equal rites

President Obama Invokes Sasha and Malia, Again

U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama (L) and daughters Malia Obama (R) and Sasha Obama (2L)
Photo: Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images

When President Obama annnounced his decision to support gay marriage, he credited some fellow White House residents who happen to share his last name with informing his “evolution” on the issue. “You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, ” he said. “There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we’re talking about their friends and their parents and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”

The president has been careful about keeping his family out of the political conversation, with some notable exceptions. This is the third time in recent months that he’s cited his daughters while taking a controversial stand on a divisive social-policy issue.

In December, Obama justified the administration’s decision to not make Plan B available over the counter with an not-very-oblique Sasha and Malia reference:  “I think most parents would probably feel the same way.” In March, during the swirling controversy over Sandra Fluke, the president said, “The reason I called Ms. Fluke is because I thought about Malia and Sasha and one of the things that I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones that I may not agree with them on.”

Obama isn’t invoking Sasha and Malia when he talks about the economy, or national security. To bring them up at every single opportunity would be crass. So he’s picking his spots, and those spots are touchy social flashpoints like reproductive rights and gay rights. Those are issues are, at their core, about the way people structure their personal and family lives, and so it makes sense that his family influences his thinking on that stuff — and provides a natural, relatable talking point for connecting with Americans. But there’s also a certain tactical savvy involved. Invoking the first daughters functions as a kind of shield. Attack Obama’s position, and suddenly you’re not attacking a politician — you’re also picking on young girls, and Obama’s right to parent them as he sees fit. That’s something nearly everyone, right or left, agrees ought to be off-limits.

Related: A Brief History of Teenage First Daughters
President Obama Comes Out of the Marriage-Equality Closet

President Obama Invokes Sasha and Malia, Again