By AMY CHOZICK
Speaking to donors at a San Diego fund-raiser last month, Barack Obama reassured the crowd that he wouldn’t give in to Republican tactics to throw his candidacy off track.
“Listen, I’m skinny but I’m tough,” Sen. Obama said.
“It says: ‘He’s just like one of us,”’ says Arthur English, a political-science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who used to see Mr. Clinton stop in for fries and a Big Mac after his three-mile jog.
Sen. Clinton has said she tried Weight Watchers to keep the pounds off during her presidential bid – a tidbit that appealed to her core of middle-age female supporters that Sen. Obama is now trying to woo.
Sen. Obama is not without vices. According to Dr. Scheiner’s medical report, he has quit smoking “on several occasions and is currently using Nicorette gum with success.” People close to the senator say he began smoking nearly three decades ago and smoked about five cigarettes a day.
Some voters say that even this adds to Sen. Obama’s somewhat superhuman persona. “I mean, really, who quits smoking and doesn’t gain any weight?” says 30- year-old Stella Metsovas, from Laguna Beach, Calif.
Facing an Overweight
Electorate, Barack Obama
Might Find Low Body Fat a
By AMY CHOZICK
Speaking to donors at a San Diego fund-raiser last month, Barack Obama reassured
the crowd that he wouldn’t give in to Republican tactics to throw his candidacy off
“Listen, I’m skinny but I’m tough,” Sen. Obama said.
But in a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is
obese, could Sen. Obama’s skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses,
ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just
might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them.
The candidate has been criticized by opponents for appearing elitist or out of touch
with average Americans. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in July
shows Sen. Obama still lags behind Republican John McCain among white men and
suburban women who say they can’t relate to his background or perceived values.
“He’s too new … and he needs to put some meat on his bones,” says Diana Koenig, 42,
a housewife in Corpus Christi, Texas, who says she voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the
“I won’t vote for any beanpole guy,” another Clinton supporter wrote last week on a
Yahoo politics message board.
The last overweight president to be elected was 335-pound William Howard Taft in
1908. As for tall and lanky presidents, “you might have to go back to Abraham
Lincoln” in 1860, says presidential historian Stephen Hess. “Most presidents were sort of
in the middle.”
Vote & Discuss
Does physical appearance affect your impression of the president? Would a
candidate’s body type factor in to your decision for president? Vote and discuss.
According to Sen. Obama’s Chicago physician David Scheiner, the senator works out
regularly, jogs up to three miles a day when he can, and has “no excess body fat.”
Dr. Scheiner didn’t disclose his patient’s exact weight, but medical observers estimate
that the 6-foot-1.5-inch-tall senator appears to weigh at least 10 pounds less than the
roughly 190 pounds that the average American man of his height weighs. The
Obama campaign declined to comment for this article.
Though Sen. McCain cannot lift weights due to injuries he suffered as a prisoner of war
in Vietnam, he “walked the Grand Canyon rim to rim in August 2006” and hikes
whenever he can find the time, according to John D. Eckstein, an internist in
Scottsdale, Ariz., who treats Sen. McCain. At roughly 165 pounds, his weight is slightly
above average for a 5-foot-7-inch man his age, according to nutritionists.
While most voters don’t base their decision on physical appearance alone, a
candidate’s height, weight and overall look can play a big role in what Americans
perceive as “presidential,” says Thomas “Mack” McLarty, former chief of staff to
President Bill Clinton.
Throw in the calories involved in a modern-day presidential campaign — often
compared to a beauty pageant and a competitive eating contest rolled into one —
and presidential candidates have an added challenge.
“It’s very difficult to eat well when you’re constantly on the road, attending dinners,
lunches, barbecues,” says New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. He says he grew a beard
when he withdrew his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in January “to
hide one of my chins.”
Sen. Obama, 46, wasn’t always svelte, and friends and family members have
described him as a “chubby” child growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii.
Raised by a Midwestern grandmother, Sen. Obama didn’t begin to slim down until he
played basketball regularly in high school.
These days he stays away from junk food and instead snacks on MET-Rx chocolate
roasted-peanut protein bars and drinks Black Forest Berry Honest Tea, a healthy
organic brew. (Sen. McCain is said to have a weakness for Butterfinger candy bars,
jelly beans, and coffee and doughnuts from Dunkin’ Donuts.)
