The Obamas Should Campaign as a Couple

There is an old saw among political consultants that the perfect politician’s wife waves warmly to the crowd of potential voters…as her boat drifts away on a long trip down the Amazon that lasts until the election is over. This perspective is embodied in the common campaign strategy of sending political wives to lower stakes events while hubby covers the major venues solo. If the Obama re-election team is smart, they will completely reject this approach, for two reasons.

First, the Obamas have a magic about them as a couple to which most people respond positively. If you go to any event where the Obamas are standing next to each other, turn around and look at the crowd and you will see many people — especially women — smiling. Male political operatives often underestimate how much women like to see genuinely happy couples in politics. Political wives are invisible to many male voters, but women voters tend to observe them carefully, sussing out whether a political wife is going through the motions out of duty or ambition rather than love. And their perception of the wife’s emotions and role influences their judgment of the qualities of the candidate to whom she is married (which in my opinion, is perfectly rational).

When Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff, he asked the President to get Betty Ford to shut up, because she went off message with strong support of women’s rights, among other issues. The President did say “shut up” — to Cheney — and contrary to what the men around President Ford expected, the uncensored First Lady became one of the most beloved people in the country. And many women liked the President more because he so visibly loved and stood by his strong and intelligent wife. When the Obamas are together, those same emotional forces work on voters in the President’s favor.


The other reason to keep the Obamas together during the campaign is captured in the wonderful photo on the left. When John Kerry was running for President in 2004, Mark Shields remarked that Kerry’s events with his Viet Nam veteran buddies were his best not because of how the veterans affected the audience, but because of how they affected Kerry. He was simply a more relaxed and appealing person when they were around.

Last week a friend and I were reminiscing about a White House holiday party that we both attended. My friend jumped up from his chair and asked “Did you notice how differently he stands when Michelle is next to him? He then mimicked the President perfectly, standing stiffly and intoning “Here I am the boring, aloof, professor alone at the lectern”. Then, shifting his feet as if he were mid-strut, throwing back his shoulders and smiling broadly he said “And here I am with this incredibly fabulous babe that I got to marry me — oh yeah!”.

That’s the truth of it. When the President is with his wife, his humanity comes out in a way that it often does not in other circumstances. The facade of the distant academic cracks open, revealing that skinny, accessible and idealistic young man who is still happily ensorcelled by his brilliant companion. And at that moment, many people in our cynical, brutal and heartless electoral process pause for a moment and remember that Barack Obama is a human being, and they like him.

Photos above courtesy of The White House.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

25 thoughts on “The Obamas Should Campaign as a Couple”

  1. Yeah but then they just do a terrorist fist-jab and remind all the patriotic ‘muricans that they are foreign Kenyan Socialists.

    /FoxNews

  2. “And their perception of the wife’s emotions and role influences their judgment of the qualities of the candidate to whom she is married (which in my opinion, is perfectly rational).”

    Really? It is perfectly rational to judge a candidate on the basis of one’s perception of his wife’s emotions? (By the way, there is a possibility besides “going through the motions out of duty or ambition rather than love.” A wife could love her husband but be a private or shy person who is unable to show her love for him while the spotlight is on her.)

    I happen to think that Obama has been a horrible president. If I vote for him, it will be because he is a lesser evil than any Republican, not because Michelle visibly loves him. You may be right that others will vote for him for because Michelle visibly loves him, but, if you are, that would be sad.

  3. I love the way the President looks at his wife in unguarded moments, but that’s not the reason I’m going to campaign for him, and vote for him again. He is simply the best man for the job. That is all.

  4. I am a big fan of the First Lady Michelle Obama, but I will vote for President Obama not because of her, but because I have confidence in him to be a good President. And I do. When I saw this auto worker on Rev. Al Sharpton show last week, he talked about how his job and many other jobs were save because when the Republicans were saying let the auto industry go under, this President didn’t do that. 1.4 millions jobs were saved. Even Mitt Romney, the one who claim to know all about business, didn’t think helping out the auto industry was a good idea.

  5. No question about it. Obama really cares about Michelle and their two girls. They make a very attractive family. Good for them.

