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The Obama roadshow becomes a family affair

Few heads of state travel en famille. But when Barack Obama tours the world, he brings his daughters too

Rarely do 11-year-olds make political statements that reverberate around the world. But Malia Ann Obama is no ordinary young girl.

Last week in Italy, where her father was taking part in the G8 summit, Malia stepped out in a grey T-shirt bearing the peace sign of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The move came just days after Barack Obama and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev had signed a treaty cutting back on nuclear weapons. Just to emphasise her point, Malia later donned a differently coloured T-shirt with the same symbol.

The news was picked up and celebrated by newspapers around the world. “Malia’s Master Peace!” blared the headline in the tabloid New York Post, normally a fierce critic of most things Obama. It was a perfect Obama family moment: a blend of the personal, the political and the fashionable and lapped up by an eager press. For the truth is, after barely six months in the White House, the Obama family seems to have settled in just fine with the “Obama girls” as the centrepiece of the most powerful domestic household in the world.

Growing up in the White House is no easy task but is one that Malia, 11, and Sasha, eight, have adapted to very quickly. They have become “tween’ sensations whose fashion tastes and styles rival Miley Cyrus in terms of influencing youngsters. They have toured the world as part of the First Family, wowing audiences and — perhaps unwittingly — becoming a powerful part of Obama’s attempts to undo the international public relations damage caused by eight years of George W. Bush. They have gone from suburban Chicago to downtown Washington DC and a life of unbelievable privilege and exotic travel, mingling with presidents, pop stars and royalty.

Yet at the same time they remain young girls, trying to grow up in a harsh glare of unprecedented publicity. It has forced the Obamas — and the White House staff — to indulge in a delicate balancing act of the personal and the political, wielding their image positively but also shielding them from the worst excesses of celebrity. It is no easy task, not least for the girls themselves. “They face a level of interest unlike anything seen for any other two children on Earth today,” said Matthew Hertenstein, associate professor of psychology at DePauw University.

In many ways, Malia and Sasha are living a fairytale childhood. They get to do things no other girls do. Last week, as they accompanied their globe-trotting parents, they were treated to a special visit to Giolitti, Rome’s most famous ice cream shop. They were given private lessons on how to make the delicious confection and took home three kilogrammes each.

But that was just one of many treats over the past six months. They have had a private tour of the Colosseum, watched the Jonas Brothers play in the White House, partied on the set of a Harry Potter movie and met more Hollywood stars than even the most hardened of gossip columnists. “The Obamas’ goal is universal: they want their kids to have some fun. Isn’t that what we all want for our kids, at least some of the time?” said Tamar Chansky, a psychologist at the Children’s Centre for OCD and Anxiety. So far the girls have handled it all with grace and enthusiasm — at least in public.

But there is a downside to the fame thrust upon them. Modern celebrity is a surreal and all-invading beast and not every fashion choice has been greeted with the enthusiasm of Malia’s peace sign. Indeed, in Moscow recently the pair stepped out in fashionable J Crew clothes, prompting the company to release a press release touting their outfits. The price tags of some of the offerings raised eyebrows.

It prompted a mini-controversy that flared briefly through America’s chattering and blogging classes. It also showed how odd it must feel for any child to make a simple decision about what to wear and create a ripple effect through the worlds of politics and fashion.

An even more curious incident happened shortly after the inauguration when a toy company produced a line of dark-skinned dolls called “Sweet Sasha” and “Marvellous Malia”. Michelle Obama condemned the move and they were eventually renamed. Not surprisingly, people were worried about the impact on any child of seeing dolls of themselves in shop windows.

Despite the weirdness, it seems that the Obamas are settling down well in the White House. Indeed family life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is closer and easier than it has been for many years. For the first time since at least 2006 Malia was able to celebrate her last birthday at home, not in a hotel room. Constant campaigning has been replaced by a “live where you work” arrangement which means Obama can check on his children every morning and night.

He has taken advantage of the situation to become more of an old-fashioned dad, imposing a regime of chores, dog walking and homework familiar to millions of other American children. The Obama girls may get private concerts by the Jonas Brothers, but only after their schoolwork is done on time. Even on their travels, there is time for the children, sometimes at the expense of world leaders. In Moscow, the family spent an entire evening together relaxing in the city’s plush O2 lounge. In France they skipped a meal with the French president to spend quality time together.

The key to the success of this strategy, however, does not lie with either Barack or Michelle Obama, but with Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson. The sprightly, lifelong Chicagoan grandmother apparently left her home city “kicking and screaming”, according to one relative. But she has adapted well to life in Washington. She lives in a suite on the third floor of the White House above the Obama residence, forming a rare, old-fashioned family unit of three generations under one roof. She shuttles the kids to school, goes on play dates with them, baby-sits and helps with homework. “She has been very good for them,” said Carl Anthony, author of the book America’s First Families.

But there is a definite political undertone. It is a tightly controlled environment, in which an iron grip is kept on the media exposure of the Obama children both for reasons of family and of state.

No detail is too small. No level of paranoia about an unsolicited photograph or video is too great. Numerous notorious incidents abound. In one case, Obama was snapped by photographers waving casually to Sasha as she stood on a White House balcony. Staff immediately asked news organisations not to use or distribute the seemingly innocent photos as they were not part of an official event. A tight media strategy is combined with the deliberate release of regular family shots. That is aimed at killing the paparazzi market in the girls by ensuring there are pictures always in circulation. However, they are often deliberately released at a low resolution, requiring media groups to ask the White House for better shots, thus allowing the Obama media operation to effectively play the role of photo editor on specific stories. It is a canny strategy and has worked well.

The main reason behind it is simple desire for family privacy. The Obamas felt a June 2008, television appearance by their daughters during the election campaign had been a “mistake” and one they have not repeated. But a second consideration is that it gives the Obamas control over something that is undoubtedly a political asset. The Obama family — well-balanced, happy and successful — is a powerful political tool in the opinion polls. It reinforces an image of Obama as just another middle-class American, balancing work and a loving family.

Bush also knew the power of family. Though his own policies and popularity plummeted, even his most ardent critics spoke admiringly of his strong marriage and healthy relationship with his daughters. It is, perhaps, especially true for Obama as America’s first black president at a time when the black nuclear family in America has almost collapsed. Obama has spoken openly of the need for more young, black men to act as responsible fathers. He no doubt uses his own example as a powerful motivator.

But the road ahead for the Obamas as a family is a long one. In six months they have endured a level of media scrutiny that is almost beyond belief and has spanned the globe. So far they have passed with flying colours.

But there are at least three-and-a-half years to go, add another four if, as seems currently likely, Obama wins a second term. That would see Malia and Sasha live out their teenage years in the White House, complete with exams, puberty and first boyfriends. It is hard not to feel a twinge of pity; few would envy such a life in the spotlight as teenage hormones start to kick in.

But the girls have rarely known a different life. They girls have grown up with their father in the spotlight, progressing from state politics to the Senate to the Oval Office. That has probably made them uniquely well prepared psychologically for their very strange childhood. —

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