then boss during the 1992 campaign. His daughters appeared in a White House video for Father’s Day in June and featured in a recent campaign advertisement running in several swing states. The calculation is that they can help him back to the White House – so long as the strategy does not backfire. “When a candidate is characterised as a cool cat, as the president is, you want to find ways to warm him up and make him more engaging and to ordinary people. The family man imagery does that,” said Ann Selzer, a leading political pollster in Iowa, a marginal mid-Western state. “But he has to be very careful not to seem to be exploiting his children.” And, for all Mr Romney and his wife Ann’s talk of their own challenges bringing up five rumbustuous sons, all are now adults – aged between 31 and 42 – rather than teenaged daughters, so offer less winsome picture opportunities. Doug Wead, who worked in the White House of George HW Bush and wrote All the Presidents’ Children, a book about first families, noted that the Obamas were moving away from a consensus among recent White House incumbents to keep their children out of the public eye. “They initially accepted the shared wisdom that their kids should be kept under wraps, but they are no longer enforcing that so strictly,” he said. “It certainly helps voters see their president through the softer lens of family in this harsh political climate. People draw conclusions from how they perceive a relationship between parent and child. “But they will have to be very careful not to over-expose them to public scrutiny.” Mr Obama certainly needs all the positive imagery he can muster. Nearly four years into his administration, he is still struggling to shake the US economy from the effects of the deep recession that he inherited from his predecessor George W Bush. Disappointing employment figures announced on Friday, reflecting the anaemic state of the recovery, could not have been a worse start to the final leg of the campaign. “Did you see the jobs report this morning by the way?” Mr Romney taunted in Sioux City, Iowa. “Almost 400,000 people dropped out of the work force altogether. It’s is simply unimaginable.” Mr Obama countered with a caricature of what he said was Mr Romney’s one idea: “Tax cuts. Tax cuts. Cut some more regulations. Oh, and more tax cuts. “Tax cuts when times are good. Tax cuts when times are bad. Tax cuts to help you lose a few extra pounds. Tax cuts to help you improve your love life. It’ll cure anything.” Nationally, the two men could not be closer. They were both averaging 46.7 per cent support in an aggregation of recent polls by the realclearpolitics website when the president took the stage in Charlotte. The Republicans are confident. Ari Fleischer, Mr Bush’s former spokesman, said: “The maths are simple. There’s no way Obama can win again with unemployment stuck above eight per cent.” But Mr Obama went into his party’s convention holding a narrow lead in nine of the 10 battleground states where the election will be won and lost. “It’s anything but comfortable, but I would rather be up marginally in nine than down in nine,” said an adviser. The first signs yesterday from early polling yesterday were that Mr Obama had achieved a modest “bounce” from events in Charlotte: a Gallup tracking poll gave him a slightly widened lead, 48 per cent against Mr Romney’s 45 per cent. Overseen by party bosses under highly-choreographed rules, the conventions probably did little to change any minds. But for that, there are the three presidential debates next month. These one-on-one gladiatorial showdowns, screened live on prime time television, are the showpiece events of every election campaign. But in a race that is currently effectively a dead heat, they assume decisive importance. It is no surprise then that Mr Romney spent much of last week, while the Democrats held the spotlight, hidden away at a friend’s home in the Vermont woods working on “debate prep”. Mr Obama has started his rehearsals too, rehearsing his case against John Kerry, the Democratic senator, as a Romney stand-in. The president is aware that in a debate setting, he can come across as smug or condescending – as when he ineptly referred to his 2008 primary rival Hillary Clinton as “likeable enough”. And as an incumbent, it is he who has a record to defend – a record for which Mr Romney cannot wait to attack him. Both men are storing away the one-liners and put-downs for which they hope voters will remember them on Nov 6. But they also know only too well that any verbal slip or ill-judged gesture – such as President George HW Bush’s exasperated glance at his watch in 1992 or Democrat Al Gore’s repeated sighing in 2000 – could dash their hopes of reaching the White House. The tightness of the race means Mr Obama’s campaign may need to keep on playing the family card as often as it dares. So far, at least, he seems to have remained on the right side of the scales: the only public criticism of his tactic has come from Bristol Palin, the daughter of 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The president should not allow himself to be guided by teenagers who had watched one too many episodes of the television series Glee, she wrote on her blog, adding mockingly: “Hail to the Chiefs — Malia and Sasha Obama.” Miss Palin is, of course, best known for her surprise pregnancy – unmarried and aged 17 – revealed to the world as the Republican convention got under way: one of those occasions when a focus on a candidate’s children really did backfire. (The Telegraph)