By Katherine Skiba Chicago Tribune
WASHINGTON — Malia and Sasha Obama have much to celebrate beginning next week: School’s out — and big birthdays are ahead.
Days after completing seventh grade, Sasha Obama will turn 13 on June 10, meaning there will be two teens in the White House for the first time since the Bush twins.
Malia, now wrapping up her sophomore year of high school, marks her sweet 16th birthday on Independence Day. She’ll take driving lessons this summer and, an aspiring filmmaker, will ramp up her college search.
The two girls, among the most famous sisters on the planet, were 7 and 10 years old when their father captured the White House. Five and a half years later, the Chicago-born girls are denizens of the capital and emerging citizens of the world, but living their lives mostly in private as they come of age.
Both attend the $36,264-a-year Sidwell Friends School, a demanding prep school, and have high-energy after-school pursuits.
Malia, like her mother, loves tennis — and has a fierce backhand. Sasha performs with a dance group whose repertory includes ballet, modern dance, jazz, hip-hop and Afro-Asian fusion.
They’ve sprouted, lost some of their girlishness and made fashion choices suggesting that they, like their mom, have fallen in love with clothing. Malia has shed her braces; now Sasha wears a set.
Observers marvel at how rare have been their missteps in an age of 24/7 news and nonstop social media. In public, they rarely drop their guard, if you overlook the goofy selfies they snapped at last year’s inaugural parade.
Acquaintances say they remain unpretentious despite the scrutiny and security that surround their privileged lives. They credit the daughters themselves, plus their parents and live-in grandmother.
Malia is “extraordinarily sweet. She strikes me as being very genuine and a nice, caring person. She’s very mature, even interacting with adults, which she does on a regular basis,” said Marc Howard, a Georgetown University political science professor whose daughter, the same age as Sasha, used to attend Sidwell. The two girls have had play dates together.
Sasha, Howard said, is “spunky. She’s kind of a lively, entertaining person — a kid who likes to laugh. Like any kid, she has her sassy moments.”
He helped coach Sasha’s basketball team after the Obamas settled into the White House. “She was definitely a good player, she had good instincts for basketball, she was aggressive and she liked to shoot,” he said. “She scored a fair amount, which was always very exciting when the first family was at the games.”
It was, he pointed out, beginner girls basketball, “so there were five times as many turnovers as baskets. It was more about fun and playing together as a team.”
Howard said the girls’ maternal grandmother, Marian Robinson, has been a “constant presence” in their lives, noting: “She would be there at school events, sporting events and practices.”
Guests at Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party in January, when Beyonce, Stevie Wonder and John Legend rocked the White House, said the two girls, their grandmother and godparents Kaye and Wellington Wilson were on hand with the president and first lady. The girls brought along several young friends, according to the guests, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. isn’t all fun, games and A-list entertainers.
As the girls have grown up and traveled extensively with their parents, their horizons have expanded. In October, Malia met Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani student who was shot by the Taliban for talking about the right of girls to attend school.
After the girls attended the first five White House Easter Egg Rolls of the Obama administration, they skipped this year’s, as school was in session.
Peter Gosselin, a senior health care analyst with the Bloomberg Government information service, has a son at Sidwell a year ahead of Malia. In the upper grades, he said, the students have “hours and hours” of homework.
“It’s a really intense place,” said Gosselin, who recalled that his son’s final project in the sixth grade required him do a freehand map of the world showing every foreign country, plus each country’s capital and two of its natural features.
“The school really expects you to be an adult pretty early, because they don’t spoon it out to you,” he said. “They basically say, ‘Here’s a body of knowledge, know it and we’ll test you.’”
According to Gosselin, Michelle Obama is a fixture at the annual back-to-school nights when parents navigate crowded hallways, going from class to class to meet and question their offspring’s new teachers. The Obama parents, he said, “have been pretty conscientious about not overwhelming the school with their security and presence.”
Gosselin, whose son will be a senior at Sidwell in the fall, described what awaits the Obama parents, both Ivy Leaguers: what he termed “college application hell” and a grueling battery of tests, including the SAT, Advanced Placement exams and finals.
“It’s just awful,” the father lamented.
The president told The New Yorker that Malia wants to be a filmmaker, and she is said to be choosing from among a number of top-level colleges.
