A group of famous people’s mothers — including the women who raised Jonah Hill, Jennifer Lopez, and Adam Levine — released a video for the the White House on Friday as part of the final push to get young people interested in signing up for Obamacare. The moms start off sharing details about those celebrities’ childhoods, and end up pointing out that young people shouldn’t skip out on health care because their moms would worry about them too much. “We nag you because we love you!” Michelle Obama says before directing viewers to HealthCare.gov.
“Nagging moms” are clearly a theme in the awareness campaign around health care. Last December, President Obama hosted a group of moms at the White House to emphasize the “unique role” they play in their kids’ decision to enroll in health insurance. “Blame Obama for Latest Round of Mom’s Nagging,” New York Magazine joked at the time.
But the concerns of parents have been part of the Obama brand since long before this final health care push. From racial issues to poverty to reproductive rights, the administration regularly uses the language of parenting as a tool to argue for policy. That strategy has been a defining one for Obama’s presidency, with both upsides and downsides: It puts a personal touch on his legislative positions, but can come across as a bit too patronizing. And, like practically everything related to our first black president’s time in the White House, it’s also a dynamic that’s not without racial implications.
Barack and Michelle Obama are parents to two adolescent girls, and they admit openly that their roles as a father and a mother shape much of the way they talk about their legislative priorities. In a society that typically doesn’t require male public figures to emphasize their relationship with their kids, it can be refreshing to observe the president in this context. “I see President Obama as uniquely forthright in how central fatherhood and his identity as a father are to his role as president,” MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry pointed out in an interview with ThinkProgress last week. “Although all our presidents have been fathers, I’m not sure we have had another president in the modern era for whom this identity is so obviously central.”
This takes shape most clearly when Obama speaks about racial politics and his identity as an African-American dad (an area that, thanks to the persistent stereotype of the “absent black father,” is especially pressure-filled for Obama). When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because George Zimmerman found his hoodie threatening, Obama famously said that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon; that acknowledgment made the political into something intensely personal, and led to some of Obama’s most pointed comments about racial inequity during his entire time in office. That parental instinct is also behind the president’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, a program seeking to improve young black men’s economic opportunities that Obama says was inspired by Trayvon. The new policy push is described explicitly in terms of familial bonds, with Obama positioned at the head of the household. When writing about the program, Salon’s Dr. Brittney Cooper described him as “donning the role of father-in-chief” for black people while introducing My Brother’s Keeper.
But there are potential pitfalls in playing the role of America’s dad, too. Obama has drawn some criticism for over-emphasizing black men’s responsibility to step up. “Like many African-American men, the president has bought into the narrative about the problems of absentee black fathers and about the potential danger and destructiveness of fatherless black sons,” Cooper notes in Salon. Cooper wrote about these concerns earlier for Ebony last year, lamenting Obama’s decision to blame “broken black families” for much the much larger structural issues of poverty and violence. And even though Cooper is quoted here, she’s hardly the only person to make this point.
The racial element of this parental approach certainly draws ire, but so do other issue areas. The president was sharply rebuked last year for taking an overly paternal approach to emergency contraception, defending unnecessary restrictions on over-the-counter Plan B “as a father of two daughters,” even though that flew in the face of the scientific evidence confirming this type of birth control is safe for girls of all ages. “Stop patronizing me,” one teenager wrote in RH Reality Check in response to Obama’s stance.
The First Lady, too, is not immune to criticism about her role as a political mom. Mrs. Obama often talks about her nutrition initiatives in terms of wanting to keep her family healthy and recently went on the Tonight Show to discuss parenting teenage daughters. She made relateable jokes about what it’s going to be like to teach Malia to drive and how her kids think she’s uncool. But unlike men embracing fatherhood, women talking about their kids fit neatly into society’s gender expectations. So Michelle has been derided by some for embracing a “mom-in-chief” label, and last fall, Politico Magazine argued that her focus on issues traditionally tied to domesticity makes her a “feminist nightmare.” Here, too, it’s ultimately impossible to separate race from the conversation. Women of color have pushed back on the idea that the First Lady is somehow anti-feminist, pointing out that being a black “mom-in-chief” is a revolutionary act in a society in which African-American women rarely have the privilege to focus on motherhood instead of a career.
The approach of acting the parent isn’t a perfect strategy, especially when it comes to women’s issues. But both Obama and his wife have been able to largely come across as genuine, and that’s thanks to their ability to undermine assumptions about them and their race. For politicians who are always expected to be “twice as good” — and, in some ways, have embraced this framing for the black community — it’s perhaps not a surprise that they’ve chosen to double down on this aspect of family values.
When it comes to Obamacare, gently reminding kids about why it’s important to eat your vegetables can be easier than delving into the policy of health reform. Will this rhetoric actually work on young people? Only time will tell. The number of young enrollees is inching up. But Americans might end up tuning out the president’s nagging — just like they tune out their own parents.