WASHINGTON — It may not be as big as "read my lips," but it's shaping up as a notable broken campaign promise: Barack Obama's pledge to his wife that he would quit smoking if she let him run for president.
More than two years later, he's still sneaking cigarettes like a middle-schooler. The model of self-discipline who can zap a fly with the accuracy of a tree frog and sink a three-pointer with Kobe-like grace can't beat his most public vice.
"I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids, I don't do it in front of my family, and I would say that I am 95% cured, but there are times where . . . I mess up," President Obama confessed when asked at his news conference Tuesday if he's still puffing away.
The usually playful president got peevish when McClatchy's Margaret Talev asked him how many cigarettes he smokes daily and whether he does it in front of anyone. (The White House has managed to avoid any photos of the offending behavior.)
"You just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law," Obama said, undercutting his questioner's attempt to legitimize journalistic nosiness by invoking the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act he signed Monday.
Obama's failure to disclose details only piqued curiosity. What's his brand? Who is his supplier? Where does he go to do it? Out back in the organic garden? Behind a bush on the South Lawn? Perhaps this explains his eagerness to take the late shift for Bo's daily constitutional.
His staff isn't talking. "I don't honestly see the need to get a whole lot more specific than the fact that it's a continuing struggle," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said this week.
But what were the odds that Obama could give up a 30-year habit -- even if it was only about five a day -- right before assuming the hardest job in the world?
"Highly improbable," said Ovide Pomerleau, a professor of psychiatry and a nicotine addiction expert at the University of Michigan. He noted that the president's struggle appears to fit a pattern. "It doesn't surprise me, given his heroic schedule of activities, that he would have some trouble giving up something that has been an easy crutch to carry him through for so many years."
Even light smokers like Obama get a dependable hit that improves the memory and sharpens concentration, however briefly, Pomerleau said, which could prove irresistible during Iranian revolutions and North Korean missile launches.
Obama might have meant it when he promised his wife, Michelle, to kick the habit way back when nobody thought he'd win anyway. But like President George H.W. Bush's "Read my lips: No new taxes" vow, the pledge proved too hard to keep. On Tuesday, Obama likened the quest to Alcoholics Anonymous. "Once you've gone down this path, then it's something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place. OK?"
Obama is not unlike any smoker struggling to quit, if you don't count the fact that he's trying to drive gargantuan healthcare reform legislation through Congress, which could make him look like a hypocrite.
But some were beginning to complain he was coming off as annoyingly perfect, especially after he took the first lady on a New York dream date, then killed a fly with his bare hands on cable television. An unconquerable addiction could be good for his political image.
Then there are those who would prefer that the president not make his job any more challenging.
In the words of one blogger named Sam: "Was it really wise to try to arrest the economy's free fall, bring peace to the Middle East, fix healthcare, save GM, save Wall Street, stop global warming AND quit smoking? Most of my friends can't do any ONE of those things. He should go ahead and smoke."