Abnormally Normal The Obamas Next Door

The Obamas brought grandeur to the White House, particularly because they lived there is if there was nothing special about it.
Quelle: dpa
The Obama family in the White House Green Room in September 2009.
(Source: dpa)

When Donald Trump takes over as president of the United States on January 20, for the first time no presidential family will move into the White House. His wife Melania wants to stay in New York with their son.

When Michelle Obama briefly considered letting her two daughters finish their school year in their home town Chicago eight years ago, she triggered an outcry across the country: “America’s First Lady belongs in the White House!”

So they moved, and when Barack Obama officially took office on January 20, 2009, things were just as they should be. Nothing was left to chance, everything was choreographed meticulously. While Barack Obama was sworn in in front of the Capitol, moving vans drove up to the White House. And a race against the clock began.

Five hours, that’s how long the 93 men and women – all of them thoroughly vetted by security officials – had to pack up all the belongings of the last occupants, the Bush family, in the private rooms on the second and third floor, and to unpack the Obamas’ possessions.

They painted the walls in the colors handpicked by Michelle Obama, replaced pictures, put all the clothes in the wardrobes and even placed the stuffed animals in the rooms of the Obama daughters, Sasha and Malia. When the new First Family arrived at the White House around 4 p.m., it was supposed to look like they had lived there forever.

And yet this transition was different. For the first time, a black presidential family moved into the White House, this residence built by black slaves. White House staff and everyone involved in the move were nervous. Would the Obamas ever feel comfortable in a place loaded with history like this? What life would they want to live there as a family? How much privacy would they ask for? Which social, cultural, even culinary changes would they bring?

But as soon as the Obamas arrived, these worries dissolved. According to a source who was present but did not want to be named, Ms. Obama hugged staff members and smiled the biggest smile, the president joked around.

Today, eight years later, Americans might still be politically divided, but they mostly agree on one thing: As a First Family, the Obamas were a godsend, their behavior flawless. Almost frighteningly perfect, one might add.

It was as if the Obamas had posed for painter Norman Rockwell to capture the picture perfect American family. Whenever it was possible, the family had dinner at 6:30 p.m. sharp. Grandmother Marian Robinson, who had also moved from Chicago, would then retreat. The four Obamas said grace, and were served vegetables from the First Lady’s organic garden. Only if they finished their broccoli were they allowed dessert. Ms. Obama was known run a tight ship when it came to the health of their family, a fact the president tended to joke about.

Barack Obama with his family at a rally in Chicago on election night after being elected 44th U.S. president on November 4, 2008.

The family dinner was a sacred ritual for the Obamas. The president at times even made puzzled state visitors wait one floor down. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once had to stand by for almost two hours.

A family-friendly White House? It was for the president, his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once joked, but not for the rest of them: Mr. Obama’s advisors had to keep working.

After dinner, Mr. Obama sometimes read Harry Potter to his daughters. In later years, he bought them literature for young adults at the Politics & Prose book store, and discussed J.D. Salinger’s classic “The Catcher in the Rye” with Malia. And Sundays he trained Sasha’s basketball team at times.

It’s a paradox: The United States have hardly ever been so full of contempt for the political elite, and race relations have rarely been as strained as they are right now. Yet, the black upper-class Obamas are one of the most popular presidential families in history. More than half of all African-Americans even think that race relations have improved under the first black president. How does that go together?

The family dinner was a sacred ritual for the Obamas. The president at times even made puzzled state visitors wait.

Ever since the United States split from the United Kingdom 250 years ago, America’s First Family replaced the royal family. The people and the press are hungry for stories from the presidential home, and the Obamas delivered. In a very choreographed manner, of course. Each detail about the family’s life, each private picture was first vetted by White House staff.

Hardly a week went by without Ms. Obama gracing the front page of a magazine. She gave interviews to women’s magazines, appeared on TV talk shows. The three Obama ladies are fashion and style icons. Not because they wear designer clothes (the catwalk outfits are usually loans), but precisely because they also wear off the rack. “It’s this mix of glamour and a down-to-earth attitude that makes for the Obamas’ success,” said Anita McBride, once chief of staff to former First Lady Laura Bush and today expert for First Families at the American University in Washington, D.C.

