Americans view the Obamas in such packaged snippets yet feel like they are on a first-name basis. Look how tall Malia is! Why didn’t Michelle kiss Barack on the kiss cam? What does Barack tell Sasha about her jump shot?
During the 2012 campaign, the president and first lady talked about their daughters incessantly in interviews and talk-show hosts loved it. Most Americans loved it too, said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution.
“History is going to remember what Barack Obama did or didn’t do as a president. But we who live through it are different. We see the cultural impact,” said Hess, who served on the White House staff during the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and as an adviser to presidents Ford and Carter. “They have contributed in a very special way to our lives. They got to the White House at a moment when a lot of our lives were difficult, and we are fortunate to have a very optimistic family who knows how to smile, how to have fun.”
Living in front of the camera
The bits of Obama family life carefully distributed by the White House paint a Rockwellian portrait of a first family who could be living next door — and who happen to be black.
They are “very much ordinary and extraordinary,” as the poet Sonia Sanchez put it.
The president is a basketball dad who coaches Sasha’s team and yells during the games. He talks sports and stays up late watching ESPN.
A taped interview broadcast during NCAA championship basketball game coverage in April began with Obama offering commentary on the Big Dance to CBS’s Clark Kellogg, a former NBA player. And it ended with the two ribbing each other about a previous game of Horse.
But in between, the two talked as fathers of athletic girls. “A couple of things,” said Obama, “number one, how pleased I am to see women’s and girls’ sports develop since you and I were kids. Number two is I bleed when those girls play . . . watching them play, I just want them to do so well, you know, and when something goes right, it is more joy than I ever got playing myself,” the president said.
The first lady is an involved mom who keeps her girls in check and assigns them chores.
Notwithstanding the White House housekeeping staff, Michelle Obama has her daughters make their own beds and do their own laundry. Malia, a high school freshman, plays varsity tennis — a sport that her mother required her to stick with.
“Kids tend to quit when it starts getting hard, which means that’s when they’re starting to learn something,” the first lady told Yahoo Shine in 2011. “And that’s the tough time: to continue to make them go to that tennis lesson. Even though Malia was complaining about it, she now loves tennis.”
Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother, lives in the White House and takes the girls to school most mornings.
Elizabeth Alexander, a family friend and Yale professor who was the 2008 inaugural poet, said the Obamas are a “wonderfully functioning family where women across the age spectrum are fully forceful parts of a healthy family unit.”
Michelle Obama has “a tremendous sense of humor that she expresses with regard to the challenge of being married and the challenges of child rearing. She is very light and funny, and I don’t know anyone who can stay married without a sense of humor. That’s intimate, and they allow us to see that.”
The family’s Pennsylvania Avenue routine includes dinner together most evenings at 6:30. The Obamas take turns saying grace, always praying to “live long and strong,” and talk about everything from middle-school friendships to the oil that leaked in the Gulf of Mexico and same-sex marriage. Robinson doesn’t eat with them, preferring to give the family time to bond without her.
Michelle Obama has often said that life in the White House has been good for her daughters. “They have a regular life, they’ve got friends and sleepovers and you know, to them it’s home,” she told Jay Leno last year. President Obama has said he “could not ask for better kids” and joked that “one of the main incentives of running again was continuing Secret Service protection” to protect his girls from the boys who are sure to call.
The reporters who cover the White House do not report on the comings and goings of the daughters when they are not with their parents, giving them a modicum of privacy.
But the White House image machine also decided early on to release a constant dribble of family photos to give a controlled glimpse of life and discourage paparazzi.
So the world has seen the Obama daughters accompanying their father to get an ice cream cone on Father’s Day or stopping by the bookstore while on vacation in Hawaii and, rarely, taking the stage with him at a marquee political event.
In the stream of 2012 photos posted by the White House this month, there was the shot of Malia and Sasha hugging dad backstage before his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. And another of an amused Malia sitting beside her parents as they took advantage of a second chance to pucker-up on the kiss cam at a basketball game in July.
“To the extent that people are fooled into thinking they have a relationship with celebrities, we may also be fooled into thinking we have a relationship with the Obamas,” said Reuben May, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, who recalled his wife showing him a picture of Malia Obama. They both gaped at how much she had grown, as if she were a niece they had not seen in a while.
‘The image is power’
For Malia and Sasha, who attended their father’s campaign events for the U.S. Senate when they were six and three, living in front of the camera must now seem routine. When Obama’s second term as president is up, Malia will be 18, an emerging adult. Sasha will be 15, the only high school student to have spent her formative years in the White House.
Sufficiently warned by their mother about the risk of having a bratty moment caught on a smartphone and posted on the Web for worldwide consumption, they are poised, styled and most often mute, smiling faintly.
“They are on a stage,” Sanchez said. “When you look at that family you see a motion and movement of dignity.”
The image of the Obama family in the White House has been particularly evocative for African Americans, who remain Obama’s most loyal supporters, said E. Ethelbert Miller. He recalled watching video of Obama and his girls going to the bookstore while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard a few summers ago and being struck by the footage of the “loving black family.”
“The image is power,” said Miller, director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University. “We know we are making history every time you see [the Obamas] holding hands.”
With every mundane shopping trip, the first family seems to be saying “we are a family just like you,” said Michaela Angela Davis, a fashion expert who has campaigned for more positive images of black women in the media.
As a mother and black woman, Davis said watching the Obamas has caused her to feel that “there is something happening on an emotional level that it is still to early to articulate. It feels like we matter. And when you have felt like you haven’t mattered and then you do, the whole world opens up. It’s like when you go to Oz and it goes from black and white to color.”
David Garrow, a historian and author whose work has focused on the civil rights era, doesn’t see that personal identification translating to a national shift on issues of race.
He expected the presence of the Obamas in the White House, day in and day out for four years, to have “a racially transformative impact on the country.”
“I don’t think that happened,” said Garrow, who is white. “They seem [to be] just standard upper middle-class Americans. We no longer think of blackness as being one of the first things that comes to mind when you look at them. . . . The under-emphasis, under-appreciation of the first family’s blackness is part and parcel of the administration’s packaging.”
Jelani Cobb, an author and professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University, also had a moment where he realized he no longer looked at Obama as a “figure of racial pride.” Cobb saw Obama on television and, finally, he just saw the president.
Yet Cobb’s deep interest in the family remains. What is he most looking forward to over the next four years?
“It is everything from the trivial — whether or not there will be a White House prom — to the much more significant, which is how this will translate into policies that will help other black families,” he said.