WHEN I listen to President Obama speak to and about women, he sometimes sounds too paternalistic for my taste. In numerous appearances over the years — most recently at the Barnard graduation — he has made reference to how women are smarter than men. It’s all so tired, the kind of fake praise showered upon those one views as easy to impress. As I listen, I am always bracing for the old go-to cliché: “Behind every great man is a great woman.”
A Barnard graduate during President Barack Obama's commencement address.
Some women are smarter than men and some aren’t. But to suggest to women that they deserve dominance instead of equality is at best a cheap applause line.
My bigger concern is that in courting women, Mr. Obama’s campaign so far has seemed maddeningly off point. His message to the Barnard graduates was that they should fight for a “seat at the table” — the head seat, he made sure to add. He conceded that it’s a tough economy, but he told the grads, “I am convinced you are tougher” and “things will get better — they always do.”
Hardly reassuring words when you look at the reality. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, about 53.6 percent of men and women under the age of 25 who hold bachelor’s degrees were jobless or underemployed last year, the most in at least 11 years. According to the Pew Research Center, if we broaden the age group to 18- to 29-year-olds, an estimated 37 percent are unemployed or out of the work force, the highest share in more than three decades.
The human faces shouldn’t get lost amid the statistics. I spent last weekend with a friend who attended excellent private schools and graduated from Tufts University two years ago. She’s intelligent, impressive and still looking for a full-time job.
The women I know who are struggling in this economy couldn’t be further from the fictional character of Julia, presented in Mr. Obama’s Web ad, “The Life of Julia,” a silly and embarrassing caricature based on the assumption that women look to government at every meaningful phase of their lives for help.
My cousin in Louisiana started a small company with a little savings, renovating houses. A single mom, she saved enough to buy a home and provide child care for her son. When the economy went belly up, so did her company. She was forced to sell her home and move in with her parents. She has found another job, but doesn’t make enough to move out. Family, not government, has been everything to her at this time of crisis. She, and they, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Another member of my family left her job at an adoption agency just before the economy crashed. Also a single mother, she has been looking for a way back to a full-time job ever since. She has been selling things on eBay to make ends meet. Friends and family, not government, have been there at the dire moments when she has asked them to be. Again, she, and they, wouldn’t have it any other way.
This is not to say that government doesn’t play a role in their lives. It does and it should. But it isn’t a dominant one, and certainly not an overwhelming factor in their daily existence.
It’s obvious why the president is doing a full-court press for the vote of college-educated women in particular. The Republican primaries probably did turn some women away. Rick Santorum did his party no favors when he spoke about women in combat (“I think that can be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved”); when he described the birth of a child from rape as “a gift in a very broken way”; and how, if he was president, he would make the case for the damage caused by contraception.
But Mitt Romney will never be confused with Rick Santorum on these issues, and many women understand that. (I should disclose here that my husband is an adviser to Mr. Romney; I have no involvement with any campaign, and have been an independent journalist throughout my career.) The struggling women in my life all laughed when I asked them if contraception or abortion rights would be a major factor in their decision about this election. For them, and for most other women, the economy overwhelms everything else.
Another recent Pew Research Center survey found that voters, when thinking about whom to vote for in the fall, are most concerned about the economy (86 percent) and jobs (84 percent). Near the bottom of the list were some of the hot-button social issues.
Tiffany Dufu, who heads the White House Project, a nonpartisan group aimed at training young women for careers in politics and business, got a similar response when she informally polled young women in her organization. “The issues that have been defined as all women care about are way off — young women feel it has put them further in a box they don’t necessarily want to be in,” she told me. “Independence is what is so important to these women.”
I have always admired President Obama and I agree with him on some issues, like abortion rights. But the promise of his campaign four years ago has given way to something else — a failure to connect with tens of millions of Americans, many of them women, who feel economic opportunity is gone and are losing hope. In an effort to win them back, Mr. Obama is trying too hard. He’s employing a tone that can come across as grating and even condescending. He really ought to drop it. Most women don’t want to be patted on the head or treated as wards of the state. They simply want to be given a chance to succeed based on their talent and skills. To borrow a phrase from our president’s favorite president, Abraham Lincoln, they want “an open field and a fair chance.”
In the second decade of the 21st century, that isn’t asking too much.
Campbell Brown is a former news anchor for CNN and NBC.