Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
In my five years of covering Barack and Michelle Obama, I’ve often thought that the president would never have gotten to the White House without his daughters. From early in his political career, they added immensely to his appeal, humanizing a candidate with an unfamiliar name and professorial air. Now, as the 2012 race gets into full swing, American voters are more enthusiastic about Barack Obama as a father and family man than they are about his stewardship of the economy. So how often will Malia and Sasha Obama appear in public during the 2012 presidential race? Read about the first couple’s complicated history in this regard, the way they closely protect their daughters while also sharing their stories and images with voters, in the following excerpt from my book THE OBAMAS.
Chapter 10 - Malia’s Great Escape (June–July 2010)
In the summer of 2010, a luminous, oversized photograph hung in the East Wing, showing Malia and Sasha Obama riding on Air Force One. Each sat in a seat stitched with her name in white embroidery.
An untouched bowl of fruit and a stack of magazines rested on a table in front of them. Malia, who turned twelve that July, stared out the airplane window, looking lost in thought. Sasha, almost nine, sat beside her sister, but upside down, her head dangling off the seat’s bottom cushion, her legs over the headrest. Their parents were nowhere in sight.
It was a portrait to stop and stare at, that hinted at the questions and contradictions of its subjects’ young lives. The photograph showed the enviable opportunities available to the first children, with their own seats on the president’s plane, the chance to tag along on diplomatic trips. It captured how appealing the Obama girls were — Malia graceful and pensive, Sasha full of comic relief, both of them free of the awkwardness and embarrassing behavior of some prior presidential children. It also underlined just how young Sasha was, still too full of antic energy to sit still on a flight. And while the photo wasn’t exactly private — it had been taken by a White House photographer and hung in an office corridor — it wasn’t entirely in the public domain, either, because it had never been released or reproduced.
That was also the indeterminate position of the Obama girls: not entirely private figures anymore, but certainly not public ones like their parents. When their parents tallied what they most wanted to keep their own, to protect from the intrusions and poisons of public life, the girls were at the very top of the list. Yet by that summer polls were showing that Obama’s family was more appealing to voters than his policies, and the president could not seem to stop mentioning his daughters in speeches.
It was a sensitive question: to what extent did Barack Obama use his children for political gain? By the time the Air Force One photograph had been snapped, the Obama family had already been dealing with the issue for a long time.
Initially, Malia and Sasha were adorably indifferent to their father’s work. On the night of his U.S. Senate primary victory in 2004, Malia, not yet six, watched the cheering but had a question hours later. “Did we win?” she asked, according to Kaleisha Page, a staffer. No one had realized she could not tell.
After their father’s star-making keynote speech at the Democratic convention a few months later, the Obama family went on their first campaign trip together, across downstate Illinois. Aides designed the excursion to connect the African American candidate with the unusual background and name to the heartland, to show nice, how ordinary, how deeply Illinoisan he was. “Obama begins his ‘family vacation’ on Saturday July 31 and ends the trip on his birthday August 4 with a barbeque party,” read the press release. The planners mixed in ribbon cuttings with stops at a carnival, parks, and eccentric local attractions like the grave of an elephant once killed by lightning. Voters were invited to every stop.
“The concept of it being a family vacation, that was never a popular one to begin with,” Kevin Thompson, who stayed by the candidate’s side as his personal aide, remembered. “Michelle was just really incredulous.” Soon the schedule went from ambitious to undoable, because so many voters were showing up at every stop, all wanting to meet the man who had given the speech in Boston. The candidate had to split off from his wife and the girls, who were too young to last through ten rallies, luncheons, and meet-and-greets per day. Michelle, Malia, and Sasha took off in the RV, attending a few events a day, while Barack’s bus traveled far above the speed limit in a fruitless attempt to stay on schedule.
Advisers had been right, though — the Obama family together was political gold. Even in the whitest parts of Illinois, the sight of two well-behaved little
black girls, the older one solemn-eyed and the younger one mischievous, had an outsize effect on people. People wanted to touch the Obama children, play with them, ask them questions. “That was an eye-opener for Barack and Michelle,” Thompson said, “a recognition that the girls were kind of celebrities.”
Sasha had just turned three years old.
By the time they got to the White House just over four years later, the Obamas forged a compromise solution to the problem of putting their children on display. The real Malia and Sasha, the actual human beings, were protected more tightly than ever before, but they also became abstract characters who played an important role in their father’s political rhetoric.
Inside the White House gates, the Obamas adhered to the hyperinvolved, child-centric parenting style of their generation and class, conducting educational conversations at the dinner table, filling their weekends with enriching activities. During one of Jacqueline Kennedy’s frequent vacations from the White House, she left her then infant son, John, with relatives; during the month she was gone, his father visited the child once. Barack Obama was the extreme opposite: he was determined not to let his job take him away from his children more than necessary, and he refused to miss dinner with his family more than two nights a week, barring extraordinary circumstances. The first lady, meanwhile, built her schedule almost entirely around her daughters; any afternoon or evening event she agreed to attend had to be good enough to merit time away from them, she told her staff. It was hard to say who was protecting whom: were the Obama parents protecting their children from politics? Or were they using their children to protect themselves?