Malia, her mother said recently, is a “great student, but she feels the stress thinking about college.” Sasha, who no longer studies Mandarin Chinese and has taken up Spanish, is “already thinking about college,” the first lady said.
The first lady said she’d like the girls to study abroad but isn’t forcing it.
Michelle Obama spoke during a spring break trip to China that she took with her mother and her girls in March. They met with China’s president and first lady, dropped in on schools, took in a panda preserve and toured the Great Wall.
“I’m just so proud of how they have managed all this with poise and grace and maturity,” the first lady recently told ABC’s Robin Roberts.
As for the older daughter learning to drive this summer, Michelle Obama joked on “LIVE with Kelly &Michael” that Secret Service agents don’t want her or her husband in a car with a teen behind the wheel. “I don’t think they want him in the state when she’s learning to drive,” she said. “We will fortunately be able to hand that responsibility to someone else.”
As the girls go through their teen years, dating might be an issue. Their father told comedian Steve Harvey in an interview last December that he wasn’t worried about his daughters dating for two reasons. For one, they’re “very sensible,” he said. Also, he joked, “I’ve got men with guns following them around all the time.”
Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush, remembers the Obama girls’ first trip to the White House weeks after their father was elected president in 2008. She met the girls, their mother and their grandmother at the door and escorted them to meet with Laura Bush and daughters Jenna and Barbara.
McBride said Malia and Sasha were “very respectful, very gracious.”
“If they were intimidated, they didn’t show any of it,” she said.
McBride is executive-in-residence at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. She has a daughter, 13, and a son, 16, and noted that her son sees Malia out and about. “She’s doing the normal things that a teen does. He sees her at movie theaters, hanging out with her friends. Nobody treats her differently,” she said.
It’s expected Malia will be a college freshman when her family’s lease on the White House runs out on Jan. 20, 2017, while Sasha will be in 10th grade. An open question is whether the Obama family — whose girls still consider Chicago home, according to their mother — will stay in Washington so the younger girl can finish high school at Sidwell.
Carl Anthony, a historian at the First Ladies’ National Library in Ohio, said America’s fascination with first children was intense even in the days before TV.
He thinks the Obamas may have more than one home come 2017. “When you’re among the rich and powerful of the world,” he said, “you don’t have to do such a mundane thing as have one home.”
Anthony, having never met the Obama daughters, said he’s left, like most people, to read their body language.
“I have to say, there’s not one time I’ve ever seen a photograph or some footage when I’m not impressed anew,” he said. He said the sisters have “commanding physical presences … uncanny grace … a real evenness, a sense of balance.”
Howard, the Georgetown professor, with his wife welcomed a younger Sasha for a play date to their home and a performance elsewhere by a children’s comedian with the stage name The Great Zucchini. He said their daughter, Zoe, was repaid, after a basketball game later on, with a ride to the White House in the presidential limousine and a seat across from the president. The White House play date featured bowling and a snack, Howard said.
Said McBride: “There’s no better place for your friends for a play date. There’s a pool, bowling alley and a movie theater. The biggest and most beautiful playground in the world is the South Lawn. It’s very special.”
Today there are 26 living presidential children, including the Obama daughters, former President George W. Bush’s twin daughters and the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. The others include the four Ford children, who ranged in age from 17 to 24 when their father became commander in chief after Richard Nixon resigned.
Steve Ford, an actor and motivational speaker in San Luis Obispo, Calif., was 18 then; sister Susan Ford was 17.
In an interview, he recalled inviting his best friend over that first night in the White House and the two hauling his large stereo onto the roof and blasting Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Now 58, he said the stunt brings to mind a comedic film about two male friends: “It’s like ‘Dumb and Dumber’ on the roof of the White House.”
Within weeks, he abandoned plans to attend Duke University and become a dentist and, with 10 Secret Service agents in tow, traveled to Utah and Montana and became a cowboy and rodeo performer. First he had to break the news of his new intentions to his father in the Oval Office.
Steve Ford said he later visited the White House from time to time, staying for months at a time, and he appreciated that his siblings became sounding boards for one another as they adjusted to life in what is a home, a museum, the most important office in the land and a destination for guests such as Queen Elizabeth II.
“The cliche is true,” he said, “it brought our family closer together.”
He gives the Obama daughters high marks. “They look like they’re just charming little girls,” he said.