Candidates weigh family’s privacy vs. political gain in campaigns

Barbara Perry was surprised to see President Obama’s recent campaign advertisement featuring a photo of his wife and two young daughters.


Barbara Perry was surprised to see President Obama’s recent campaign advertisement featuring a photo of his wife and two young daughters.

“I had seen their official Christmas picture,” said Perry, a senior fellow and associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which focuses on presidential studies. “And then, all of a sudden, it just appeared in this ad.”

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The Internet ad features a smiling first couple, their hands clasped with their two young daughters, Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10.

But it wasn’t a politician’s use of his children in campaign imagery that startled Perry. It was seeing the Obamas do it after they had fought for so long to shield their children from the spotlight.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Obama girls were kept largely out of the media glare. The then-Illinois senator granted one interview with his daughters on “Access Hollywood,” a move he later publicly lamented.

“I think that we got carried away in the moment,” Obama said days after the interview aired. “We were having a birthday party and everybody was laughing, and suddenly this thing cropped up, and I didn’t catch it quickly enough, and I was surprised by the attention it got.

“I don’t think it’s healthy, and it’s something that we’ll be avoiding in the future,” he told reporters.

But, just four years later, the Obamas appear to be relaxing their stance on their daughters appearing on the campaign trail. Asked to comment, the White House directed The Hill to recent statements made by the first lady.

“The girls, obviously, will be significantly older for this campaign than they were for the last go-round,” Michelle Obama told reporters in February. 

Their participation serves as a plus for President Obama, who has seen his approval ratings oscillate in recent months while his wife’s continue to surge, Perry said. The image of him, together with his popular wife and daughters, helps
promote the view of them as “an all-American family.”

“It’s really good for him to just distribute that image as widely as possible,” she said.

The concept of presidential candidates demanding privacy for their kids can be traced back to the Kennedys in the 1960s.

“The Kennedys established this push-pull effect of media,” Perry said. “They wanted to push them away when they wanted privacy for their kids, but they wanted to pull them in when they wanted good political images.”

According to Perry, Jackie Kennedy would demand that her children John and Caroline be kept out of the public eye. But when she left the White House on holidays without her husband and children, all bets were off.

“The president and his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, would trot these two adorable children out,” Perry said. “They would use them as these beautiful, cute props that they were, and then Mrs. Kennedy would not be particularly happy with that.”

Whatever her reaction, Jackie Kennedy’s “Camelot” family changed things to come.

“They set this pattern, I would say, for modern media, for television and for glossy magazines and newspapers,” she added, noting that precedent still exists. And the image of a candidate along with his family can often become too powerful a tool to ignore.

“Maybe the pull is just too great for parents and politicians to leave the kids behind and not bring them into the public sphere,” Perry said. “The political career and the political ambitions end up trumping what might be best for the children.”

Ron Faucheux, a political campaign expert and professor at George Washington University, acknowledged the decision of whether to bring children into the public eye during a campaign can be a difficult one.

“Most candidates and their spouses are very reluctant to expose their children to the public spotlight, whether they’re 6 months old or 36 years old,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they don’t want their children with them or have them photographed or there for major events. But generally speaking, I think the candidates and their spouses don’t want to do it.

“When you do see the families and kids in the campaign, I think oftentimes it’s done because the campaign feels like the candidate needs to sell a human side, a family values side, personal warmth,” he said. “And the people in the campaign sort of prevail on the candidate to include their family more often.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) experienced that struggle when she began campaigning for president last year. Though she mentioned her family frequently, her foster children were kept out of the spotlight.

“Congresswoman Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, decided early on that they would never push their children to be involved with campaigning,” a source close to the campaign said. “Furthermore, because the Bachmanns are parents to both foster children [23] and biological children [5], they value privacy for their children.”

Representatives for GOP presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) declined to comment on the decisions behind whether to include their children in their campaigns.

Political experts have noticed, however, that Romney’s five sons have not been as present on this campaign trail as the previous one. 

“I think it’s a matter of logistics, it’s a matter of the kids having interest in doing this, and a matter of whether or not they’re around and can be available to do this,” said Dennis Johnson, a political science professor at George Washington University.

“I’m not really sure there would be any kind of strategic plan of saying, ‘Well, we’ve done polling, and it doesn’t look like the kids add anything to it.’ I don’t think it’s all that complicated,” he said. “It could be as simple as asking the kids, ‘Do you want to do this?’ and them saying, ‘No, Dad, we’re not really interested in doing it.’ ”

Faucheux added that while it behooves a candidate to put out a traditional family image, it just might not be as necessary this time around.

“I think in the case of Romney and Obama … both of them have probably established in the public mind that they have good marriages and they have what appears to be a happy family life,” he said. “I think once that point is made, the point is made, and it doesn’t require constantly putting that in people’s faces.

“I don’t think there is a political imperative to either one of them using their kids more … unless there’s something that one of their kids can address,” Faucheux said.

Whether it’s necessary, the Obama girls are prepared to face the media gantlet leading up to November, according to their mom.

“They actually like campaigning, because when they were younger, when we were first running, what was campaigning? Campaigning was you fly into a city with a bunch of young campaign workers who love kids, and they took them for ice cream,” Michelle Obama said in February. “So Sasha is like, ‘I love campaigning!’ They’re ready to go.”