Campaign dads fit fatherhood between presidential speeches

Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Overnight Energy: US Park Police say ‘tear gas’ statements were ‘mistake’ | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats MORE (D) was headed to the airport after a recent round of Sunday morning talk shows, bound for another barnstorming tour through Iowa — but not until he watched his son’s track meet in Helena.

Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellNASCAR bans display of Confederate flag from events and properties Gloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California Grenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts MORE’s (D-Calif.) son is a frequent flier already. The toddler has boarded, by Swalwell’s estimate, more than 100 flights during his first two years of life.

And minutes before he took the stage at the recent California Democratic Party convention in San Francisco, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeInslee calls on Trump to ‘stay out of Washington state’s business’ Seattle mayor responds to Trump: ‘Go back to your bunker’ Trump warns he will take back Seattle from ‘ugly Anarchists’ if local leaders don’t act MORE (D) stopped to call one of his three grown sons, who had participated in an overnight canoe race the day before. 


While women who run for office are more likely to face the stereotypical — and often insulting — questions about the balance they strike between family and public life, changing societal norms that now demand fathers be more present in their children’s lives have put male candidates under a microscope this year.

“It’s the hardest part of the job,” Swalwell said of his efforts to balance raising two young children while pursuing the presidency. “The biggest smile I get is when I FaceTime my two kids on the road. The best part of the road is when they join me.”

Swalwell is one of the 10 men running for the Democratic presidential nomination who are fathers of school-aged children. Five other men running for the White House have adult children.

But while some of the women running for president have proposed plans to provide paid family leave or more affordable child care, most of the male candidates have not. Swalwell is one of the few male candidates who has made his children a part of his campaign’s narrative; he says his toddler has perfected a crowd-friendly wave.

“We’re going to get him media training pretty soon,” Swalwell said.

Other men running for president have found it more hazardous to talk about their family lives. As he entered the presidential race, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) took criticism for saying his wife was raising their three sons “sometimes with my help.” He later apologized for what he called a lack of empathy.

For the front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, his family and fatherhood is central to his image as a public figure. 

Biden was sworn into office beside the hospital beds where his sons were recovering from a car crash that killed their mother and infant sister. He famously boarded an Amtrak every night to return to Wilmington to raise his sons. He did not seek the White House in 2016 after his son Beau’s long and devastating bout with brain cancer.

Biden’s involvement in his children’s lives was atypical for a generation in which mothers did the lion’s share of the work. Women today still do a disproportionate amount of childcare, but generational attitudes are shifting. 

About the same percentage of mothers and fathers, 58 percent and 57 percent, say being a parent is extremely important to their identity, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey.


A 2016 Pew study found fathers are spending about three times as long with their children in an average week than fathers did in 1965, and almost two-thirds of fathers say they don’t spend enough time with their kids.

The last four presidents have all raised school-aged children in the White House, an unusually long stretch in modern politics. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE and President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE have both zealously guarded their young children’s privacy, conscious of the toll that public scrutiny wrought on Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the ‘law and order’ president pardon Roger Stone? Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden The sad spectacle of Trump’s enablers MORE’s and George W. Bush’s daughters. 

Obama made a point to leave the West Wing every night at 6:30 to have dinner with his two daughters. He spent Halloween night in 2008, five days before he won office, trick-or-treating with his daughters before a late-night rally in Indiana. 

“I’ve been able to spend a lot more time watching my daughters grow up into smart, funny, kind, wonderful young women,” Obama wrote in a 2016 essay in Glamour.

Family considerations go beyond those who are running for the White House. Current and former members of Congress say their relationships with their children were among their most significant concerns as they considered entering public life.

Raising a family in public life once meant bringing children to Washington, where they would attend school with the sons and daughters of other members of Congress and see their parents after votes. But the job of parenting has become more difficult as the concept of moving an entire family to Washington has become increasingly rare.

“Of all the challenges and difficulties that any member of Congress experiences, balancing official responsibilities with parenting responsibilities was for me by far the hardest,” said former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Biden faces new hurdle: Winning as front-runner The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden on the cusp of formally grasping the Democratic nomination MORE (D-N.Y.). “I can’t tell you how many times I’d be sitting on a plane at Reagan National Airport waiting to go to NY and see my kids and hear the pilot announce that there was a ground stop at Laguardia and feeling my insides churn at the prospect that I would miss my commitment to them. It was the worst.”

Inslee, who served in Congress from 1993-1995 and again from 1999-2012, was one of the few in the modern era who moved his three sons to the nation’s capital. One of his sons attended D.C. public schools, where he was among a minority of whites in a mostly black school system.

“It made him a lot more sensitive to other people’s thoughts,” Inslee said of his son. “I think if you ask my sons, they would tell you that [Inslee’s political career] was a very broadening experience for them.”

Israel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while in Congress, said he constantly fielded questions from potential candidates about their work-life balance — and that, when promising candidates decided against running, family time was their most often-cited concern.

“It’s difficult being a long-distance parent, but it’s made more complicated by the negative political environment that kids are thrust into. It’s not just the distance, every two years, your mom or dad are vilified on television in campaign commercials,” Israel said. “My advice to them was candid. They were going to have a congressional schedule, but that schedule, by necessity, had to prioritize time with their kids.”

Governors have an easier time being physically present with their children. But even then, they must make clear to schedulers and handlers that their kids are a priority, especially in an election year.

“Me deciding to run for president wasn’t a decision that I made alone by any means, with a 12, 14 and 17-year old,” said Bullock, who scheduled his official campaign announcement just after his daughter finished an AP test. “Before every election, they’ve known and will continue to know that my most important job is being their father.”

Former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGun control group rolls out first round of Senate endorsements The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack MORE (D), whose son just finished his junior year in high school, said he prioritized father time while in office, often over a chessboard.

“He beat me in chess when he was 11. I had promised to buy him any toy he wanted,” Hickenlooper told The Hill in a recent interview. “Little did I know there was such a thing as an Xbox for $400.”

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