Call it the Mister Rogers Effect: Moms want their kids to grow up in a neighborhood where the adults are virtuous. Whether it's the baker, the postman, the mayor, or even the President, we want our children to have role models who are kind, generous, truthful. The kind of people your children could safely emulate.
During the most recent debate, some of us sat down with our children to see President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney discuss foreign policy. They disagreed on many things, particularly on Romney's auto bailout position. For a few uncomfortable minutes, one accused the other of lying, until Romney suggested people at home should simply look it up. They did. For the days following the debate, Romney's 2008 editorial about how he'd handle the Detroit automakers was the most-read story on the NYT's website. So, who was telling the truth? Romney was deemed more accurate, but his success in this particular exchange is hardly earth shattering. What is significant is that voters, rather Americans, are realizing the President is not who we hoped he was.
"Here's what upset me last night, this playing fast and loose with facts," David Letterman said on his show. "Now, I don't care whether you're Republican or Democrat, you want your president to be telling the truth... And so when we found out today or soon thereafter that, in fact, President Obama was not telling the truth about what was excerpted from that op-ed piece, I felt discouraged."
"Discouraged" is a far cry from the sunny optimism that at one time characterized Americans. Even those who disagreed with the president's politics were a little misty eyed at seeing the first black man to sit in the Oval Office. When my husband and I later adopted a toddler from Africa, part of me was delighted by the fact that she was immigrating to a country with an African-American leader. But since those moments of hope, something strange happened. Obama—and consequently, our neighborhood—somehow managed to get smaller, more crass, more cynical.
The most recent example is when his campaign released an ad featuring hipster Lena Dunham comparing voting to Obama to surrendering one's virginity:
"Your first time shouldn't be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy... someone who really cares about and understands women... It's super uncool to be out and about and someone says 'did you vote?' and [you reply] 'no, I didn't feel—I wasn't ready.'"‰" The Weekly Standard wrote, "The President of the United States running a campaign ad implying that young women who don't let themselves get pressured into sex are 'super uncool' is more than enough to make any normal person's head explode." Of course, Twitter did erupt. "Is it too much to ask that the President's campaign ads be workplace safe?" someone tweeted. Parody ads popped up. But the damage was done. The President had released an ad mocking sexual purity, just to win votes among the college age demographic.
We wanted him to be great. To inspire. To soar. Instead he became smaller, almost bent on taking us down with him.
Recently, a friend's first grader was assigned a biography of the president for Great Americans Day. "How bad would it be for me to ask my child to switch books?" the mom asked me. There was a time in the very recent past when I would've responded with a gentle reprimand. "Come on," I would've said. "He's our President, he's a good man, he's accomplished a great deal."
Rather, that's how I would've answered it. She happened to ask me six weeks after extremists murdered four American diplomats in Libya, and the President had still not told us what really happened. In the second debate, when Obama defended his lack of military response to the attack, his focus was all on semantics. He parsed his words, he covered his legacy. It was tragic and disappointing, because we wanted justice. We wanted to understand. We wanted honesty. We didn't want a President to assign blame, before heading off to Las Vegas for a fundraiser.
In fact, it was Fred Rogers who said, "You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are."
Moms know this: a complex world requires nuanced responses to terrible events, but we want our leaders to be honest, courageous, and responsible. We are raising children to become adults, to build families, to create businesses, to serve this country in uniform. Sadly, none of us really live in Mister Rogers' neighborhood, with its astroturf lawns and closets full of perfectly pressed sweaters. Life is complicated and dangerous and sometimes scary. We want leaders who rise above it and illustrate how to navigate the complexities of this world with as much virtue and grace as possible.
The problem with this campaign season is not that moms are realizing Obama is not the President we wanted him to be. Much more tragically, he's not the man we wanted him to be.