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Wives of McCain, Obama: Hurting or Helping?

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Wives of McCain, Obama: Hurting or Helping?

Election 2008

Wives of McCain, Obama: Hurting or Helping?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When Americans choose a president this fall, they will also be getting a first lady. Tomorrow, TV viewers spend time with Michelle Obama when she guest hosts ABC's "The View." Cindy McCain had her shot a couple of months ago. Let's get a view on both women from Kathleen Hall Jamieson. She's director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, noted author and close watcher of presidential campaigns. Welcome to the program, once again.

Ms. KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (Director, Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Can the candidate's wives really make a difference between victory and defeat?

Ms. JAMIESON: Not unless the candidate's wife does something totally and completely outrageous. We don't have any evidence from history that a candidate's wife has ever been decisive in electing or defeating.

INSKEEP: And yet we do have plenty of cases where the candidate's wife was a big part of the candidate's image. Maybe Bill Clinton is the most obvious recent example.

Ms. JAMIESON: And if the Clintons could have taken back one sentence from the 1992 campaign, it probably would have been two for the price of one.

INSKEEP: Now the two spouses of the leading presidential candidates have already had something of an exchange about their values and what they think about the country. Let's listen to this much-quoted statement by Michelle Obama.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA (Wife of Senator Barack Obama): For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.

Ms. CINDY McCAIN (Wife of Senator John McCain): I'm proud of my country. I don't know about you, if you heard those words earlier. I'm very proud of my country.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: There's Cindy McCain's response to Michelle Obama. How did people use those statements, Kathleen Hall Jamieson?

Ms. JAMIESON: Well, in Tennessee, the GOP put a Web ad together that juxtaposed the statement by Michelle Obama with statements of folks, including gun owners, saying that they'd always been proud of their country.

So any time a statement by a candidate's spouse becomes the basis of attack in a campaign, it probably is somewhat problematic.

INSKEEP: So what are the images, as you see them, of each of these two women at this moment?

Ms. JAMIESON: Cindy McCain's image is less defined than it will be by election day. What the public doesn't know is that she has worked in charity work, trying to help children around the world, particularly children in disaster zones, and is the head of a very well-financed company.

INSKEEP: And how has that money affected John McCain's life?

Ms. JAMIESON: It's created some problems and some advantages. The money made it possible for him to make a much smoother transition into public life. It also has caused a problem in some ways, because when the press learned that he was making up for the fact that his campaign was in bad financial circumstances by flying about on her corporate jet, although legal, it was a loophole in campaign finance, and he is a well-known champion of campaign-finance reform.

INSKEEP: Now you mentioned that Cindy McCain is less familiar at this moment to the public than she may be in a few months. Has Michelle Obama been more of a lightning rod for attention?

Ms. JAMIESON: Michelle Obama has been taking a more central role in the campaign, and as a result is drawing more press attention. She speaks to crowds in her own right on behalf of her husband's policies. She has raised her visibility in the campaign, and the campaign has raised her visibility in the way in which the Republican campaign has not raised the visibility of Cindy McCain.

INSKEEP: If you just flip through the conservative press, you'll find a headline in the National Review in which Michelle Obama is called Mrs. Grievance, already a sense of an image of this person.

Ms. JAMIESON: To the extent that a candidate is not well known, that is the person has not been on the national stage for a long time, any facets of the candidate's biography that can be used against the candidate will be used to try to identify that candidate negatively as early as possible.

INSKEEP: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, let me come back to that 1992 campaign. That was a time when you could have seen the choice between first ladies: Hillary Clinton, who was described, as you said, as two for the price of one, and Barbara Bush, who was very popular but seen as having a much more traditional role. Is there any kind of choice emerging among possible first ladies in 2008?

Ms. JAMIESON: Those who are potentially first ladies are asked by the press: What would you do as first lady? And they forecast what they would do. Cindy McCain says she'll focus on running her family business and on international charity work.

Michelle Obama says that she will focus on trying to be a voice for particularly the women that she's heard around the country. Essentially, both Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama have forecast that they will work in an area related to women and children. They're both signaling a traditional, gendered role, even though the background of both of them - highly educated women who have worked in the non-profit world, who have run organizations - would suggest that they may play a more policy-oriented role, particularly in the case of Michelle Obama.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That's Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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