Issues in American presidential politics tend to be collective ones — defense, education, environment — but in the 2008 campaign health care could be discussed in disconcertingly concrete terms: Individual obesity.
It’s early yet, but the signs are there that obesity could indeed by a political issue.
Former President Bill Clinton, whose political instincts are second to none, has picked up on it, having become a late convert to a healthy lifestyle after heart bypass surgery in 2004.
“We have a huge cultural problem and unless we change it our children may grow up to be the first generation with shorter lifespans than we had,” he told a recent governors meeting. Clinton would certainly not shy away from using the 2008 campaign, in which his wife, Hillary, might well be a candidate, to try to change the culture. He has already embarked on trying to raise the level of nutrition and physical activity in the schools.
Obesity was much discussed by the governors, and it has become a signature issue for one of their own, Republican Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who is contemplating a White House run. Huckabee dropped 110 pounds and wrote about it in “Quit Digging Your Grave With A Knife And Fork,” which sounds rather more arresting than the usual campaign autobiography.
U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona put obesity in terms some canny political operative will certainly seize on. Obesity is a greater long-term threat than terrorism, he said, framing the problem in terms of national security.
“Where will our soldiers and sailors and airmen come from? Where will our policemen and firemen come from if the youngsters today are on a trajectory that says they will be obese, laden with cardiovascular disease, increased cancers and a host of other diseases when they reach adulthood?” he asked an audience in South Carolina.
And who, he might have asked as a politician surely would, is going to pick up the tab for all those extra health care costs?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 16 percent of young people ages 6 to 19 are overweight, a rate that has tripled since 1980, and 30 percent of adults over 20 are obese. To the usual expectations the voters attach to candidates — make us prosperous, make us safe — might be added: Make us thin.
And such has been the nature of our last few presidential campaigns that debating beer guts, kid couch potatoes and cellulite might actually elevate the tone.