In an election in which the mom in chief is a key campaigner, there is one thing Michelle Obama has promised she will not discuss: her daughters’ dating lives.
Just about everything else in the parenting realm, it seems, is fair game.
No, Malia, who is 14, is not dating — yet. But the conversation, which was sparked during one of the first lady’s many parenting tell-all chats, was a reminder of just how much the Obamas’ daughters have grown up in the past four years.
The first daughters, who have largely been absent from the campaign trail this time around, are evoked often by their proud parents. In the couple’s first joint television interview of the campaign season, the president said that Malia “is turning into a night owl like me.”
In fact, Michelle Obama — who goes to bed between 9 and 10 p.m. — has said that her husband and daughters often tuck her in now.
Other evidence that Sasha and Malia aren’t the little girls they once were?
“They’re now at the point where they still love their daddy, but they come in [to visit him] strategically,” the president said on an episode of ABC’s “The View” that aired Tuesday. “They’re not being surly or anything,” but they’ll give him five minutes and then go.
It’s quite a shift. Many remember Malia as a 10-year-old onstage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, sweetly saying, “I love you, Daddy!” to an image of her father on a large screen. She is now a freshman in high school who plays on the varsity tennis team.
Little sister Sasha is now 11, and her dad helped coach her basketball team, the Vipers, last year.
The sight of the first family onstage together this month at the Democratic convention in Charlotte created buzz as 35 million television viewers took note of Sasha and Malia’s growth. Their photos are rarely seen outside of celebrity-watching People magazine, which wrote in its “Celebrity Babies” column after the convention that the “stylish tweens . . . looked amazing” in their H&M and Anthropologie dresses.
On “The View,” the president recounted what his daughters were doing in the moments before he took the stage to give his speech: “People are whispering in their various headphones, and I’m about to go on cue,” Obama said. “Suddenly, I see Sasha and Malia spinning around.”
He asked what they were up to, and his daughters replied, “This is just like in the Hannah Montana movie,” in the moments before the singing Disney star takes the stage. Then the girls started cracking themselves up, the president said.
Malia and Sasha are often about town, but when they are not with their parents, the Washington press corps does not cover them, giving them a modicum of privacy. It has been left to their parents to describe their lives, and the first lady paints her daughters’ schedules as mundane: Their grandmother greets them when they get home from school, they cannot watch television on school nights, and they eat dinner with their parents at 6:30 p.m. They are not on Facebook. Their favorite television show is “Modern Family.”
Dinner-table talk is a roundtable discussion of everyone’s day. The president goes last and is sometimes called upon to strategize about middle school friendships. When the girls take the family dog, Bo, out for an after-dinner walk, the president and the first lady “catch up on serious stuff,” they said in the joint interview. But in their conversations with Sasha and Malia, Michelle Obama said she and her husband “let them understand what their dad’s doing every day and what is going on in other people’s lives.”
She tells her daughters: “You are blessed, and you better understand this. The world is complex in ways that you will never know.”
The first lady, who famously said that White House staff members would not make her daughters’ beds or pick up after them, has portrayed herself as a tiger mother in other ways. For example, she required Malia to stick with tennis, although her daughter wanted to quit.
“It’s not about you being a good tennis player. It’s about teaching yourself to do something hard and getting better at it,” Michelle Obama said on the women’s Web site iVillage. “Because that’s what life is. Life is getting through stuff that’s hard and teaching yourself that you can do hard things and you get better at it.”
But Malia and Sasha’s daily lives are, of course, extraordinary in ways that those of other kids are not — being shuttled around by the Secret Service, flying on Air Force One, hanging with the rich and famous.
At a recent Obama campaign fundraiser hosted by celebrity couple Jay-Z and Beyonce, the president said his daughters wished they were there. “Every time they get a chance to see these two, they are thrilled, partly because they are just both so generous, particularly to my kids,” Obama said. “And Malia and Sasha just love both of them.”
Despite the Obamas’ fierce protection of their children — the president was said to be furious when reporters wrote about a school trip that Malia took to Mexico over spring break — they have used their daughters’ images in campaign advertisements. The first family was front and center in a Web ad this year that asked voters to “help the Obamas stand up for working Americans.”
At the beginning of the election season, Michelle Obama hinted that her daughters would be a presence on the campaign trail, saying they love campaigning because, as little girls traveling through Iowa, they were enchanted by the state fair and could eat as much ice cream as they wanted.
With a teenager and an adolescent, however, the Obamas seem to think meeting voters is a task better left to adults. Malia and Sasha were in their classes at Sidwell Friends School the day after they flew to Charlotte to watch their father speak at the Democratic convention. And this summer, rather than traipsing around swing states, they were at sleep-away camp in New Hampshire, enjoying basketball, tennis, arts and crafts, and water sports.
Allowing her daughters to live outside the White House bubble for a few weeks was a treat that Michelle Obama has said she allowed in part because the girls have a Secret Service detail.
Protective parenting in the White House is nothing new. The Bushes and the Clintons similarly sought to shield their daughters from the spotlight. Only recently has Chelsea Clinton carefully chosen to become a public figure. Last year, she was hired by NBC to be a reporter. Barbara Bush helped found the Global Health Corps, which dispatches young professionals to work in clinics in poor communities, and her sister, Jenna Bush Hager, has been a contributor to the “Today” show.
The few times the Obama girls have spoken publicly have been to read books to other children, as they have done with their parents at holiday functions. If the president wins in November, the public is sure to hear more from them.
“Gosh, it happened so fast,” the president said, reflecting on their growth.
In another four years, Sasha will be a teenager and Malia will be heading to college before her father’s term is up — if he wins reelection.