He’s a better father — taking breaks from running the world to cheer on his daughters at soccer and basketball games.
He’s a better husband — zipping his wife off for dinner in New York and Paris.
He’s got a better diet — nibbling on vegetables from his homegrown garden to keep his love handles in check.
And he’s got a terrific jump shot.
You? Not so much.
Call it the politics of personal perfection. The Barack Obama brand is as much about being a personal example to the nation as it is about being a political figure. But the danger of that frothy mix of glamour and domesticity is that President Obama could become in the public mind something he never sought to be: the Martha Stewart of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
And political veterans say the fine line between what’s inspiring and what’s annoying can be difficult to spot in advance.
Obama veered further toward Martha Stewart Living territory in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper on June 21. He told the interviewer about his college travels in Pakistan and talked about the exotic dishes he learned to cook there.
“Keema ... daal ... you name it, I can cook it,” Obama said.
Also, the president noted, he reads Urdu poetry.
All this is driving certain people — mostly Republicans — nuts.
“This is a guy who was elected as a celebrity and is governing as a celebrity,” said Republican consultant Rick Wilson. “If George Bush had been photographed taking his daughters out for ice cream [as Obama was on Saturday], it would have been: ‘Nero fiddles while Rome burns.’”
Comedian Jon Stewart, exasperated by the Obamas’ high-visibility romance and date night on Broadway, complained that the president was making life tough on men across the country. “How do you compete with that?” Stewart griped. “Take it down a notch, dude.”
Obama’s image as a family man is shining even brighter today, against a backdrop of marital calamity engulfing the Republican Party over the past week.
Being too perfect can be dangerous for politicians. Just ask Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate is a spectacularly good-looking man, extremely wealthy, well-spoken and accomplished in his professional career. And a segment of the voting public hated him for it.
Says Republican media strategist Mark McKinnon, “President Obama and his team should be careful about trying to be perfect. Voters are suspicious of perfect. They actually prefer someone who is human. And has flaws. Like them.”
Michael Feldman, a former senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore, says White Houses sometimes need to “let a little air out of that bubble” by reminding voters of a president’s foibles. “Shining a little light on a flaw is not a bad thing,” Feldman said.
Don’t look for help with that project among the professional brand-management set — the industry seems to be in collective awe of Obama.
“He’s so g-ddamned smart and such a good representative for the country,” said Alan Siegel, a corporate branding expert and CEO of the marketing firm Siegel & Gale. “I admire him.”
“They’ve just done so many things so well,” said Susan Hodgkinson, principal of The Personal Brand Co. “You have to tip your hat to them and say, ‘Brilliant.’”
Can it ever be too much?
Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson doesn’t think so. “My instinct is that people are like dogs,” he said. “They want a leader they think is better than them.” And Carlson thinks it’s working well for Obama. “People naturally defer to others they think are superior.”
Superior or not, pollsters find that Barack Obama the manis immensely popular.
According to a Pew Research Center report released June 18, 72 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the president, and only 25 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Those figures are extremely high — in July 2001, George W. Bush netted a mere 61 percent favorability score, but that was enough that the pundit class deemed him extremely popular at the time.
Higher still are the popularity numbers for the first lady. Seventy-six percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Michelle Obama, the poll found, and only 14 percent had an unfavorable opinion. (In July 2001, then-first lady Laura Bush scored higher than her husband, too, with 64 percent favorability, Pew reported.)
But Democrats say the president is just being himself. “Voters react badly to politicians who are sanctimonious or hypocritical but not to those they see as genuinely virtuous,” said Jim Jordan, a longtime Democratic consultant. “The quality of his performance is just first-rate. There’s nothing artificial about it.”
And on the issue of his performance as a husband and father, Jordan says there’s little downside for the new president, even though every recent White House eventually has faced scandal of one kind or another.
“It’s almost inconceivable that he’s going to be linked to some scandal that goes to personal morality,” Jordan said. “It’s an extraordinary thing that we are debating whether the commander in chief is too virtuous.”
To be fair to Obama, he went out of his way to point to his own weaknesses as a father — highlighting his brutal travel schedule, which made it difficult to spend the time he wanted to with his daughters. And Michelle Obama has repeatedly done what she can to bring the president down a peg or two — remember her comment in 2007 about her husband being “snore-y and stinky”?
That may be because the Obamas know personal perfection is not what Americans always want — or get — in a president. We like our chief executives with endearing flaws, imperfections that show their human side — the side that, perhaps, is most like ourselves.
George W. Bush could never quite pronounce “nuclear.” Bill Clinton used to love to jog but often ended up at McDonald’s wolfing down Big Macs. George H.W. Bush didn’t like to eat broccoli — and banned it from the White House.
It’s very hard to imagine Barack Obama barfing on the lap of a foreign head of state, as the elder Bush once did.
The closest thing Obama has to a character flaw to date is his inability to stop smoking. Republican strategist McKinnon thinks that may be just the humanizing flaw the president needs now. “Yes, it’s a terrible example. An awful habit. Sends all the wrong signals,” McKinnon said. “But it brings him down to earth and makes him more interesting and accessible.”
Still, the president can’t quite bring himself to confess. Obama bristled at a news conference on Tuesday when Margaret Talev of McClatchy asked about his smoking.
Obama called himself a “former smoker,” adding, “I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. ... I would say I’m 95 percent cured.”
Which makes smoking, perhaps, 5 percent of the flaw Obama needs.