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.

[Cross-posted atThe Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.