  6. I think Keith’s is a very astute analysis. My mother (a Dem but not commie socialist pinko by any measure) gushed over the Obamas after the inauguration exactly as Keith describes. As she noted at the time, they are a beautiful, handsome, and smart (in both senses) couple. If the president takes Michelle on the trail, though, one thing is guaranteed: the reactionaries will respond as they have to any visible and powerful Democratic First Lady – slime, defamation, and character assassination. But I see this as a win for the President: Michelle Obama has the stature, presence, and intelligence to make conservative villifiers look like the slime they are (tough on her family, though). And this – might be the ultimate gain from taking Ms. Obama on the road: to sideline and tame to some degree the S.O.P. conservative viciousness towards any active, strong Democratic First Lady or female leader of stature. This revolting behavior, like so much of the standard conservative playbook, seems to have just become an accepted ‘fact’ of American political life. Perhaps a politically engaged Michelle Obama might rectify this to some degree.

  7. I’m glad to see so many people hurrying to proclaim that Keith’s column is completely off-base. We shouldn’t pick a president based on how relaxed and pleasant they seem when hanging out with their spouse.

    Of course, we also shouldn’t pick a president based on how well they dress, how neat their hair looks, how fluently they speak, how warmly they smile when shaking hands and kissing babies on the campaign trail, and how comfortable a presence they convey on video.

    Yet, somehow, I suspect that no campaign staff would be willing to send their candidate out dressed like a slob, with wild hair, a grim expression and flat affect, to fidget irritably and impatiently through an interview on one of the cable networks.

    So … just maybe, despite y’all’s superior judgment and determined lack of interest in the non-policy aspects of a presidential candidate’s persona … perhaps Keith’s advice might be relevant after all. If you think it’s “sad” that this kind of thing might influence people’s feelings about Obama, you presumably also think it’s “sad” that Obama has to appear in a suit rather than a bathrobe, and that he has to smile for the cameras. In that case, the facts that (a) Michelle Obama is a lovely person, and (b) Barack Obama is at his most appealing when she’s around, and (c) the Obamas’ campaign staff would be wise to take note of that, are probably the least of our problems as a society.

    1. J, you are conflating matters that are relevant to a candidate’s qualifications with those that are not. Some of the matters you bring up, such as whether to wear a suit or a bathrobe, are clearly within the candidate’s control and his decision on these matters may tell us something about him as a person. They are relevant to one’s vote even if they do not directly concern policy. How fluently a candidate speaks is obviously relevant because speaking is part of a politician’s job, and his fluency may be a reflection of his intelligence. How warmly he smiles when shaking hands is less relevant, but it could be a factor in how well he would negotiate with political opponents and foreign leaders.

      Whether the candidate and his spouse appear lovey-dovey in public tells us nothing of his qualifications, and does not even tell us whether they are lovey-dovey in private. It also may not be in the candidate’s control, but, as I said in my earlier comment, may reflect nothing but his spouse’s shyness.

      (I have referred to the candidate as male for the sake of convenience of expression, and do not mean to be sexist. At least I used “spouse” rather than “wife,” recognizing that married gay men are eligible to run for President.)

      1. I’m sorry, but IMHO it’s absurd to take the position that how a candidate dresses “may tell us something about him as a person”, but how a candidate behaves around their spouse doesn’t.

        Yes, they might be putting on an act, but how is that different from anything else that happens in campaigns (or, for that matter, much of our daily lives?)

        And I’m not arguing that people ought to (or do) give this consideration much weight, nor that you should vote against the candidate who doesn’t get along with their spouse, who has a shy or introverted spouse, or who isn’t in a relationship at all. I’m just pointing out that Keith is perfectly correct: how Obama’s personality appears when he’s around Michelle will be one of many things that shapes people’s opinions of him.

        If you don’t want to accept that fact — or if you think that people ought to pretend that the stuff Keith talks about here doesn’t exist, out of some kind of principled objection to the influence of extraneous emotional factors in voters’ decisionmaking — then maybe a blog titled “The Reality-Based Community” isn’t really for you.

      1. Except for the parenthetical in this sentence: “And their perception of the wife’s emotions and role influences their judgment of the qualities of the candidate to whom she is married (which in my opinion, is perfectly rational).”

