With the clock ticking toward a potential U.S. government default, President Obama realized the urgency of getting congressional leaders to increase the federal debt ceiling before it is too late, and summoned an unlikely comparison in order to goad them. At a press conference on June 29, he said, referring to his two young daughters, that “Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time,” that “they don’t wait ’til the night before” and that “Congress can do the same thing.”
President Obama’s words presented an ironic contrast that underlined the irresponsibility and lack of discipline among our nation’s top legislators. Yet, with due respect to children and to the examples they can set for our highest institutions, the comparison was inappropriate.
Why? Not because it was principally wrong. Age, position or status does not exempt one from accountability. But the frame of reference was problematic.
And this isn’t just any frame of reference. The president of the United States is making the case for action to avoid a potentially grave and imminent financial crisis that, if materialized, could bear calamitous consequences globally. The press conference wasn’t merely intended as stagecraft through which to galvanize lawmakers; it was also a PR tool used to enlist the American public in ratcheting up the pressure and impelling lawmakers to get to work.
And for this critical objective President Obama invoked…the punctual school habits of his 13- and 10-year olds.
As the deadline for Congress nears and the countdown continues alongside Obama’s persuasion campaign, there is still enough time to recall a related case study from 1980. It was the year presidential incumbent Jimmy Carter debated Gov. Ronald Reagan in his bid for reelection amid an economic slump at home, a hostage crisis abroad and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. In that debate, President Carter said that he had asked his 12-year-old daughter Amy what the most important issue in that election was, and that she replied, "The control of nuclear arms." That comment drew curious public attention—and scorn, in some quarters—and became a focal point for post-debate analysis in the days following.
Carter lost the election, but the day after Reagan’s landslide victory, Amy continued to star in a cartoon that depicted her sitting on her father’s lap with her shoulders shrugged, wondering about the other pressing issues of the day and asking, "The economy? The hostage crisis?"
Children can and often do offer genuine insights and wisdom. But kids aren’t running the world or managing grave global affairs; nor are they ever held up to such standards of responsibility. To invoke them as a source of counsel or an exemplary model in these contexts is incommensurate with the occasion, and certainly doesn’t help impart gravitas or impress upon a constituency the seriousness of a situation. At worst, it could also belittle the message and speaker, and diminish credibility.
Of course, there are many appropriate contexts in which to mention children. President Carter, for example, could have referred to his daughter not as a purveyor of campaign advice, but rather as a symbol of a new generation, dear to his heart, whose existence hinges on the future of nuclear weapons. President Obama can also find any number of ways to cite his daughters in support of a message, as he has suitably found in the past. But for his message to be effective, he cannot equate the kinds of expectations we have from eminent public figures with those from children.
For now, President Obama has enough fodder to work with in order to explain—both to lawmakers and to the public—what exactly is at stake if the federal debt ceiling is not increased and who would be held responsible for the consequences. And he should punctuate his remarks with an unmistakable admonition that any adult could understand.
Assaf Kedem is director of communications and a senior writer at AllianceBernstein. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.