A formal house that has a family in it

The presence of children will change the atmosphere of the official residence

January 18, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

When Barack and Michelle Obama move their family into the most storied address in America, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., they will be taking possession of the world's center of power and a museum of American presidential history. They will also be turning a historic house into their home.

The Obama family moved from Chicago to Washington two weeks before the inauguration so daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, could start at Sidwell Friends, the private Quaker school. Blair House, the traditional pre-inaugural home for presidents-elect, wasn't ready yet. But the Obamas wanted to be in town for the start of the school semester, so they went to the Hay-Adams Hotel.

Details of the Obamas' personal and social life have been as devoured in Washington - and the country - as news of the professional side of the transition. The president-elect is Time's Man of the Year, but his entire family is on the cover of US Weekly. Photos of the Obamas vacationing in Hawaii pop up on celebrity Web sites.

"The enormous interest in the Obamas creates an environment that hearkens back to the Kennedy era or even Teddy Roosevelt's time," said historian Richard Norton Smith, a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University. Those presidents come to mind, he said, because of the presence of young children in the White House: Malia and Sasha will be the youngest to live there since the Kennedys.

"The White House is first and foremost a home, and any time you have small children - as anyone who has small children knows - that's going to define in many ways the atmosphere within the house," Smith said.

Sleepovers, picnics on the lawn and a puppy are all apparently in the works. Because going out will come with such intense security and scrutiny, the Obamas are expected to do a lot of socializing and entertaining in their new home. But the girls can't just call up friends and invite them over: Everyone must go through a Secret Service background check, according to former White House staff members.

"With children living in the White House, you'll have slumber parties and birthday parties and scavenger hunts. When the Carters moved to the White House, Amy Carter had a tree house," said Ann Stock, who was Bill and Hillary Clintons' first social secretary. "These are the kinds of things that make their life as normal as possible.

"I think what you try to do is keep your family life as your family life and the traditions and the way they've been raised," Stock said. "So at night when they go to bed, yes, they're in the White House, but they're surrounded by their teddy bears and whatever it is that makes the house a home."

Media access to the children is expected to be tightly controlled, as it was with Chelsea, Clinton who was 12 when her father was elected.

On 60 Minutes after the election, President-elect Obama said of his daughters: "Right now they're not self-conscious ... they don't have an attitude. ... If at the end of four years, just from a personal standpoint, we can say they are who they are - they remain the great joys that they are - and this hasn't created a whole bunch of problems for them, then I think we're going to feel pretty good."

As the first African-American presidential family to inhabit the residence, the Obamas cast an image that could have a powerful effect, historians and others said. "People are curious to see this, and they're watching very closely," said Katrina Bell McDonald, an associate professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins University. "I think people genuinely like them and want to see this family succeed."

Official Washington expects a huge demand for tickets to White House events. Already, requests have vastly outstripped supply for the 240,000 tickets available for Obama's inauguration. Once he's in the White House, invitations to state dinners and other functions will be sought after. The guest list for White House functions could be more star-studded than was seen during Bush's eight years in the White House. Oprah Winfrey was an active Obama supporter, and Obama had an e-mail exchange with actress Scarlett Johansson, another fan.

The social secretary, Desiree Rogers, a former Chicago businesswoman, will be in charge of parceling out tickets, as well as organizing every social event on White House grounds. She hasn't offered too many clues about what's in store, but she told The New York Times: "You will definitely see some new things. We're not going to be superpredictable, where everything looks the same."

Letitia Baldrige, the former social secretary and White House chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy, said the Obamas will probably host fewer fancy, formal parties in a nod to the tough economy. "I'm sure they'll have more informal parties because the times call for it," Baldrige said. "We are in a recession, and they are not going to put on the dogs, so to speak."

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