Americans love their presidential families to be just as glamorous as they are casual, they should be like royalty and yet also like next door neighbors. The Obamas fit that description perfectly: The nation loved watching Mr. Obama not quite hitting all the right notes singing happy birthday for his daughter Malia’s 18th birthday. Ms. Obama was motivating the overweight participants on the reality TV show “The Biggest Loser” by joining in the push-ups. Malia gave her sister a thumbs-up during an official reception when she spotted Sasha talking to actor Ryan Reynolds. And of course there are the pictures of the Obamas giving out soup at a homeless shelter. Or those of Sasha waitressing to finance her holidays. These scenes mostly seem authentic.

The Obamas weren’t as free and careless as the pictures suggest when they moved into the White House though. There was a lot of pressure on the first black First Family.

“The entire nation was eager to see how the four of them – or if you count grandmother Marian Robinson, the five of them – would manage the new situation,” said Robert Watson, who has written several book about U.S. presidential families.

The White House is office, museum and home all in one. Nobody can yell or slam doors without being noticed. Only few items of furniture can be moved, there are strangers roaming the downstairs halls, and snipers are positioned on the roof. When Sasha once opened a window, a police officer immediately shouted “Shut the window.”

According to Mr. Watson, the Obamas too were wondering: Can we do it? “There was no role model for the first black First Family, no manual, it was a first in so many ways,” the expert said. The experiment likely only succeeded because the Obamas never pretended and never hid their doubts from the nation, he added.

Ms. Obama in particular is very direct. Even when her husband wanted to run for senate, she did not hold back her reservations against his political ambition. As a career woman, she didn’t want to raise the two daughters on her own.

The Obamas returning from a family vacation in 2015.

But most of all she suffered from the racist attacks. Ms. Obama in particular is often criticized for her bluntness. One slightly sharper word, and someone’s throwing the old stereotype of the angry black woman at her.

If the Obamas didn’t seek counseling during the 2008 presidential race, their marriage might have failed. Ms. Obama described to women’s magazine Move how she panicked shortly after moving into the White House. She said when her daughters got into black limos the first day of school, escorted by heavily armed security personnel, and Sasha, still young at the time, pressed her face against the glass, she wondered “Why on earth are we doing this? What are Barack and I doing to our daughters? What are we doing to our marriage?”

That’s why they had the dinner ritual. That’s why Ms. Obama limited her public appearances to two days a week. That’s why Ms. Robinson moved from Chicago as well. “We used to be a perfectly normal family and I wanted it to stay that way,” Ms. Obama told TV host Oprah Winfrey. She added that that’s the reason why she took a step back in her career and focused on raising her daughters.

Not everyone was pleased with that decision. Some feminists were furious. They had hoped the eloquent lawyer with the Harvard degree would fight racial discrimination and social injustice as First Lady. Instead, Ms. Obama was planting tomatoes in the White House garden, and promoted issues such as a healthy diet.

The disparaging term of the mommification of Ms. Obama made the rounds. Some called it a step right back into the 1960s.

But the allegation that Ms. Obama was an apolitical First Lady is misguided. To promote healthier school lunches she took on the powerful agricultural and sugar industries. Republican Sarah Palin once called her a “nanny” who wants to tell the nation what to eat. Maurine Beasley, professor emerita and expert on First Ladies, said Ms. Obama was “highly political” in hindsight.

The Obamas have also been criticized by the African-American community. The allegation: The first ever black First Family is living the over-assimilated life of the educated classes. That couldn’t be further from the reality of many blacks in the United States. But this criticism misses the fact that the black middle class has been growing rapidly recently.

The lives of most African-Americans, however, haven’t improved under the first black president. They still are comparatively poorer and less educated, consume more drugs, suffer more from police brutality and are more likely to be jailed. Like many others, Mr. Obama too might have hoped his victory would have been the beginning of a post-racial America. But the opposite is the case, fractions and contrasts have become visible more than ever.

Yet these facts didn’t diminish the First Family’s popularity. There’s good reason for that, too, said black filmmaker Daphne Valerius: Despite their fame, the Obamas stayed down to earth, didn’t pretend and lived traditional values. That way, Ms. Valerius added, they did a great service to the black community, which sometimes lacks role models – greater than any blazing speech or rap video ever could have been.

Maybe that’s the greatest merit of the first black First Family: they stayed so abnormally normal.


This article first appeared in newsweekly Die Zeit.  Martin Klingst was the paper's Washington bureau chief until 2014. To contact the author: [email protected]