Veterans of the campaign trail, President Obama and the First Lady typically keep separate schedules, the better to cover more ground and make sure one of them (usually Michelle) is home with daughters Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11. But while the girls finished up four weeks at sleepaway camp, the First Couple had a rare day on the stump together, and PEOPLE caught up with them as they traversed Iowa. He began Aug. 15 by meeting voters at a cafe in Cedar Rapids, then more at a junior high school in Cascade, and he moved on to meet up with his wife for rallies in Dubuque and Davenport, where they wound down at an ice-cream parlor. During a break, they sat down to answer questions, seeming relaxed, even unguarded at times. (The First Lady pointed out the President’s bug bites to him-a wife assessing the husband she hadn’t seen for five days.) And President Obama shared his thoughts on the tone of the campaign, on what he believes voters prefer to hear and his plans for marking a 20th wedding anniversary that lands just a month before they learn whether they will be toasting next year in the White House.
What are your favorite parts of campaigning?
MRS. OBAMA: For me, I get energy from the people in this country and their enthusiasm and their desire to figure this stuff out. People are not so divided, but they’re looking for answers.
THE PRESIDENT: In the White House there is a bubble. And campaigns give you a chance to break out of the bubble and talk to ordinary folks who are out there sharing their dreams with you, what’s going on with their kids.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh yeah. You’re not sleeping in your own bed. And the biggest downside is, except when Michelle and the girls are campaigning with me, I’m away from my family. That’s always hard.
MRS. OBAMA: This is the start of the school year, so my stomach starts churning, because you’re thinking about getting their books; Malia’s starting high school; homework starts coming in. You want to make sure they get on a steady pace. What about sports? What’s the game coming up? It’s all of that plus a campaign.
Is high school feeling like a big deal?
MRS. OBAMA: I think it’ll be okay because it’s the same school, and that helps with the anxiety.
THE PRESIDENT: She’s going to be great. The truth is my girls, they don’t seem to have all the flaws I had when I was their age. They’re just good kids-smart, hardworking, kind and respectful. They’ll adjust really well.
MRS. OBAMA: We only have one adjusting, though. Sasha’s not. Don’t rush her. She’s the baby.
THE PRESIDENT: She’s going through her own transition into young ladyhood. We pretend she’s a baby. Except she’s grown about a foot.
Are they personally invested in staying put for four more years?
MRS. OBAMA: The thing I tell my girls-and I just try to instill this in them throughout everything-is that whatever happens, we’ll be okay. That was one thing this move [to Washington in 2009] showed us, that home is where we are. I realize that my anxiety was just I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. But the truth is that if we’re together, we’re going to be fine. I don’t really want them to focus on that, because that’s not their burden.
In terms of creature comforts, what won’t you leave home without?
THE PRESIDENT [to his wife, in a cutesy voice]: Are you bringing your own blankie and pillow, little girl?
MRS. OBAMA [laughing]: It’s so easy to fall into the pizza here or burger there. So sometimes I’ll bring a salad. But we’re pretty much low-maintenance people. I always have to have a pair of flats.
On another note, have you talked to-or will you talk to-Vice President Biden about his comment that the GOP would “put y’all back into chains” [in reference to opponent Mitt Romney’s call for ‘streamlining’ Wall Street regulations]?
THE PRESIDENT: The truth is that during the course of these campaigns, folks like to get obsessed with how something was phrased even if everybody personally understands that’s not how it was meant. But that’s not what’s on people’s minds. What’s on people’s minds is how can we make sure that our kids are going to college?
Except when they turn on the TV, and it feels like it’s everywhere—the Priorities USA ad, the “Obamaloney,” the Romney Hood. Do you feel any responsibility to dial back [the campaign mudslinging]?
THE PRESIDENT: Every election cycle-if you look at the debates that took place between Jefferson and Adams, we’ve gone through 200 years of people worrying about the democratic debate. If you’ve been traveling with me, what I’ve been talking about is how do we lower our deficit so that we’re not doing it on the backs of the middle class and still invest in basic science and research? How do we maintain homegrown energy like wind, which is providing 7,000 jobs here in Iowa, and keep Medicare sustainable for seniors?
So is there anything to be gained by Governor Romney releasing 10 years of tax returns, or is it a distraction?
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think that’s a distraction. The American people historically expected Presidents to be a pretty open book and have a sense of what we’ve done in our past. Particularly given how significant the tax debate is in this campaign.
You raffle off the chance for even small-dollar donors to meet you. Do the winners come with advice?
THE PRESIDENT: Most of the time we don’t talk about politics. They’re much more interested in life in the White House.
How do you hope to spend your 20th anniversary on Oct. 3?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t think we can get too wild because our 20th anniversary is a month before the election.
MRS. OBAMA: Do you want me to dream? Okay. I’d want to retrace our honeymoon. We started in San Francisco and spent a week driving through some of the prettiest-
THE PRESIDENT: Napa and Big Sur and Carmel-
MRS. OBAMA: We would stop, go to a nice dinner. I really loved that trip.
And reality check: Since California’s not a swing state, what do you think you’re really going to get?
THE PRESIDENT: We will get dinner.
MRS. OBAMA: That would be heaven. If we’re in the same place. Hear that, schedulers? Oct. 3!