Is Obama Pandering to Women Voters?
In case you hadn't heard the shocking news, Obama went on ABC’s The View earlier this week and gabbed about JP Morgan, gay marriage, and Kim Kardashian -- though not necessarily in that order. He also announced that he is going to win the election in November.
Earlier this week, he gave the commencement address at Barnard, where he talked about the remarkable women who’d shaped his life and then exhorted the nearly 600 female graduates to take over the world. "Don’t just get involved," he said. "Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table." Still, the president also acknowledged that in this dreadful job market for graduates, that could be tough to do.
Obama is in full-on campaign mode, trying to court the all-important women’s vote. This week, that effort also included a fuzzy Mother’s Day video praising his mom, Michelle, and the other women instrumental in his life.
That Obama is going after women is hardly news, nor is it news that women of all ages respond to him with the enthusiasm that they do. Yet for some reason, pundits are incredulous, like they’ve never heard of targeting voters in their lives.
Obama is trying to exploit the gender gap! Obama is pandering to women! The next thing you know, he’ll be signing a bill that establishes equal pay just to please women! (Oh, wait. He already has.) In fact, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank even dinged Obama for mentioning the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in his speech to the young women graduates of Barnard.
Wait, how long have we been hearing about women’s issues in this election season? Does "War on Women" ring a bell? Hasn’t Obama been hammering for months now on women’s rights? But to hear Milbank tell it, Obama’s Barnard speech was the first time he’d mentioned women’s achievements and concerns. In a column sneeringly titled "Barack Obama, the first female president," Milbank noted: "Heck, he even wore a gown." Funny!
He went on to say:
Obama was still early in his address when he acknowledged that his praise for the young generation of women is “a cheap applause line when you’re giving a commencement at Barnard.”
But Obama was being modest. He didn’t deliver a cheap applause line. He delivered an entire speech full of them. His reelection campaign has been working for months to exploit the considerable gender gap, which puts him far ahead of likely GOP rival Mitt Romney among women. But Monday’s activities veered into pandering, as Obama brazenly flaunted his feminine mystique.
I don’t know what "feminine mystique" means, but clearly it's not a desirable trait. Nor, for that matter, is being a "female" president. This is not a good sign. Are we going to be forced to endure another miserable election like we did in 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were continually maligned for simply being female? Where it was acceptable for either political party to routinely trash women candidates because of their gender? I know we can take the heat, but why should we? Maybe we need to take a cue from those smart, feisty, hard-charging graduates of Barnard?
I wasn’t the only one irritated by Milbank’s sexist and condescending remarks. By mid-afternoon, his column had incited more than 2,000 comments, challenging everything from his account of Obama's speech to his snide use of the term "female president." The flak was so intense that the Post felt compelled to run an update in which Rachel Manteuffel noted the criticisms:
Maybe the pandering that Milbank found is a necessary component of a graduation speech, along with pomp, circumstance and Oh The Places You’ll Go. As Saulpaulus said,
"this speech was more along the lines of boosting [the students’] self-image. Isn’t that something ALL commencement speakers are SUPPOSED to do . . . "
Maybe, except for truly, truly special graduates who can take the unvarnished truth.
Manteuffel also noted Nisha Chittal's tweet pointing out something interesting: Milbank is not the first Post opinion columnist to use the first-female-president construct.
— Nisha Chittal (@NishaChittal) May 15, 2012
In response, Milbank weighed in with a predictably obnoxious comment on his original post: "I do not really think Obama is a woman."
Thanks, Dana! I’m sure readers were hugely relieved to hear that.
For the record, I don’t mind being pandered to one bit. It certainly beats the alternative, which has been for women to be dismissed, marginalized, or ignored. So when Obama mentioned the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act and the profound influence of women in his life, from his single mom to his grandmother to Michelle and the girls -- to, yes, even Hillary Clinton! -- I couldn’t have been happier.
Unlike many male politicians I could name, Obama actually likes women. When he strode on stage at Barnard in his pale blue cap and gown, just days after his historic gay-marriage announcement, the crowd of young women went wild, hooting and cheering.
Set against a backdrop of "Red, White, and View," the president also charmed the five female co-hosts of The View (well, perhaps not Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who made the unfortunate mistake of saying that Obama's views on gay marriage weren't that different from Mitt Romney's, a point he gently corrected her on).
When Obama was asked if could name the controversial sex book that’s on millions of women's nightstands, he didn't roll his eyes, as in, God, I can’t believe Joy Behar just asked me that, and I am president of the United States! He grinned and said, "I don’t know that. But I’ll ask Michelle when I get home."
Yet, according to TV critic Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly, Obama's appearance on the daytime talk show was practically a national disgrace:
As it was, today’s View appearance was pretty anodyne, neither illuminating nor amusing, and, well, pointless. If Obama wanted to press the flesh with potential voters, he could have done it on the rope line with the View’s studio audience. Why subject himself to the softballs and piffle of daytime TV hosts (or nighttime ones, for that matter)? I know the obvious answer -- that doing these shows offers a huge-audience opportunity to “humanize” a candidate. And here I will include the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in this, who will doubtless start making the entertainment-TV rounds at some point.
I happen to like The View, but it is not, as Tucker seems to think, the place where women go to hear the president give detailed policy explanations on national security or the deficit. For that we have the endlessly tedious presidential debates, thank you very much, and the Sunday morning news shows like Meet the Press.
Most women watch The View for the same reason I occasionally do: because it’s like sitting around with a group of smart, funny, and opinionated women friends where the conversation meanders seamlessly from parenting to politics to sex. My women friends would ask the president the same questions Whoopi, Barbara, Elisabeth, Sherri, and Joy would ask if they got the chance. But critics like Ken Tucker prefer their own condescending, insulting view of women’s talk shows: that they’re politically worthless.
As even Tucker noted, Obama originally planned to make his gay-marriage announcement on The View, but then he felt he couldn’t wait, so ABC’s Robin Roberts got the landmark scoop instead.
For that matter, the co-hosts did press Obama on serious topics like the stunning $2 billion loss by JP Morgan. I do wish Whoopi had pressed Obama harder by asking, "Should CEO Jamie Dimon be fired?" Instead, she accepted Obama’s excuse that these setbacks happen to even the smartest of bankers, and that the answer is financial reform. She let the president off way too easy.
Barbara asked Obama about the Defense of Marriage Act. Now that he’d come out in support of gay marriage, was the president going to press Congress hard for DOMA’s repeal? Other than saying that Congress knew his opposition to the law, Obama was disappointingly vague.
But even that tidbit was useful, I’d argue. Now that Romney is finally the presumed Republican nominee, the race is going to be a fight to the end. And it’s clear that women are going to be a central part of it. And anyone who thinks that the women’s vote is wrapped up should go talk to Hillary Clinton about 2008.
So if Obama and Romney want to pander to women, want to address the issues we care most about, whether it’s contraception or education or the economy, I say by all means, go for it.
Pander away. But don't assume we'll smile nicely and swallow everything you say, either.