WASHINGTON – Of all the things President-elect Barack Obama needs right now, one of them surely isn't a new set of lofty expectations on his well-burdened shoulders. But recent attention to Obama's on-and-off smoking habit has pinned a new kind of audacious hope to him. Anti-smoking advocates are counting on Obama as a role model for others trying to kick the habit, showing them — and himself — that while it's hard, all things are indeed possible in America.
More pressure? One imagines the very thought might send Obama back to the privacy of his yard to light up. In seriousness, though, his familiar plight — a former smoker who says he's quit, but admittedly falls off the wagon — is potentially "the ultimate teachable moment," as one anti-smoking advocate puts it.
"It's a wonderful opportunity," says Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington-based group that seeks to prevent smoking among young people. "The president-elect is in a position to help people understand that it's difficult to quit, and to encourage the 43 million adult Americans who smoke to join him in his efforts."
Obama can perhaps thank Tom Brokaw for renewing the chatter about his smoking habit. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Brokaw noted Obama had "ducked" the smoking question previously, and asked if he'd indeed quit, noting the White House is a no-smoking zone. (And Obama has his incoming secretary of state, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, to thank for THAT.)
"I have," Obama said. "What I said was that there are times where I have fallen off the wagon."
"Wait a minute," said Brokaw, "that means you haven't stopped."
"Fair enough," Obama said. "What I would say is that I have done a terrific job under the circumstances of making myself much healthier. And I think that you will not see any violations of these rules in the White House."
Hmm. Immediately his response was seen as full of holes. (What about OUTSIDE the White House? What about UNSEEN violations?) As, of course, it was. And smokers understood it well.
"I do the same thing," says Abrams, who like Obama is quitting partly for domestic reasons (Michelle Obama demanded that her husband quit; Abrams' fiancee, Cori, has done the same). "When people ask, I say, 'I'm on my way.' 'I'm in the process.' 'I'm getting there.'"
Abrams does have a looming deadline: the end of 2008. If he fails, he knows his fiancee will be sorely disappointed.
But let's face it, that's nothing compared to letting down an entire nation.
And many have high hopes, among them at least one newspaper's editorial board. "With New Year's almost upon us, and quitting bound to top many a resolution list, the nation's smokers — and possibly future ones — might be expected to turn their eyes to Obama," the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote this week. "And here, we hope, the president-elect will — with the loving encouragement of his wife and daughters, no doubt — set an example that will lead him and other Americans to healthier living."
"He's shown a firm commitment to beat this addiction even though no one could have tried under more stressful circumstances," Myers says. "It takes courage to admit failure, but even more courage to pledge to succeed."
One might think, given Obama's clear ability to influence children in many ways, not to mention his own two daughters, that anti-smoking advocates would find him a disappointment on this issue.
Yet they say his foible makes him more human, and better able to teach by example.
"I cheered when I saw him acknowledge to Tom Brokaw the very human reaction that he's fallen off the wagon," says Myers. And the fact that he has two young daughters? "That makes him an even better role model."
If he occasionally lights up, he won't be the most recent White House occupant to do so. First lady Laura Bush, who quit a lifelong smoking habit at least a decade ago, reportedly will bum a cigarette from friends on occasion.
All the positive wishes sent out to Obama might be just the motivator he needs to close the deal. Or maybe not, says Dr. David Jorenby, a specialist in smoking cessation.
"Some smokers who are trying to quit actively want people to check up on them," says Jorenby, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "For others, it drives them up the wall. One size does not fit all."
Obama has done a lot right, says Jorenby. First, he hasn't tried to go cold turkey, but rather is using nicotine replacement, in the form of Nicorette. Those using the gum are 1 1/2 times more likely to quit than those using a placebo, health officials have found.
Even more important, Obama keeps trying. "Relapsing is very common," Jorenby says, with a typical smoker making four to six attempts before getting it right. (Healton puts it even higher, at eight to 11 attempts.)
One common reaction to Obama's smoking is that it's a mystifying contradiction to the rest of his personality — to the famous discipline that keeps him working out every single day, and helped him run one of the more successful campaigns in U.S. politics.
Jorenby says such logic is a fallacy. "They're not mutually exclusive," he says of discipline and smoking. For one thing, a cigarette often helps smokers concentrate — one reason it's so hard to stop. "The thought of not being able to think clearly is terrifying to them," he says.
And also, people often ignore the fact that tobacco addiction is a chemical dependency. "This is not simply a bad habit that one uses willpower to stamp out," he says.
Tongue in cheek, Rosenbaum imagines a day in the winter of 2009 when an international crisis has erupted. "Do you want Barack Obama, the guy who has his finger on our nuclear trigger ... all irritable, his nerves and famously smooth temper on edge?"
"Give Obama a break," writes Rosenbaum, who makes clear he's not advocating cigarettes for others. "A smoking break."