06/11/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

Dr. O & The Women

I caught a piece of BBC TV news about Michelle Obama one hot afternoon in Nairobi last summer. I was standing on the balcony beside some orange-blossomed flame tulip trees, thinking about the group of young Congolese refugee girls I was working with, when my first lady's voice brought me back into the apartment.

The TV segment covered Mrs. Obama's trip to Oxford to speak with a group of teenaged girls from a school with a majority of students under the poverty line from refugee familes. She was describing why she ended up with Barack Obama in particular as her husband. Two things she said had me at hello: that what attracted her was Obama's respect for his mother, his relationship to women in general, and that she also "always thought he would be useful."

Perhaps because these girls from Congo were the first young people whose well-being I'd had a chance to substantially effect, I suddenly cared a lot more about what political figureheads were saying. I suppose parenthood would have affected me similarly, would have made clear to me that human interest is an interest in politics. When I started to care actively about the well-being of specific young and underpriveleged people, I started to be more interested in politics, and while "politics" can be described many ways, I'd describe it as a system that determines the allocation and availability of that well-being.

It's election season, the air is nasty: I'm going to keep this simple. When I vote for Barack Obama, I vote for the women he loves and honors, the women he respects enough to appoint to office, and many of the actions, appointments, and stances those women take. When I vote for Obama, I vote with these things in mind because the character of my president is illuminated by the character of the people he chooses to surround himself with (his wife not least among them).

When I vote for Barack Obama, I vote for Hillary Clinton's exemplary performance as Secretary of State, opening up an office for Global Youth Issues that is pioneering similar youth representative activities at U.S. embassies in Africa and the middle east. I vote for Clinton's shrewd use of smart power to bring technology, global youth issues, and women's rights to the forefront and draw clearly (for those somehow not yet convinced) the line between those things and our national security.

When I vote for Barack Obama, I vote for Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who is caught in as many lines of critical fire as Secretary Clinton but who bravely faces the Twitterverse anyway. Rice is arguably doing more about the carnage in Syria than any other public figure in America. She swore that after the Clinton administration didn't act on the Rwandan genocide she'd rather go "down in flames" than fail that way again. When I vote for Barack Obama I vote for Rice, who he chose to advise him on foreign policy before nominating her for her current position at the U.N.

When I vote for Barack Obama, I vote for Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democrary and Global Affairs and microfinance maven (seriously, check out her history as CEO of Accion International). I effectively vote for Anne-Marie Slaughter, who both worked at State as Policy Planning Director and had the courage to criticize the Obama administration's stance on Libya. I vote for a president whose administration has included those who disagree with him, because when I do, I vote for those appointees (or appointees of appointees) who stand up to him. I expect democracy to be founded on and with informed debate, and I don't want a head of state who prefers the lone wolfitude of stubborn defiance to a challenge from a passionate and informed peer. One of the things I mistrusted about George W. Bush wasn't simply his disposition, it was what I saw of those of Cheney, Rove, and other top advisors of his. That administration struck me as less an engine of problem-solving ideas than a bulldozer.

I don't think a differently-personalitied candidate than Obama is incapable of appointing strong women, of course, or that for women working in these positions for Obama it's somehow a gender-stereotype-free cakewalk... or that I agree with every move made by every woman President Obama had a direct or indirect hand in hiring. But it's 2012, and every day the self esteem of billions of young women is on the line, including my friends in Congo, women who see themselves reflected in the face of my first lady -- and as Mandy Moore put it recently in favor of positive role models, "girls cannot be what they cannot see." When I voted for Obama in the first place (and, lest I be pegged as a just-because-she's-a-girl-er, I did vote for him and not for Clinton in the primary, though I also whooped with joy when I heard she would be Secretary of State), I voted in part because I saw an ocean of difference between the kind of attitude projected by Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Obama, and I felt our country could benefit from Mrs. Obama almost as much as it would from her Mister. I'd rather vote for a person whose respect for women attracted his wife to him than a person whose disrespect and bullying of his boyhood peers has horrified millions of his prospective constituents, as is the case with Mitt Romney. Bullying is a symptom of a nationwide cultural disease that is killing our adolescents, and I consider it one of our most pressing problems. I don't want to vote for someone who has practiced social abuse, male or female, and I don't want to vote for those people that person might involve in the running of my country.

I remember feeling boggled by Howard Dean's fall from popularity because of a shreiking sound he made in excitement. If we had elected him, we would have elected more than a scream --more than one man, even. When we elect a president, we elect a huge and intricate network of people: we elect administration, and I don't see that fact reflected nearly enough in mainstream political news. I voted for Obama in part because I saw him dismiss gaffes of his opponents as just what they were -- unworthy of the media attention they were getting --instead of capitalizing on them. "This dude seems sensible enough to get good things done," I thought.

Whaddya know. One of the reasons Michelle married Barack is the reason I voted for him: we both figured he'd come in handy.