Worried that the privileges of the White House could spoil her children, Michelle tried to limit the staff’s constant efforts to feed and polish and assist and perfect. The first time the Obamas traveled to Europe as president and first lady, they called home to chat with the girls. The White House operators could not locate Malia and Sasha, who were playing around somewhere on the lawn. Later, when the Obamas returned, the operators were so contrite about their failure to connect them that they made plans to issue Malia and Sasha their own cell phones. Michelle had to step in to say she wasn’t ready for them to have their own phones.
Michelle had never been a lax mother: fellow parents from the soccer team in Chicago remember her standing on the sidelines, watching Malia’s footwork and defense skills, not lingering in the stands with a latte like the other parents. In the White House, she pushed and watched her daughters relentlessly: if the girls went on a trip, they had to write their parents a report. The first lady watched what her girls were eating. “Before they get a second helping I’ll ask them, ‘Are you really hungry? Or is this something you want to do because you’re bored?’ ” she said.
The girls were not permitted to surf the Internet or watch TV during the week, their parents said. But they took swimming and tennis lessons, and played soccer, lacrosse, and basketball. In a telling tribute to the power of Michelle Obama’s personality, she even managed to persuade Dan Dufford, the girls’ piano instructor from Chicago, to relocate with his wife to Washington to continue teaching her children.
“I tell them sports are something I want them to engage in because it’s good for them,” Michelle said in an interview. “It’s good to practice teamwork, to understand what it means to suffer a loss, to win with grace. Also, I have them do a sport that they like and a sport that I like. I want them to understand what it feels like to do something you don’t like and to improve. Because in life you don’t always get to do the things you want.” When she chose tennis for them, Sasha was frustrated, “because she couldn’t hit the ball. Malia didn’t understand why I was making them play it. But now they’re starting to get better and they actually like it. And I’m like, ‘Mom was right!’
“Now, my kids are young, so we’ll see if I’ve driven them crazy,” she finished, seeming to suddenly realize that she sounded like the single most intense mother on earth.
At the same time, Malia and Sasha played a key role in an ongoing narrative told by their father, in which he pitted his daughters’ sincerity, diligence, sense of responsibility, and purity of intention against what he called the cynicism and laziness of Washington.
In late May, at a press conference about the oil spill, the president added an impromptu bit to his prepared remarks. “I woke up this morning and I’m shaving, and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she says, ‘Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?’ ” It was a striking word picture: the president caught by surprise, perhaps in his bathrobe, dealing with the expectations not just of the nation but of his own daughter. (Soon radio and television host Glenn Beck was crudely imitating Malia on his radio show, whining in a fake-high voice, “Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?” and, “Why, why, why, why, do you still let the polar bears die?”)
Malia was not always wild about making cameo appearances in her father’s interviews and speeches. Early in the administration, when she scored a 73 on a science test, he called her out not only at home but also to the nation. “Malia will tell you, my attitude was if she came home with a B, that’s not good enough because there’s no reason she can’t get an A,” he told Essence magazine. As soon as he finished the interview, he realized his mistake. “Oh my god, I don’t know why I did that,” he told Gibbs. In the end, he apologized privately to his daughter.
But he didn’t stop mentioning her. As he hit the trail during the summer of 2010 for the midterm elections, he was searching for the right way to describe the utter frustration he felt with opponents, to rally the Democratic faithful to his side. At a July fund-raiser in Kansas City for Robin Carnahan, a candidate for U.S. Senate, the president wove Malia into an analogy he liked to use for the Republican response to the economic crisis. “Even though she’s five foot nine now, she’s still my baby,” he said. “And she just got braces, which is good, because she looks like a kid and she was getting — she’s starting to look too old for me.” The audience laughed, and the president started to explain his central point. “In a couple years, Malia is going to be able to drive,” he began. “If your teenager drives into a ditch, your car, bangs it up, you’ve got to pay a lot of money to get it out — what do you do?” he asked. “You take the keys away! These folks” — meaning Republicans — “drove the economy into a ditch, and they want the keys back.” The audience applauded. “And you got to say the same thing to them that you say to your teenager: you can’t have the keys back because you don’t know how to drive yet.”
He sounded sarcastic and cutting, nothing like the above-it-all, inspiring figure from 2008. And he wasn’t done. “You can’t have the keys. You can’t have them. Maybe you take a remedial course,” he continued. The crowd was clapping and he only seemed to get more excited. “I’ll take you out to the parking lot and you can drive in circles. But we’re not going to let you out on the open road. You can’t drive.”
It was quite a mash-up: Obama’s fatherly love and his disdain for his political opponents. If he considered that it might sound condescending to compare the Republican leadership to a bunch of teenagers who needed remedial courses, he didn’t show it.
White House advisers later dismissed any suggestion that the president was trading on the popularity of his children. But Obama knew what the polls said: his role as father was one of the most appealing things about him. Voters liked his sweet, poised daughters and the fact that in the age of disgraced politicians like Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford, there was not even a whiff of sleazy sexual scandal to him. Even voters who were unenthusiastic about his job performance and handling of the economy thought he was “an honest, loyal husband, a family man,” as the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake put it.
In a way, it was no surprise that he continually turned to his daughters in speeches. He needed to finally make a connection with the public, and in politics as in life, his daughters did help connect him to other people. It also made sense that he tended to mention them in politically uncomfortable moments, from the oil spill to fund-raising for the ominous-looking midterm elections. In contrast to the disappointment, worry, and frustration of those events, his daughters clearly made him feel good. They did speak well of him. Once again, Obama was retreating to a comfortable place.