        1. tl;dr: Your cultural assumptions are showing.

          Longer:
          IMO Keith had a good point here and you missed it. Assume a low information voter who is a wife, mother, and possibly works a low status job. She is intelligent though and as her life revolves around domestic relationships, both hers and those of her friends and co-workers, so she has a well developed ability to gauge people’s nature by the way they interact with their children and partners. Evaluating political candidates by watching how their partners respond to them is an excellent way for her to gauge their underlying personality. I can already hear you spinning up about my use of the word personality, but I’m not talking about superficial stuff; I’m talking about the key personality weaknesses we all bemoan in GOP puppy mill candidates; things like the ability to care about other people, intellectual honesty, cynicism/ambition/honesty ratios, sociopathic tendencies, willingness to refuse comforting fantasies and embrace reality, and overal emotional maturity.

          Is this a great way for a policy focused voter to make decisions? Heavens no. But here of all places we have to be honest that most voters are not broadly policy focused. For a concerned voter who is not positioned to focus on policy items I propose these probing and difficult to fake measures of core personality are actually a rational and high quality way of making voting decisions.

          1. May I add?: It isn’t an insignificant issue wheather a person chooses to marry someone they genuinly love and continue to love over years. Does this person know who they are and what is important to them? Is this a person who can maintain the respect of the person closest to them?
            And of course the all important question that should be the deciding factor in voting for a presidential candidate: Would you like to have a beer with this guy? 😉

        2. Now that I’ve thought about it more, if it matters that Newt Gingrich treats his wives like disposable tissue, it should also matter that Barak Obama looks like he’s still in love after all these years.

          I do wish he’d show more of that love to the American working people, but this isn’t a bad thing.

  8. Bring her into the campaign, and she becomes fair game. I don’t think the humanization of Obama, (Not that he doesn’t need it.) would be worth having to explain those vacations. Bad “optics” when most people can’t afford Cedar Point, and the first lady is taking over whole floors of hotels at exotic foreign destinations. Burning a lot of carbon along the way, too, not that anybody takes that seriously.

    1. Brett, your points are right on, but I would go further and recall the several polarizing comments Mrs. Obama has thrown out there along the way. Perhaps she will have improved enough to avoid these slips, and if so she would be an asset on his campaign, I think we have to agree objectively. I think she has been a mixed bag for him to date.

      Of course, she’s performed better than he has!

      1. So why are polarizing statements from Mrs. Obama a bad thing? I know, I know! Because if the Dems stoop to the level of polarizing the electorate and catering to their base it would pollute the pristine, polite, and honest policy discussions that the GOP and Tea Party have so carefully nurtured.

    2. Bring her into the campaign, and she becomes fair game.

      Brett has a great point there. Up ’til now Michelle Obama hasn’t been “fair game”, so the wingnuts have been a model of restraint, treating her with respect and politeness. But if the White House were to take Keith’s advice, that’d all change in a heartbeat! As long as people don’t do anything to make themselves “fair game” for the right-wing slime machine, they’re perfectly safe.

    3. Burning a lot of carbon along the way, too, not that anybody takes that seriously.

      In a world full of pathetically stupid memes, this one deserves some sort of prize.

      –TP

  9. Ensorcell?!?

    Jeebus, man. What’s wrong with entrance? (Not in the sense of a portal, in the sense of enchantment. Maybe that’s what is wrong it.) The next time my students try to clobber me for my vocabulary, I’m pointing them here!

    And @Margie,

    I’ll agree that he’s the best person available for the job, and perhaps even the best person willing to take the job. I’m not convinced he’s the best person for the job, though.

  10. Did lots of people vote for JFK because they liked Jackie better than ‘Plastic Pat’? Not much, in my memory, nor did Rosalyn do Jimmy a lot of good. Maybe at the margins, but I think you have to go back to Eleanor Roosevelt for a First Lady who did her guy a whole lot of good. The storms which swirled around Hillary make me think Brett is right that if Michelle O. is front-and-centered, it will lead to attacks on her, which will hurt. I think Obama really has to win or lose this on his merits, not his wife’s.

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