Washington Of all the things President-elect Barack Obama needs right now, one of them surely isn’t a new set of lofty expectations on his well-burdened shoulders.
But recent attention to Obama’s on-and-off smoking habit has pinned a new kind of audacious hope to him. Anti-smoking advocates are counting on Obama as a role model for others trying to kick the habit, showing them — and himself — that while it’s hard, all things are indeed possible in America.
More pressure? One imagines the very thought might send Obama back to the privacy of his yard to light up. In seriousness, though, his familiar plight — a former smoker who says he’s quit, but admittedly falls off the wagon — is potentially “the ultimate teachable moment,” as one anti-smoking advocate puts it.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” says Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington-based group that seeks to prevent smoking among young people. “The president-elect is in a position to help people understand that it’s difficult to quit, and to encourage the 43 million adult Americans who smoke to join him in his efforts.”
Obama can perhaps thank Tom Brokaw for renewing the chatter about his smoking habit. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Brokaw noted Obama had “ducked” the smoking question previously, and asked if he’d indeed quit, noting the White House is a no-smoking zone. (And Obama has his incoming secretary of state, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, to thank for THAT.)
“I have,” Obama said. “What I said was that there are times where I have fallen off the wagon.”
“Wait a minute,” said Brokaw, “that means you haven’t stopped.”
“Fair enough,” Obama said. “What I would say is that I have done a terrific job under the circumstances of making myself much healthier. And I think that you will not see any violations of these rules in the White House.”
Hmm. Immediately his response was seen as full of holes. (What about OUTSIDE the White House? What about UNSEEN violations?) As, of course, it was. And smokers understood it well.
“I totally get it,” says Josh Abrams, 28, who works in advertising sales in New York. “He leaves it open, so it wouldn’t make him a liar if he were seen with a cigarette.”
“I do the same thing,” says Abrams, who like Obama is quitting partly for domestic reasons (Michelle Obama demanded that her husband quit; Abrams’ fiancee, Cori, has done the same). “When people ask, I say, ‘I’m on my way.’ ‘I’m in the process.’ ‘I’m getting there.”’
Abrams does have a looming deadline: the end of 2008. If he fails, he knows his fiancee will be sorely disappointed.
But let’s face it, that’s nothing compared to letting down an entire nation.
And many have high hopes, among them at least one newspaper’s editorial board. “With New Year’s almost upon us, and quitting bound to top many a resolution list, the nation’s smokers — and possibly future ones — might be expected to turn their eyes to Obama,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote this week. “And here, we hope, the president-elect will — with the loving encouragement of his wife and daughters, no doubt — set an example that will lead him and other Americans to healthier living.”
A similar hope, albeit with no implied timetable, comes from Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
“He’s shown a firm commitment to beat this addiction even though no one could have tried under more stressful circumstances,” Myers says. “It takes courage to admit failure, but even more courage to pledge to succeed.”