I write before knowing the results of the American presidential election, but I am still wondering whether Barack Obama might have done better if he hadn’t given up smoking. That may sound silly when everyone knows that America is a country full of anti-smoking fanatics where even hardened criminals migrate humbly from the bars to the sidewalks of New York to have a cigarette. I even remember reading somewhere during the 2008 election campaign that Obama’s smoking habit would be more of an impediment to his winning than the colour of his skin.
But there was also an article in the New York Times saying that he had been wrong to give up smoking and should take it up again so as to earn the support of the blue-collar workers who had flocked to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Its author, Tony Horwitz, made the point that Americans on low incomes smoked at twice the rate of the better off, and that most of them lived in the states where Obama had polled worst in the primaries.
They saw him as ‘aloof, over-groomed and fussy about eating the right foods and getting enough exercise’, so taking up smoking again ‘would go a long way towards dispelling his effete image’. (What redneck would vote for a man whose favourite food was steamed broccoli and favourite drink an obscure organic brew called Black Forest Berry Honest Tea?) Another persuasive point made by Horwitz was that ‘indulging in a vice stigmatised by most Americans is an easy way to bond with people with whom you otherwise have nothing in common’.
It’s been true again in this election that Obama’s support has been weakest among white males, the category in which smoking is most prevalent. But for him to have taken up smoking again at this stage would have looked extremely feeble. For in fact, contrary to what most people believed at the time, he hadn’t given up smoking during the 2008 campaign but was still at it then and would continue to be so intermittently for another three years. For it has been five years since he first publicly declared his intention to give up, and it was only last year that he was finally said to have succeeded. In their annual medical report of 2011 his doctors declared him to be ‘tobacco free’, whereas only a year earlier they had urged him to continue his ‘smoking cessation efforts’ with nicotine chewing-gum.
Such lack of willpower would be injurious to the reputation of any president but especially so to one so calm and controlled and disciplined as Obama is supposed to be. There is also the feeling that he has been somewhat shifty on the whole subject of himself and cigarettes. In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he freely admitted to having been a heavy smoker, but then during his first run for the presidency it was stated that he had given up under pressure from his wife Michelle, who had made it a condition of her support that he did so. But gradually it transpired that he hadn’t. Months after arriving in the White House, he admitted there were times ‘where I mess up’ as far as smoking was concerned. ‘I constantly struggle with it,’ he said. ‘Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No.’
Why am I banging on about this, you may wonder. Well, I have a special interest, because I gave up smoking on 20 January 2008, the day of Obama’s inauguration as president. But unlike him, I haven’t had a cigarette since. My reason for choosing that particular day to quit was my confidence that, once installed in the White House, the new president would be compelled to stop smoking and that my resolve would be boosted by his example. The White House had been declared smoke-free by Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady; and, for all I knew, smoking in it by a president might have become an impeachable offence. But even if it hadn’t, I couldn’t imagine how Obama would ever find the time or the place to sneak a cigarette, especially when he was living under the watchful eyes of two fierce anti-smokers, the First Lady and the Secretary of State,
But I was wrong. He somehow managed to go on smoking until last year when, according to Michelle, he finally gave up because his daughters, Malia and Sasha, had reached an age when they had to be warned against smoking, and he didn’t want to tell them not to do it when he was still having the occasional cigarette. That is a very wet reason. Naturally, I feel most disappointed.
I gave up smoking on the day of Obama’s inauguration as president. But unlike him, I haven’t had a cigarette since
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012