WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama fiercely protect the private lives of their daughters, Sasha and Malia, as they raise the girls in the fishbowl that is the modern White House. Yet, the Obama girls – ages 13 and 11 – increasingly are making public appearances: starring in remarks by their father, appearing in a campaign video celebrating Father’s Day and now in a campaign ad that’s airing in seven battleground states.
The bump in visibility comes as President Obama uses the girls to personalize his image and his thinking on a range of public policy issues, from explaining why he placed a phone call to a college student assailed by radio talker Rush Limbaugh to his decision to support gay marriage.
"It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently," Obama said of his daughters as he explained his switch to supporting same-sex marriage. "It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."
Politicians often showcase handsome families, in part to humanize themselves. Mitt Romney’s five good-looking sons recently jousted with late-night TV host Conan O’Brien in a bid to show their father as a fun-loving guy. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s telegenic three daughters got nearly as much attention for arch videos and a zingy Twitter account as did the onetime Republican presidential hopeful’s campaign.
And the Obama girls?
“They’re the most popular unit of the family,” said Tom Jensen, the director of Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. “Who doesn’t like the girls?”
His firm surveyed the girls’ popularity in 2009 and found them with numbers politicos would covet: a 54 percent favorability rating and an unfavorable standing of just 5 percent, numbers that he thinks are unlikely to have moved much.
Jensen notes that family is a big factor for President Obama, whom polls show people like even if they’re not crazy about his stewardship of the economy.
“Children have a kind of humanizing impact, and that’s really what Obama needs,” Jensen said. “Voters feel like things haven’t changed as much as they wanted. The economy still is not where they wanted it to be. He needs people to vote more on whether they like him or not, regardless of his record of accomplishment.”
A Gallup poll this week found Obama with a wide lead over Romney when it comes to personal likability.
“With that small swath of swing voters that everyone wants, if something gets people to think about Obama the man, as opposed to Obama the guardian of the economy, he’s in better shape,” Jensen said.
The news media have largely hewn to an understanding that the Obama girls are off-limits for coverage, unless they’re with their parents at a public event. When a wire service reported a spring-break trip to Mexico by one of the girls in March, the White House urged websites not to run it.
“The president and first lady are loving parents who have made shielding their daughters from the glare of the media spotlight a high priority and are pleased by the respect that media, by and large, has shown for their daughters’ privacy,” said Josh Earnest, the principal deputy White House press secretary.
Shielding the children of presidents isn’t necessarily tradition: some presidential children worked at the White House, others were active on the campaign trail.
The Obama girls are the youngest children in the White House since Amy Carter in the 1970s. The first family has released family photographs of the two, pardoning the National Thanksgiving Turkey, Christmas shopping with their dad and touring South Africa with their mom.
It was first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who after studying presidential children, insisted that her son and daughter not be public figures, said Doug Wead, a staffer in the George H.W. Bush White House who wrote about what he called the “triumph and tragedy” of first families in the book “All the Presidents’ Children.”
“She concluded that without many exceptions, the most successful children were removed from the White House and the limelight,” Wead said, noting that the Obamas may be tweaking the tradition with the appearance of the girls in advertising material.
Obama often has reached to his daughters to personalize his thinking.
During the BP oil spill in 2010, he cited Malia to voice his frustration about the ongoing leak: "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 the Father’s Day piece, Sasha and Malia appear in photographs and on video that appears to have been filmed on the campaign trail, clowning around with their dad. In the television ad, they appear in photographs.
The ad, “First Law,” targets female voters, touting Obama’s decision to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on his first day in office. The 30-second spot is playing in seven swing states: Iowa, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, where female voters could make a difference in what’s expected to be a close election.
One photograph of the sisters with their father appears after a picture of Obama and his mother flashes on the screen. A female narrator says, “The son of a single mom. Proud father of two daughters. President Obama knows that women being paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men isn’t just unfair, it hurts families.”
The girls also appear at the close of the ads, holding hands with both their parents.
Iowa-based pollster J. Ann Selzer suggested that the inclusion of the girls plays into the political battle for women’s votes. “It’s part of that wanting to connect to moms, one of the ways in which the campaign is signaling, ‘President Obama understands women,’ ” she said.
The family appeal is also a way of creating a buffer that negative ads “can have a tough time cracking,” Selzer said.
“This is the human side: ‘Here is my family. I’m an average guy just like you,’ ” she said. “The use of the girls does not seem by accident.”
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