Friday, August 1, 2008

Too Fit to be President?

“Speaking to donors at a San Diego fund-raiser last month, Barack Obama reassured the crowd that he wouldn't give in to Republican tactics to throw his candidacy off track. ‘Listen, I'm skinny but I'm tough,’ Sen. Obama said. But in a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them. ‘He's too new ... and he needs to put some meat on his bones,’ says Diana Koenig, 42, a housewife in Corpus Christi, Texas, who says she voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. ‘I won't vote for any beanpole guy,’ another Clinton supporter wrote last week on a Yahoo politics message board. The last overweight president to be elected was 335-pound William Howard Taft in 1908. As for tall and lanky presidents, ‘you might have to go back to Abraham Lincoln’ in 1860, says presidential historian Stephen Hess. ‘Most presidents were sort of in the middle.’ According to Sen. Obama's Chicago physician David Scheiner, the senator works out regularly, jogs up to three miles a day when he can, and has ‘no excess body fat.’ While most voters don't base their decision on physical appearance alone, a candidate's height, weight and overall look can play a big role in what Americans perceive as ‘presidential,’ says Thomas ‘Mack’ McLarty, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Struggles with weight-loss, on the other hand, can make a candidate seem more human. Some aides winced when footage of a sweat-drenched Mr. Clinton jogging into a McDonald's in Little Rock, Ark., aired ahead of the 1992 campaign. But the footage is widely believed to have helped the then-governor of Arkansas connect to voters in conservative-leaning states like Georgia and Tennessee, which eluded Democrats in 2000 and 2004. These states have a statistically higher number of overweight people than Democratic strongholds. ‘It says: 'He's just like one of us,’ says Arthur English, a political-science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who used to see Mr. Clinton stop in for fries and a Big Mac after his three-mile jog.”

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