Opinion

Obama’s Push for More Female Leaders Gets Help From Men Acting Out

“Men have been getting on my nerves lately,” ex-president says

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, shown here with former first lady Michelle Obama when their official portraits were unveiled earlier this year, wants more women to take leadership roles.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — Former President Barack Obama has not been a headline fixture since he left office. In fact, with a few exceptions, the opposite has been true, maybe because he feels it’s better to keep his political distance in this partisan time or because he’s holding off in order to make a greater impact when he decides to speak up. But last week, Obama did make a bit of news when he encouraged more women to take leadership roles because “men have been getting on my nerves lately.”

Obama certainly could have been talking about certain men who were particularly vexing during his own time in the White House, and have continued to bedevil Democrats (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for starters).

But he did not have to take a stroll down memory lane.

The words were heard all the way from Johannesburg, where he was speaking to emerging leaders from across the continent at a workshop that featured accomplished women such as children’s rights activist and Nelson Mandela’s widow Graça Machel and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

But was Obama being a leader himself with these words or just following the lead of the women who are running for office, including in his home country this election cycle? (That country would be the United States, for all of those who have yet to get the memo, or the birth certificate.)

A record number of women are running for the House and Senate, many nonincumbents, Democrats and Republicans — and that goes for races in the states as well. There also has been an uptick in female campaign donors, as Roll Call reported.

Proving a negative

It would be folly to lump the candidates’ campaigns together. Each is an individual, with positions and policies suited to specific constituents and locations. But they have had some help from an assortment of male politicians who seem determined to prove Obama’s point.

Arguably the most powerful man in the world, Donald Trump, was the impetus for many of the political hopefuls to stop waiting for someone else to take the lead. You can see that in the gender gap in his presidential support, though his popularity among women varies widely along differences in age, race and education.

But the fact that Trump ended his successful 2016 campaign explaining away a tape bragging about grabbing women and is currently explaining a taped conversation discussing payment to buy the rights to a woman’s potentially embarrassing story does not give the president any moral ground to stand on in the time of #MeToo. However, the women still standing in his corner, including evangelical stalwarts quoted in a recent Washington Post story, continue to echo sentiments similar to those expressed in one of Trump’s own early morning tweets.

As a leader of men and women, Trump’s strongest words are reserved not for the Vladimir Putins of our sometimes dangerous world, but for the media.

Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars this week in a speech that sounded more like a campaign rally than a tribute to those who served, Trump, as usual, said of the press, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people.” It was left to the organization to later state: “We were disappointed to hear some of our members boo the press during President Trump’s remarks,” reminding the hecklers that a free press is one of the values they have fought to protect.

The head of the nation’s Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, showed a group of conservative high school students who was boss when he repeated and nervously chuckled at their chant of “lock her up,” referring to Hillary Clinton, someone who has not been convicted of a crime.

Hall of shame

Georgia could have its own hall of fame of men behaving badly, taking just the past weeks into consideration. Jason Spencer, a Republican state lawmaker, has mercifully resigned after yelling racist slurs and baring his backside for the cameras — then saying comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made him do it. Last year, Spencer had warned former state Rep. LaDawn Jones, a black woman, that if she continued to call for the removal of Confederate statues, she would not be “met with torches but something a lot more definitive,” suggesting she might “go missing in the Okefenokee” swamp, recalling shameful episodes in our nation’s shockingly recent past.

After Tuesday’s primary runoff in Georgia, it was decided with his victory over lieutenant governor Casey Cagle that Secretary of State Brian Kemp, with the backing of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, would face Democrat Stacey Abrams in the fall governor’s race. Kemp’s ads featured a shotgun aimed at his daughter’s potential suitor and the “big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.”

If elected, Abrams would be the country’s first African-American female governor. As my Roll Call colleague Patricia Murphy explained, voters have a clear choice.

Tuesday also had two other Georgia women succeed; gun control activist Lucy McBath and professor Carolyn Bourdeaux won the chance to take on favored Republican House members.

Women don’t have a corner on virtue, but you don’t have to play the “whataboutism” game to realize behaviors and statements that would have long doomed a female candidate are only now becoming close to toxic for their male counterparts, eliciting apologies and excuses that are not exactly profiles in courage.

Obama, as a black man, played by rules he knew were not fair. As president, he could not and did not speak out very often about it — and was roasted when he did. But on another continent, he felt free to talk about the importance of the voices of women and the underrepresented, and why they matter.

Some Democrats wish that the woman leader who would act on the suggestion is not that far away. But while former first lady Michelle Obama’s speeches and “when they go low, we go high” mantra are admired and repeated by many, including current first lady Melania Trump, even Barack Obama might think she has already done, and sacrificed, enough.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.Watch: ‘There’s a Big Step Between Marching and Running’: Former Congresswomen On Getting Women to Run

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