His policies on Iraq and the economy may make bigger headlines, but how is he going to attract the female vote? As America prepares to pick its new president, the Democratic candidate speaks to Marie Claire about family values, fatherhood and marriage to an outspoken alpha female
As the grandson, son, husband and father of alpha females, Barack Obama appreciates women’s issues. But with his campaign entering the final straight and the fervent Hillary faithful poised to make the difference on election day, those issues have taken on a new significance. It was in this spirit, then, that Senator Obama, husband of Michelle, father of Malia, ten, and Sasha, seven, showed Marie Claire his feminine side.
MC: We live in the era of Jamie Lynn Spears getting pregnant at 16, of teenage girls making ‘pregnancy pacts’ – how concerned are you about the impact of all this on your daughters?
BO: Michelle and I are constantly monitoring what our daughters absorb from culture. And I don’t think we’re alone in feeling that the way culture sexualises young girls is a problem – that it encroaches on their childhood. Michelle has frank conversations with the girls. Malia will be going into puberty soon, so we want them to be well-informed.
So the birds-and-the-bees conversation has already happened?
Well, more or less. But the point is we want them to grow up with a strong sense of self. We want them to feel that they’re being judged on their brains and their competitiveness and their compassion, and not just, you know, looking cute. So we talk a lot to them about what values they should be internalising. Michelle and I agree that our job as parents is really to allow them to make good choices.
Is it working?
I think we’ve done a pretty good job. Malia and Sasha are very down on Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Malia is the first one to change channel if something comes on that she thinks is inappropriate. If a song comes on the radio she doesn’t think is sensible, she will change it. On the other hand, she’s a big fan of [teen TV character] Hannah Montana. And when Miley Cyrus [who plays Hannah] had that picture in Vanity Fair [holding a sheet to her chest], Malia just offered this very sensible opinion. She said, ‘Everybody makes mistakes, so I hope that people won’t judge her for just this one picture.’
Is there anything you don’t let them look at?
We don’t let them use the internet without one of us being there. We want
to make sure that they’re not landing on some site that would make us blanch.
What’s it like living in a house full of females?
It’s wonderful, but I end up being the butt of a lot of jokes. You know, ‘Daddy’s leaving his big shoes in the middle of the floor.’ ‘Daddy’s hanging his pants on the doorknob again.’ ‘Daddy only has three pairs of shoes, and they’re really old.’
If Michelle becomes first lady, how will she adapt to the ultimately wifely role?
Michelle’s very comfortable in her own skin. And I like that skin, of course, so I don’t want her changing. And I don’t think she’s looking to change. Michelle’s not somebody who wants to be deeply involved in policy development. She’s my closest friend and my most important advisor, but I don’t anticipate her sitting around the table trying to figure out tax policy. She’ll probably choose a project that she cares about. But her number one priority is going to be these kids, and making sure that their transition is one in which the wonderful normality that they have is maintained.
You were recently at a fundraising breakfast with Hillary Clinton. During one of the debates you famously described her as being ‘likeable enough’. Is she more than likeable now?
That’s an example of where you say something awkwardly and it gets pounced on. Somebody says ‘you’ve got a likeability problem’, and the point I was trying to make was, I think that’s silly. Hillary Clinton is perfectly likeable. But I was writing notes, I didn’t smile as much as I needed to, I said it, and suddenly everybody says, ‘Ah, that’s so patronising!’ Hillary Clinton is not only likeable, she’s also extraordinarily capable and smart and effective as an advocate. I think she and I are going to be working very well together for years to come to try to change this country the way it needs to be changed.
If you become president, how will you handle having to negotiate with countries that are committing human rights violations against women?
I believe there’s a spectrum. In places like Darfur or the Congo, rape is used as a military weapon – there are no excuses, and you simply don’t abide them. You mobilise the international community to change behaviour in those countries. When it comes to countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or others in the Middle East, where women are still in second-class positions, it is important for us to recognise that the culture is not going to transform overnight. But we won’t be bashful about speaking out on these issues and affirming a core belief in the equality of women. My mother specialised in international development. Her focus was on helping women get a foothold in the economy – helping them buy a loom or a sewing machine, or some cows so that they could sell the milk. She was very clear that the best indicator of how a country is going to develop is how it treats its women and whether it educates its girls. And so, part of the argument we want to make is not just based on our values and our ideals, but also on practicality – you’re not going to do as well economically if all this enormous talent represented in your female population is under-educated and not given the same opportunities as men.
This is an edited version of the full exclusive interview, which is featured in the November 2008 issue of Marie Claire