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Could an Obese Candidate be Elected President?

As the 2008 presidential election kicks into high gear over the summer, it's interesting to consider whether an obese candidate could be elected President of the United States.

Of course, we have had an obese President. William Howard Taft, our 27th President (1909 - 1913) was 6 feet and 350 lbs. He suffered from severe obstructive sleep apnea during his presidency and became stuck in the White House bathtub several times, prompting the installation of a new bathtub capable of holding all of the men who installed it. On a positive note, within a year of leaving the presidency, Taft lost approximately 80 pounds and resolved most of his attendant health issues, thereby allowing him to continue on to a successful second career as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court - the first and only former President to serve in this position.

As we near the centenary of Taft's election, it's clear that two important things have changed. First, whereas one hundred years ago, being overweight was a sign of wealth and prosperity, today, discrimination against obese people has been well documented. Scientific research has found that employers tend to perceive obese employees as being lazy, unproductive and less intelligent than non-obese employees over time. Additionally, employers may see obese applicants as more prone to illness and therefore likely to miss more work days. A recent Time/ABC News poll found that 87% of Americans believe that primary responsibility for obesity rests with the obese person. So would Americans be likely to hire an obese person for the nation's top job?

Second, Taft ran for President before the advent of television. Today, our images of the presidency are conditioned by images of presidents like the lovely Cherry Jones who plays President Allison Taylor on the Fox TV series "24" or handsome leading man Martin Sheen on NBC's "West Wing," or even President Bush mountain biking or clearing brush on his Crawford, TX ranch. Television simply accentuates a tendency already clearly established in evolutionary biology, which is the propensity to gravitate to more attractive people. Research in a number of different fields demonstrates that attractive people are more likely to be successful.

Of course, one of the leading candidates in this election cycle had been obese. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee weighed nearly 300 lbs. before losing over 110 lbs. in 2003-04 and reversing a diagnosis of type II diabetes. By all accounts, Huckabee finished second in this year's Republican Primary to Senator John McCain. For the reasons stated above, it's quite likely that Huckabee would not have been as successful in his candidacy had he remained obese. It's very hard to imagine that any obese candidate could be elected President in this day and age, 100 years after the election of William Howard Taft.