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Striking a balance while becoming first family

As the first African-Americans in the White House, the Obamas will be a living tableau of racial progress — everything they say and do will brim with symbolic value.
Image: Obama cover
Sen. Barack Obama stands on stage along with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia (red dress) and Sasha (black dress) during an election night gathering in Chicago on November 4, 2008.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

When Verna Williams called to congratulate Michelle Obama on Wednesday morning, she half-jokingly offered to stop calling her old law school buddy “Meesh” and start calling her something more dignified.

Mrs. Obama dissolved into giggles, and the two traded title ideas, one sillier than the next, all of them too ridiculous to repeat to a newspaper reporter, Ms. Williams said.

One day after the presidential election, the Obama family of Chicago’s Hyde Park is only beginning to figure out how to become the first family of the United States.

As the first African-Americans in the role, they will be a living tableau of racial progress, and friends say they are acutely aware that everything they say and do — the way they dress, where Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 , go to school, even what kind of puppy they adopt — will brim with symbolic value.

“Here’s an intact black family, a happy family, with beautiful kids and a loving extended family,” Ms. Williams said, “and they happen to live in the executive mansion.”

For President-elect Barack Obama and his family, leaving Chicago means dismantling the protective cocoon they have built around them.

Throughout the campaign, Malia and Sasha, who will become the youngest White House occupants in decades, spent many hours in their grandmother’s tiny South Side apartment, in the same building where their mother was raised. Their private school at the University of Chicago is laced with neighbors and allies who watch over the girls with loving vigilance.

When the girls and their mother have needed an escape, they could retreat to the backyards of longtime friends, where they jumped rope or turned up the volume on their iPods and danced with abandon to songs by Soulja Boy and Beyoncé Knowles.

Mrs. Obama, a creature of the South Side and of habit, has spent nearly every Saturday for the past 10 years with the same two friends and their collective brood of children, lately at a local California Pizza Kitchen where the group hashes over their weeks together.

Now all of that must change.

Laura Bush Talks To Future First Lady Michelle Obama
WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 5: First lady Laura Bush talks to Michelle Obama, wife of President-elect Barack Obama, by telelphone at the White House November 5, 2008 in Washington, DC.Getty Images North America

On Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Obama spoke with the first lady, Laura Bush, who invited her and her daughters to visit the White House soon. The hunt for a new school begins now, Mrs. Obama told friends. In Hyde Park, she has a reputation as a fiercely attentive mother, one who watches Malia’s footwork closely at soccer games while other parents drift and gossip over lattes. Friends say Mrs. Obama will apply the same scrutiny to her daughters’ transition to Washington.

“Because she is Michelle,” said Sandra Matthews, a friend from Chicago, “she will manage that, she will direct it,” instead of relying on others to research schools.

As parents, the Obamas believe in giving their daughters some sway over decisions that affect them, she said. And so, note to headmasters: The preferences of Malia (pronounced mah-LEE-ah), a solemn-eyed Harry Potter fan, and Sasha, the family ham, could weigh heavily. (Although the Obamas could send their daughters to one of the capital’s public schools, which are in the midst of a major overhaul, many Washingtonians expect them to look closely at Georgetown Day School or Sidwell Friends, which Chelsea Clinton attended.)

While the Obama White House will surely entertain the usual Washington dignitaries and foreign heads of state, the most prized guests might be the girls’ friends. “We may see sleepovers at the White House, groups of young girls in their sleeping bags hanging out with Sasha and Malia,” Ms. Williams said.

Instead of trying to create an entirely new social world in Washington, friends predict that the Obamas will transport some of their Hyde Park world to the capital instead. On the campaign trail, they were accompanied by bands of relatives and friends: Craig Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s brother; Martin Nesbitt, the campaign treasurer; Eric Whitaker, a hospital executive; and others. In part so the Obama girls could have familiar playmates, everyone brought their families along, too.

The attitude of the Obamas is “Come join us on this adventure,” said John W. Rogers Jr., a finance company founder, who has done so a few times.

“I’m not letting go of this family,” said Yvonne Davila, whose daughters are two of the Obama girls’ best friends.

The Obamas will come to Washington with a fifth family member, one who has so far remained mostly out of the spotlight. Marian Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s mother, is a widow and retired bank secretary who has served as the girls’ chief caretaker during their mother’s frequent absences. Aides say they do not yet know whether Mrs. Robinson will formally move into the White House, but it is certain that Malia and Sasha’s grandmother will be near at hand and available when her parents have to travel.

“They are extremely close to their grandmother,” Ms. Matthews said. “That’s why Michelle has been able, with the ease and peace of mind, to be gone.”

Once Mrs. Obama has settled her girls, she has said, she will move on to the matter of exactly what sort of first lady she wants to be. Although she dresses with unusual care — in both designer clothing and the off the rack styles she has become known for — friends say she has only a certain amount of patience for the domestic arts. She is a get-it-done-efficiently Rachael Ray type, they say, not given to elaborate Martha Stewart-like efforts.

As first lady, Mrs. Obama has said, she plans to make herself an advocate for working parents, particularly military families, urging better access to child care for all. Trying to juggle public duties with two young children, she will be a living illustration of the very issue she describes.

“She’s going to be engaging in the balancing act herself,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian.

But in one respect, the Obamas’ family life will now become much easier. Since 1996, when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate, Mr. Obama has spent long periods away from home, and by his own admission, he is a part-time parent at best. The past six years have been a particularly punishing set of marathons, as he ran for a United States Senate seat, then spent weekdays in Washington, then traveled on the presidential campaign trail for nearly two long years.

His election will help realize a long-held, cherished family dream: For the next four years, the Obamas will finally eat dinner together.