On a Day That's Anything but Normal, Obama Girls Appear Just That

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WASHINGTON -- In an interview with student journalists, Michelle Obama used the word "normal" again and again last Friday in reference to her children. "I want them to be normal kids, just like you guys, polite and respectful and kind," she said, according to 12-year-old Maggie McDow of Bexley, Ohio, who was reporting for Highlights Magazine.

"I'm winning," the first lady declared of her battle to give her children something resembling regular American girlhoods.

That was 24 hours before Malia and Sasha Obama, 14 and 11, embarked on one of the least normal three-day weekends imaginable, their father's second inauguration as president.

Within moments of Malia and Sasha's appearance at church on Monday morning, their fashion choices (J. Crew for Malia, Kate Spade for Sasha) were reported along with those of their mother. As Sasha arrived at her seat for the inaugural ceremony, cameras beamed her face all over the National Mall and giant images of her head floated above the crowd as far as the eye could see. When she yawned a few minutes later, Twitter lit up with excitement over her apparent boredom.

"Literally every time Sasha Obama is on screen, she isn't paying attention to anything and I really, really love that about her," tweeted Casey Turner of Manhattan.

But aside from Sasha's slight restlessness during the long ceremony, the Obama daughters appeared startlingly grown-up, less like children and more like the adult Caroline Kennedy and Chelsea Clinton: graceful and self-possessed, bearing little sign of whatever intrusions they may have experienced in public life.

As the camera lingered on the sisters before the ceremony started, they talked with their first cousins, seemingly schooled in the Washington art of appearing to chitchat casually as one's image is beamed near and far.

At a concert for the children of military families on Saturday, they listened to songs like "Teenage Dream," Katy Perry's tribute to adolescent lust, looking wholesome in no makeup and delicate jewelry. When they were marched onto the stage, their grins were sheepish, as if to say: clap if you really want to, but we're just the kids.

One news photographer who shot the event said that Malia and Sasha turned their heads away from the cameras during the brief period he and his colleagues were allowed to click away -- either out of shyness or polite sabotage.

When Barack Obama first took the presidential oath four years ago, his clan seemed poised to redefine the very contours of a first family, with a sprawling, international, multiracial, multireligious group. But the Kenyan family at the climax of his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," has rarely been seen or heard from since the first inauguration, and instead the Obamas tell a far more conventional tale about a nuclear family.

In the student interview last week, Mrs. Obama shared a few updates from life at home, painting her usual portrait of a tightly knit, education-minded family. The president recently missed his first parent-teacher conference, she told Ms. McDow and the other student reporters. Malia and her parents are currently making a project of reading classic American novels together, from "Catcher in the Rye" to "Tender is the Night." (Their favorite, she said, is "Life of Pi," and they enjoyed the recent film adaptation.) Now that Malia is getting older, she is recommending more music to her mother, recently introducing her to the pop singer Elle Varner.

As images of the Obama daughters flashed across television and computer screens in recent days, some commentators predicted that they would be more visible during their father's second term, now that they were older. But the reverse could be true: the Obama girls are moving into the highly fraught realm of adolescence, with all of its social and academic demands.

"Now that my girls are getting older, they don't want to spend that much time with me anyway, so I'll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I'm getting kind of lonely in this big house," the president said in a White House news conference last week.

The rituals of the teenage years -- dates instead of playdates, college tours instead of ice cream stops -- may require more privacy and protection, not less. Malia will not depart for college until the final months of her father's term, and Sasha will be a 15-year-old high school student.

But the country's thirst to know more about them only seems to grow. Type their names into Google and some popular search terms that appear include "malia sasha grounded" (if they are, the White House press secretary is not saying) and "malia and sasha bedrooms" (memo from a longtime Obama watcher: there is no way on earth Mrs. Obama would allow photographs of her children's bedrooms on the Internet.)

In the interview last week, Mrs. Obama did not say how Malia and Sasha felt about attending inauguration events. But she did say a bit about what their father's re-election meant to them: for now, the girls are just happy not to have to change schools again.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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