On a campaign stop in May at Lew’s Dari-Freeze in Milwaukie, Ore., Sen. Obama’s
wife, Michelle, and their two daughters ate ice-cream sundaes and onion rings, while
Sen. Obama grinned for the cameras and swirled a spoon around in his quickly
melting ice-cream concoction, taking only a few nibbles.
During a July family appearance on “Access Hollywood,” Sen. Obama’s 7-year-old
daughter, Sasha, revealed that her dad doesn’t like ice cream or sweets. “Everybody
should like ice cream,” she said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a self-described “recovering foodaholic” who
shed 110 pounds from his 5-foot-11 frame in two years and made fitness and nutrition
central to his White House run, says voters “probably want someone who takes care of
his health … as an example of the kind of personal discipline necessary to do the job.”
But too much time in the gym can cause problems, as Sen. Obama learned last
month after he made three stops to local Chicago gyms in one day, for a total of 188
minutes. The marathon workout session sparked a widely circulated Associated Press
article titled “Obama Becomes a Gym Rat.” In it, the reporter wrote, “Sometimes it’s
hard to tell if Barack Obama is running for president of the United States or Mr.
Republicans have recently picked up on the senator’s fitness regimen. On
Wednesday, the McCain campaign launched a new ad titled “Celeb” that compares
Sen. Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. In a memo to reporters explaining the
ad, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis wrote, “Only celebrities like Barack
Obama go to the gym three times a day.”
Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass says likening Sen. Obama to a Hollywood
celebrity shows that Sen. McCain “is engaging in the same old negative politics of Karl
Rove” that Americans are tired of.
Food faux pas have plagued presidential candidates in the past. On a 1976 visit to
Texas, Gerald Ford bit into a tamale with the corn husk still on. He lost the election to
Jimmy Carter. In 2003, Mass. Sen. John Kerry was labeled effete when he ordered a
Philly cheesesteak with Swiss instead of the usual Cheez Whiz topping.
Sen. Obama’s chief message strategist Robert Gibbs served as Sen. Kerry’s press
secretary during the cheesesteak debacle. A few days later at the Iowa State Fair,
famous for its deep-fried Twinkies and beer booths, Mr. Gibbs noticed Sen. Kerry
buying a $4 strawberry smoothie. He made a frantic call to campaign staffers:
“Somebody get a f-ing corn dog in his hand — now!”
Sen. Obama drew cringes on a campaign stop in Adel, Iowa, in July 2007, when he
asked a crowd of farmers: “Anybody gone into a Whole Foods lately and seen what
they charge for arugula?” The upscale supermarket specializing in organic food
doesn’t have a single store in Iowa.
Lately, Sen. Obama is more careful. On a campaign stop in Lebanon, Mo., on
Wednesday, Sen. Obama visited with voters at Bell’s Diner and promptly announced
“Well, I’ve had lunch today but I’m thinking maybe there is some pie.”
He settled on fried chicken and told the crowd he’s become a junk-food lover. “The
healthy people, we’ll give them the breasts,” he told the waitress. “I’ll eat the wings.”
Struggles with weight-loss, on the other hand, can make a candidate seem more
human. Some aides winced when footage of a sweat-drenched Mr. Clinton jogging
into a McDonald’s in Little Rock, Ark., aired ahead of the 1992 campaign. But the
footage is widely believed to have helped the then-governor of Arkansas connect to
voters in conservative-leaning states like Georgia and Tennessee, which eluded
Democrats in 2000 and 2004. These states have a statistically higher number of
overweight people than Democratic strongholds.
“It says: ‘He’s just like one of us,”‘ says Arthur English, a political-science professor at the
University of Arkansas at Little Rock who used to see Mr. Clinton stop in for fries and a
Big Mac after his three-mile jog.
Sen. Clinton has said she tried Weight Watchers to keep the pounds off during her
presidential bid — a tidbit that appealed to her core of middle-age female supporters
that Sen. Obama is now trying to woo.
Sen. Obama is not without vices. According to Dr. Scheiner’s medical report, he has
quit smoking “on several occasions and is currently using Nicorette gum with success.”
People close to the senator say he began smoking nearly three decades ago and
smoked about five cigarettes a day.
Some voters say that even this adds to Sen. Obama’s somewhat superhuman
persona. “I mean, really, who quits smoking and doesn’t gain any weight?” says 30-
year-old Stella Metsovas, an Obama supporter in Laguna Beach, Calif.