Obama’s tattoo plan: Tattoos for Dad, too. Will that gambit work?

Obama’s tattoo plan: Ink is a distant prospect, at least in the highly protective White House years. Still, President Obama has a high-risk plan for his daughters to prompt second thoughts. Will it really work?

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File
President Obama and his daughters Malia (r.) and Sasha leave Easter service at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington on March 31.

Have you heard about the Obama family plan to keep daughters Sasha and Malia from getting tattoos? President Obama talked about it yesterday on the “Today” show. It’s sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too.

“Michelle and I have used the strategy when it comes to things like tattoos – what we’ve said to the girls, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,” Mr. Obama told “Today” journalist Savannah Guthrie. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.”

Wow, that’s interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem. But here’s our question: Will that really work?

No, as a parent of two teenagers, Decoder does not think it is a successful long-run strategy, either.

Oh sure, it’s worked for now. They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

So they’d get thrown out, for being under age and because few tattoo parlors care to have Secret Service watchdogs at their door.

But the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do.

Oh, were we projecting there?

Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because.

As Connor Simpson notes on the Atlantic Wire, “these are young women who take cellphone photos and, yes, go on spring break. You don’t stop them. You can only hope to contain them.”

And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

Slate’s “Browbeat” culture blog has imagined this future, and it isn’t pretty. How will Obama negotiate with House Republicans on the budget with a Mike Tyson-like web of ink encircling his eye?

No, once they get old enough to be out of your daily control, the best way to keep them from getting tattoos might be bribes. Tell them as long as they remain tat-free, they can use Camp David for parties, say.

Or Obama might convince some senator to slip a rider in an appropriations bill that simply makes it illegal to give the children of any current or former US chief executive a tattoo. As LBJ once said in another context when someone told him a bill was a bad idea, “Well then what the [expletive] is the presidency for?”

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