The Obamas’ annual holiday vacation, at a lush and secluded surf-side retreat in Kailua, has underscored just how much their family dynamic has evolved in the five years since they moved into the White House.
As his girls grow into young women, the president has been increasingly nostalgic in public, lamenting how quickly time has slipped by.
“Those of us who have kids know how fast it goes, because Malia and Sasha, they’re like weeds,” Obama said at a November fundraiser. A couple of weeks later, he admitted he was getting “teary” about it.
“They’re just growing up so fast, and they’ve got a busy life of their own,” Obama told People magazine. “You can project out over the next several years how, between school, sports, social life, their community service, they’re not around as much. So that gets me teary sometimes.”
When the Obamas bounded off Air Force One this month to start their vacation, they were greeted by Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), an old family friend. In an interview a few days later, Abercrombie was asked what he thought of the Obama girls’ growing older. “The word ‘irony’ comes to mind,” he said.
“Their growing up is so different from his growing up,” Abercrombie said of Obama. “His dad wasn’t there. His mom had real challenges. Then being taken to another country. Then growing up here in the islands with an entirely different context and atmosphere, socially and economically, from where those young girls are growing up in the White House.”
Abercrombie added: “I wonder sometimes if they say to him, ‘You don’t understand,’ like a lot of kids.”
Obama said he lives with “three opinionated, strong, tall women” (make that four, if you count Marian Robinson, his mother-in-law, who lives on the third floor of the White House). But Obama said he is “getting kind of lonely in this big house,” telling reporters at a news conference this year, “Now that my girls are getting older, they don’t want to spend that much time with me.” This summer, he said he got a new puppy, Sunny, to fill the void left by his increasingly busy daughters.
Malia, 15, is a high school sophomore and tennis player whom her father describes as lawyerly. She has shed her braces and is allowed to date, although the president joked to comedian Steve Harvey that he’s “got men with guns following them around all the time” to scare off any sketchy boyfriends.
Sasha, 12, is a seventh-grader and basketball player who has been called a “budding style icon” by fashion bloggers. Some of her clothing choices have been highlighted in glossy fashion-magazine columns. She drew notice when she sported ’90s-chic Dr. Martens boots at last month’s turkey-pardoning ceremony, and a whimsical unicorn sweater she wore to a recent basketball game with her parents sold out within hours.
The Obama girls are among the youngest children to live in the White House in modern times. The president and first lady have tried to keep their daughters’ lives as normal as possible under the circumstances — the girls must make their own beds, even though their home is staffed by butlers and maids — and they keep the children off-limits to the news media to give them a modicum of privacy.
Although for all their parents’ efforts at creating normalcy, the Obama teens enjoy a range of experiences unimaginable to their peers. They have become friendly with celebrities including Beyoncé and Jay Z. Malia sat in on an Oval Office meeting with her parents and Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani education activist. Both daughters invite their friends over for sleepovers and pajama parties on the third floor of the White House.
The president and first lady have described in recent interviews a set of rigid rules designed to protect the daughters from negative influences (although the president has said that Malia has been pushing back on her parents’ restrictions lately). The girls are not allowed to watch television on weekdays unless it is school-related. Neither daughter was allowed a cellphone before age 12, and their mother has warned them of the risk of having a bratty moment caught on a smartphone and going viral. Their parents say that Sasha is still too young for social media and that Malia’s screen time on Facebook is limited.
“I still am not a big believer in Facebook for young people — particularly for them, because they’re in the public eye,” Michelle Obama told ABC’s Barbara Walters last month. “Some of it’s stuff they don’t need to see and be a part of.”
Still, it was Malia and Sasha who introduced their parents to other social media. “You know, Instagram and Vine, those are things that I first heard from them,” the president told People.
At times, the Obamas have evoked their daughters to make political points. During an appearance last week on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show to promote the new health-care law, Michelle Obama talked about Sasha’s bout with meningitis when she was 4 months old and how fortunate she was that they had health insurance.
Politically, however, the president may need more than family nostalgia can provide at this point, said Elizabeth Mehren, a journalism professor at Boston University who has written about several first families.
“The president’s image needs more help than ‘Father Knows Best’ can give him,” Mehren said. She added: “The public has other things on its mind now, not the Obama girls’ growth chart.”
Even as their daughters grow more independent — this summer they again went to sleep-away camp — the Obamas are trying to reinforce familiar family rhythms. The president still breaks away from the Oval Office most nights to eat dinner with the girls at 6:30, something they have done since moving to Washington in 2009.
“They have tons of opinions,” Michelle Obama told People. “And it’s a joy to hear them think out loud about life. They’re growing into really interesting individuals.”
Around the dinner table, after the Obamas take turns saying grace and praying to “live long and strong,” most of the family’s conversations are focused on the girls’ days at Sidwell Friends, the Washington prep school they both attend.
“What are they doing? And who’s got what practice? And what birthday party is coming up? And did we get a gift for this person?” Michelle Obama told Vogue this year. The president, she said, is “up on every friend, every party, every relationship.”
The experience of watching his kids grow up has helped make Obama relatable to many Americans, regardless of their politics or station in life.
“It humanizes the president,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “He’s a parent — a doting, affectionate father. And it’s really quite typical. He has a very human touch. Suddenly you look up and your children are teenagers and those years go by. It’s a familiar kind of lament.”
Thompson reported from Washington.