May 17, 2012 in Opinion

The first female president

Dana Milbank
 

WASHINGTON – The current issue of Newsweek has a photo of President Barack Obama with a rainbow-colored halo superimposed over his head and the title “The First Gay President.”

Nonsense. Obama is not the first gay president. He is the first female president.

Consider his activities on Monday: He sat down to tape a session with the ladies of ABC’s “The View” – his fourth appearance on the talk show by women and for (mostly) women. He accepted an award from Barnard College and gave the commencement speech to graduates of the women’s school. Heck, he even appeared in public wearing a gown.

Obama was still early in his address when he acknowledged that his praise for the young generation of women is “a cheap applause line when you’re giving a commencement at Barnard.”

But Obama was being modest. He didn’t deliver a cheap applause line. He delivered an entire speech full of them. His re-election campaign has been working for months to exploit the considerable gender gap, which puts him far ahead of likely GOP rival Mitt Romney among women. But Monday’s activities veered into pandering, as Obama brazenly flaunted his feminine mystique.

He speculated that “Congress would get a lot more done” if more women were there. He speculated that, although no women signed the Constitution, “we can assume that there were founding mothers whispering smarter things in the ears of the founding fathers.”

He announced that “more and more women are out-earning their husbands. You’re more than half of our college graduates and master’s graduates and Ph.D.s.” He told them that they are “poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.”

And they can look good doing it! “You can be stylish and powerful, too,” he said. “That’s Michelle’s advice.” The first lady, the couple’s two daughters, and the president’s mother and mother-in-law had recurring roles as “strong, remarkable women” in the speech.

There were some ironies in the appearance. When the White House asked Barnard for the commencement speaking role, the college dumped its original speaker, Jill Abramson. In addition to being an actual woman, Abramson is the first of her sex to become executive editor of the New York Times.

Obama made no mention of Abramson, but he did mention that he knows the past three Barnard commencement speakers, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose presidential aspirations Obama dashed. Obama was moved to paraphrase an old adage: “Keep your friends close and your Barnard commencement speakers even closer.”

In making the appearance on the Ivy League campus in Manhattan, Obama risked confirming that he is the coastal elitist he’s often accused of being. On that score, it perhaps didn’t help that he shared the stage with fellow honoree Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry. The president nodded as Wolfson was hailed for fighting the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters.

Barnard President Debora Spar, bestowing a medal on Obama, lauded his support of same-sex marriage and his furthering of “a whole lot smarter world.” More helpful to Obama’s theme was Spar’s praise of his appointment of a “long list of gifted and remarkable women leaders.”

Obama had a list of his own – an itemization of the various things he has done for women, from signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to his appointment of Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. He said his labor secretary was told by her high school guidance counselor that she “should think about becoming a secretary. … And, lo and behold, Hilda Solis did end up becoming a secretary.”

The young women applauded and cheered lines about “equal pay for equal work,” controlling “decisions about your own health” and many others. “We are better off when women are treated fairly and equally in every aspect of American life,” Obama told them, urging them to “fight for a seat at the head of the table.”

Obama made a fair and at times inspirational argument, but the tone seemed more suited to campaign than campus, particularly when he, toward the end, lifted lines from his stump speech. “If you’re willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be,” he said, raising his voice, “I want you to know that I will be right there with you.”

The president departed – he had to get to Barbara, Whoopi, Joy, Elisabeth and Sherri – but not before sharing hugs and kisses with the other women onstage.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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