WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama likes to talk about his kids. What parent doesn't?
But Obama isn't just another dad shooting the breeze about his kids' antics in last night's soccer game. He's the president, and he brings up his daughters to explain his thinking on all sorts of combustible national issues.
He's cited Sasha and Malia, now 10 and 13, in discussing everything from the rescue of an American aid worker from Somali pirates to the touchy subject of public access to emergency contraception. His daughters also are prominent in a family photo being used by his re-election campaign.
Most recently, Obama brought up his daughters when asked about conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's reference to college student Sandra Fluke as a "slut" after she testified that birth control should be covered by insurance.
Obama said at a news conference that he'd called Fluke after Limbaugh made his comments "because I thought about Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way, and I don't want them attacked or called horrible names because they're good citizens."
Invoking his daughters is a way for Obama to bring big issues down to human scale, in a disarming way. It also is a reminder to Americans of the president's photogenic family, a priceless political asset in an election year.
The Obamas can be fiercely protective of their daughters' privacy in some ways, complaining if the girls are photographed while out on their own, for example. But they've been more than willing to keep bringing them up in the national conversation and to keep them in the minds of voters as the general election approaches.
A few months ago, Obama brought up the girls in talking about the government's decision to keep the Plan B morning-after pill available only to those 17 or older, rather than allowing it to be openly sold on drugstore shelves.
"As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine," Obama said. He went on to say the drug shouldn't be available for sale to young girls, "and I think most parents would probably feel the same way."
In January, when an American aid worker was rescued from Somali pirates by Navy SEALs, Obama thought aloud about what her father had gone through, and about his own daughters.
"I cannot imagine what he went through – given Malia and Sasha – and for him to be able to stay strong," the president said.
First lady Michelle Obama frequently brings up her daughters while talking about her campaign against childhood obesity. She often tells about how the girls were starting to get off-track before the family's pediatrician gave her a wake-up call.
On a recent four-state tour to promote her "Let's Move" campaign, Mrs. Obama blended stories about her own family with policy pronouncements, offering tips on how she gets her girls to eat healthy snacks and use good manners at the dinner table. She probably got a lot of knowing nods from parents after she related that her daughters aren't all that interested in the White House garden "because anything I do they're not interested in."
Douglas Wead, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush who has written a book about presidential families, said it's no surprise, and no coincidence, that the Obamas want to showcase "a marriage that functions well and a relationship with children that functions well."
"Everything is calculated at that level," he said, adding that he doesn't blame the Obamas for "showing off a little."
But Wead said it can be risky for a president to invoke his children when debating weighty policy matters.
"Jimmy Carter got his hand slapped when he did that," Wead reminded.
In his 1980 re-election campaign, Carter brought up his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, during a presidential debate.
"I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was," Carter said. "She said she thought nuclear weaponry – and the control of nuclear arms. This is a formidable force."
Carter's rival, Republican Ronald Reagan, mocked the answer at a later campaign rally, saying: "I remember when Patty and Ron were little kids, we used to talk about nuclear power."
Obama's on safer footing when he jokes about his daughters to puncture the formality of an event and put people at ease.
When the president visited a Master Lock factory in Milwaukee last month to discuss American manufacturing, he got a laugh from the workers when he told them: "As I was looking at some of the really industrial-size locks, I was thinking about the fact that I am a father of two girls who are soon going to be in high school and that it might come in handy to have these super locks. For now, I'm just counting on the fact that when they go to school there are men with guns with them."
In a similar vein, he told a National Prayer Breakfast last year that he has prayed, "Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance, where there will be boys. Lord, let her skirt get longer as she travels to that place."
The crowd loved it.
But you can imagine Malia groaning, and saying "Oh, Dad."