By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 6, 2008
The moving trucks show up when the country's attention is distracted, focused on the pomp of Inauguration Day.
In splendid synchronization, one set of trucks rolls onto the White House grounds at precisely noon, another set rolls out -- with the move all done quietly and blindingly fast in the few hours it takes to do the swearing-in of a new president and the traditional after-luncheoning.
Bushes out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Obamas in.
Barack and Michelle, Sasha and Malia.
Their beds will be made up and waiting for them before they return from the parties.
"It's very efficient," says Ann Stock, former social secretary to Hillary Clinton and now a Kennedy Center vice president.
But so much to do first.
The girls, 7 and 10, will need schools. A church could be selected. And a puppy -- daddy promised-- must be found. And so much of establishing this new life will fall to lawyer and hospital executive Michelle Obama, the first-lady-in-waiting who calls herself "mom in chief."
So many little choices, writ big -- massive, gargantuan -- because a nation will be watching, keyed minutely to every symbolic overtone, mulling the message behind every move.
"It's like a new neighbor in the neighborhood. You want to know, 'What do they do after work? Where do they go to church? Do they eat grilled cheese for lunch?' " says Washington event planner and longtime social observer Carolyn Peachey. "It's just that in this case, it's the nation's neighborhood."
Barack Obama has been in the Senate not quite four years, and for 21 months of that time he has been running for president, so he is no creature of social Washington. The Obamas are said to be close to former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan and his wife, Ann. But the family's network of close friends is primarily in Chicago, where the Obamas live in the same Hyde Park neighborhood as Michelle Obama's mother. Sasha and Malia go to school in their neighborhood.
All of which makes the guessing game more intense; there are fewer clues.
And the lobbying has begun -- some Obama confidants have even written memos to make their case, insiders say.
One power player wants the girls at Sidwell Friends School, we hear -- after all, Chelsea Clinton went there, and so did Richard Nixon's daughters and Bill Nye the Science Guy, if you care about that sort of thing. Vice President-elect Joe Biden's granddaughters go to Sidwell now. Vice President Al Gore's daughters went to National Cathedral School; young Albert III went to St. Albans.
But other big shots argue for Maret School; another mulls Georgetown Day School or National Cathedral.
Obama foreign policy adviser Susan Rice favors private Maret School for her family, while close adviser and rumored attorney general shortlister Eric Holder is a trustee at private Georgetown Day School.
But, oh, there's that symbolism thing. Private school? Public school? Dad, it's worth noting, has talked a lot about buffing up public education during his campaign. Fair warning: Back when Bill and Hillary Clinton chose Sidwell, Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift called them "limousine liberals."
So maybe a public school?
There's one near their new neighborhood. According to the District's public school boundaries list, someone who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would send their kids to Francis-Stevens Educational Center in Foggy Bottom. Convenient, at a minimum. And there's precedent: Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, went to Stevens when it was a stand-alone elementary school and later moved up to Hardy Middle School.
It's a lot to consider. And the Obamas have been kind of busy the past few weeks, or months, or years.
"It's literally just getting started," said a senior aide yesterday. "Their world is built around their daughters, so they're taking this very seriously."
Where to attend church could be even touchier. The family's membership at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago nearly turned into a deal-killer during the Democratic primaries when inflammatory remarks by the church's pastor and Barack Obama mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., surfaced. The Obamas withdrew from the church.
At Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest Washington, the sermons tend more toward soothing tones, and the congregation would love to have the 44th president of the United States join them. But that doesn't mean they necessarily expect it.
"We understand," Diane Miller, a deacon at the church, said of Obama's decision to leave Wright's church. "He did what he had to do."
So much for Sunday mornings. But what about Saturday nights?
Juleanna Glover, who throws a lot of parties, figures the White House may keep a later schedule than it has during these early-to-bed days of President Bush. Parties will probably begin, she said, "after homework and after the kids have been put to bed."
The Obamas won't go at it alone, of course. First lady Laura Bush called yesterday and Michelle Obama accepted her invitation to visit the White House in the coming weeks, according to the Obama campaign.
And the White House comes with an executive chef and a cooking and waiting staff, and there is a full-blown medical unit for the first family's use -- staffed with Navy doctors. The unit conforms to the needs of the family, so a pediatrician can be added, as specialists are always employed whenever the need arises. Between 10 and 14 doctors sign off on a checkup of President Bush, says Assistant Press Secretary Carlton Carroll.
The General Services Administration handles pesky matters like lining up plumbers, electricians and other fix-it folks. There is a carpentry shop on the premises, too.
Dry cleaning? A personal valet makes those arrangements for the president. The first lady's staff will see to it for the rest of the family.
Getting the family situated will be Michelle Obama's first priority, the aide said, but there will also be time for other passions, including bringing more attention to U.S. military families.
She's talked in the past about bringing her husband back down to earth when all around him seemed mesmerized by his fast trajectory. In the early days of his campaign -- when some were sniffing about a "God complex" -- it was Michelle Obama who told the world that her husband was so "snorey and stinky" in the morning that Sasha and Malia wouldn't even crawl into bed with them.
As she and her husband and their girls make the transition toward becoming the nation's first family in January, she'll have to emphasize that part of her role even more.
The moving vans will come, and the aides and appurtenances of the position will ease the challenges of being the world's most scrutinized family.
But the key decisions of making a new life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. can't be outsourced.
Staff writers Hamil Harris and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.