Malia and Sasha Obama will be the youngest children since Amy Carter to move into the White House. Presidents' families lives there involve big changes, both positive and negative.
America did not need a vote to acknowledge that President-elect Barack Obama’s two daughters are spectacularly cute.
The nation has enduring images of Malia and Sasha Obama on Election Night 2008, one clad in red and the other in black, striding with smiles onto a Grant Park stage while holding the hands of their famous parents.
Throughout Obama’s two-year campaign, audiences’ hearts warmed when they saw Malia, 10, wrapped in imminent first lady Michelle Obama’s arms and Sasha, 7, boosted into the air by her father.
Soon they will bring their unconquerable enthusiasm — along with their girlie dresses, hooded sweatshirts and love of ice cream — to one of the most famous addresses in the United States. Not since 1977, when Amy Carter bounded into the White House at age 9, have presidential children this young moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
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The physical and psychological adjustments for the children — a new school, a new puppy, heightened public curiosity, constant Secret Service surveillance, the mantle of being part of the first black presidential family — are numerous, but so are the impending changes in atmosphere and attitude they will bring to the White House.
“It’s more upbeat,” says Maria Downs, 76, who was the social secretary to President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, from 1975 to 1977, of having kids in the White House. “It’s great because they have the run of the house, given that they’re the children of the president and the first lady, and they really develop a very kind of fine, unusual relationship with the staff at the White House — the butlers and the ushers and the florists and the people that work around them.
“They’ll have a ball there. Children have great fun in the White House. There are a lot of places to ramble.”
In an interview over the summer with “Access Hollywood,” Sasha, whose full name is Natasha, simply said she thought “it’d be very cool” to live in the White House, while older sister Malia added: “I think my most excitement about it is that I get to redecorate my room. I enjoy decorating. So I get to get this whole new room and do whatever I want!”
As for room decoration, Susan Ford Bales, who was a senior in high school when her father became president in 1974 and held her senior prom in the East Room of the White House, said in a book by Betty Debnam called “A Kid’s Guide to the White House” that “you can decorate your room any way you want at your parents’ expense. I could stick up things on the walls. They have a warehouse full of furniture you can choose from.” She also called the whole experience of living there “like a fairy tale.”
The White House, which boasts 55,000 square feet and 132 rooms, is set on 18 acres filled with magnolias, dogwoods and maples. When the Obamas move into the White House, they will primarily use the mansion’s second and third floors and have access to a solarium and a movie theater.
For the Obama daughters, birthday parties could include surprise appearances by the Jonas Brothers. And their grandmother, 71-year-old Marian Robinson, a lifelong Chicago resident, is preparing to pick up and move to Washington to help shuttle the girls to soccer games and recitals, according to The Associated Press.
On the educational side, Michelle Obama has said in interviews that she looks forward to her daughters meeting dignitaries and foreign leaders.
While Downs recalls that Susan Ford stood in several times at state dinners for her mother when Betty Ford was too ill with breast cancer to make appearances, she also remembers how sometimes the kids’ encounters with heads of state didn’t go quite the way the presidential couple hoped.
Downs, who currently coordinates public affairs for the White House Historical Association, tells how the Fords were riding up an elevator in the family quarters with Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, when the elevator stopped, and “in pops (middle son) Jack Ford, in a state of undress because he couldn’t find his cuff links. His shirttail was hanging out, and he had no shoes.
“The queen had on her tiara, and Philip had his ribbons, and there’s Jack. Mrs. Ford said, ‘Your Highness, I’d like to present our son, Jack,’ and he goes ‘Whoops!’ And then ran.’ The queen looked at Mrs. Ford, who said, ‘I am so embarrassed!’ And the queen laughed and said: ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I have one like it at home.’ For the longest time, we referred to Jack as ‘it.’ “
Presidential kids, says Bill Bushong, historian for the White House Historical Association, bring levity to the White House that often changes tradition forever.
The White House Christmas tree, now an iconic tradition, didn’t start until President Benjamin Harrison introduced it into the executive mansion in 1889 to delight his grandchildren.
President John F. Kennedy’s kids, Caroline and John Jr. (John-John), so known for playing in the Oval Office and hiding under Kennedy’s desk, held picnics on the South Lawn, petted a pony on the White House porch and tromped around the White House in Halloween costumes.
There is, too, the question of choosing schools. President Jimmy Carter famously sent Amy to a public school, but in more recent presidencies, children have been attending private schools. Perhaps the Obama daughters, who currently attend the prestigious, private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, will go the route of Chelsea Clinton, who attended Sidwell Friends, a private school where tuition starts at $28,442 per school year.
And then there is the question of how Malia and Sasha will adjust psychologically, especially given their historic role.
Bushong notes that presidential families with young children draw intense interest because American families “see a mirror of themselves in the essence of something about presidents and their families,” adding that the historic nature of the first black presidential family will draw great curiosity.
He points out that there have been black children in the White House before — one of Quentin (son of President Theodore Roosevelt) Roosevelt’s best childhood playmates was Roswell Pinckney, the son of a White House steward — but they were usually the children of servants or slaves.
Irene Swerdlow-Freed, a clinical psychologist based in Farmington Hills, Mich., says the most important thing for Sasha and Malia will be “to have that home base they can return to and continue to have that routine.”
Sasha and Malia, she says, “are the most vulnerable to people seeing them as older than they are. They still have the needs of young children, but they will be presented all dressed up in ballrooms and conference rooms. I think more of their time will have to be spent in normal, family activities. They have opportunities that are extraordinary, and if their parents are honest and direct and continue to be role models, children follow that.
“We all grow up feeling everyone is focused on us and analyzing what we say or do, but in their situation, everyone is focused on them.”
As long as they grow a sense of themselves as individuals with their families and friends rather than who they are in the public, Swerdlow-Freed says, they will thrive.
“They’re going to have so much fun,” she says. “It’s like a fantasy, where you go off with the king and queen and live in a castle. That’s what these children are going to be doing.”