The candidate and wife Michelle tell PEOPLE how they raise their girls in the public eye
Squeezing some family fun between campaign stops, Sen. Barack Obama kicks a soccer ball to his 10-year-old daughter Malia and, with a wink to a reporter on the sidelines, confides one of his wife Michelle’s secret talents: “She is the best Hula-Hooper I know. Once she gets the rhythm going, she can drop to her knees!”
And what about the Democratic presidential nominee? “That is one thing you will never see – me Hula-Hooping. I think that’s clear.”
Also clear: That even on the campaign trail, this is a brood almost like any other, with set routines (chores!), boundaries ($1 allowance!) and playtimes (movie nights!). The Obamas opened up to PEOPLE – first, at the family’s three-story home in Chicago in June, and again on July 4, at a park in Butte, Mont., where the family campaigned and celebrated Malia’s birthday – about the task of raising two girls, including 7-year-old Sasha, under the public eye.
PEOPLE: Someone told me today that you don’t do birthday presents.
Michelle: No, because we spend hundreds of dollars on a birthday party and movie tickets and pizza and popcorn …
Barack: That sleepover is enough. We want to teach some limits to them. And their friends bring over presents.
Michelle: They get so much stuff that it just becomes numbing. Malia believes there is still a Santa Claus even though she’s a little wary because some of her friends are non-believers. But Malia says, “Ma, I know there is a Santa because there’s no way you’d buy me all that stuff.” [Laughing]
So what does a slumber party at the Obama house look like?
Barack: They’re pretty noisy.
Michelle: The older they get, they just talk a lot. But they’re at the age where they’re pretty self-sufficient. [For Malia’s birthday] we’re going to go swimming, see Wall-E, make pizzas, have sundaes.
Barack: I usually go for the swim but this time I want to go to the movie just because Wall-E has gotten great reviews. I find actually that children’s movies are the best movies these days. But I’ll probably, after that, peel off until the cake.
Michelle: [Laughs] “Peel off.”
Do you give your girls an allowance?
Michelle: Sorta, kinda. [Laughs]
Barack: I’m out of town all the time, so Malia will say, “Hey, you owe me 10 weeks!” … Originally, we were giving her a dollar a week as long as she did all her chores. It turns out that she’s been doing her chores even without prompting from the allowance, which makes me feel guilty that she’s been carrying on her end of the bargain and I haven’t been as consistent.
What types of chores?
Barack: Setting the table, rinsing the dishes.
Michelle: They have to clean up their half of the third floor where they play. They have a closet of toys they have to clean up. They have to practice their piano every day.
What does discipline look like in your house?
Barack: Mommy raising her voice.
Michelle: It’s usually a lecture. It’s a lot of conversation. Or it’s separating them. Or it’s saying if you guys can’t decide nicely what program to watch, then you don’t get to watch anything. It’s sort of pulling away a privilege. But in all honesty, we don’t have to discipline –
Barack: If you ask them to do something, they’re like any other kid …
Michelle: They’ll whine a little bit.
Barack: They’ll test boundaries. But if you say, “Guys, this is what we need to do …”
Michelle: An example of this is one night I was going out, I had to do a fund-raiser, and I told Malia, “You guys really need to have an early bedtime because you’ve got to get up tomorrow and have a busy day.” So my mom was there, and my mom doesn’t adhere to bedtime. She’s kinda, “Well, maybe you wanna start taking your bath…” But that night, she said she sat down to watch TV with them and they both got up, turned off the TV and left. And my mom was like, “Where are you going?” And they said, “We have got to go to bed early today, Grandma.” And they went downstairs, took their baths and went to bed, and my mom was just stunned.
In normal times, what’s the division of labor at home between the two of you?
Barack: I was doing the checkbook, the house and car repairs, the grocery shopping.
Michelle: That was a long time ago.
Barack: I would sometimes do the laundry – although not fold, I have to confess.
Michelle: Which is really pretty useless.
Barack: But clean clothes, that’s something. … I mean, look, I gotta be honest. For the last 17 months I’ve been on the road 98 percent of the time.
Michelle: His job is to be there when requested. Right now, it’s important for him to be at parent-teacher conferences, piano recitals, things that are important to the girls. It’s less the household stuff because the household works; it’s more being there for them, which he has done an outstanding job at. There are few things that he’s missed that were important to them.
Last year, when we first met, Malia said that she sometimes wished maybe you wouldn’t win. Do you think they still have those mixed feelings?
Barack: I am absolutely certain because we’ve talked about it – that they are not looking forward to moving. They have a wonderful life in Chicago, they have lifelong friends in Chicago and the prospects of having to make new friends, that’s never something that kids are looking forward to. So I’m sure that there’s a part of them that says we won’t be heartbroken if things don’t work out.
And if they said tomorrow, “I don’t want you to be President, I want you to be Daddy”?
Barack: Well, so far those issues haven’t been mutually exclusive. We talked about this before we started and Michelle and I monitor their attitudes pretty closely.
Michelle: They’ve been stable. Their lives just haven’t changed that much.
Barack: And our job, more than anything, is to make sure that in addition to monitoring whether or not they’re feeling sad or neglected at all, that they’re also not feeling special because their dad is running for President.
Michelle: That’s right.
Barack: One of the things I’ve been really happy about is how nonplussed they’ve been by the whole thing. They don’t bring it up, they don’t talk to their friends about it. If anything, they’re actually more courteous and more careful with other people now than they were before I ran.
Did you talk about that, their behavior in a fishbowl?
Barack: It was more just like making sure the same standards we set before we were in the public eye were maintained.
Michelle: Be considerate of how other people might feel, you know, empathize. Put yourself in the place of other people.
Barack: And just never think that you’re better than anybody else. Or worse than anybody else.
Michelle: That’s also one of the reasons why we don’t campaign with them a lot. Because no matter what you do at a campaign setting, they are special, right? It’s Fourth of July and everybody is singing “Happy Birthday” to Malia. … And everybody loves the kids so they get special treatment. That’s nice for a day or two, but they need to go back home, just so they realize that this isn’t life.
Barack: Which is good when they’re doing activities like soccer. Malia loves soccer, but she’s still so tall and gangly compared to some of these little kids who are zipping around her, although she’s getting better. The fact that she’s not good at everything right away – and Sasha’s not good at everything right away – means learning lessons about having to work hard at something and improve.
How are you preparing them for possible life in the White House?
Michelle: Slowly. We talk to them about it as they are curious. … They ask about schools and making friends. … Their anxiety has nothing to do with the White House; it has everything to do with what kids think about: “If I have to go to a new school, will I make friends and what about my old friendships?”
Can you tell me how this experience has changed your marriage?
Barack: It’s made it stronger. The tough times for us were when the kids were real small, I was away a lot and Michelle was still working. So, the burden on her was enormous, and I think there’s a feeling that maybe I didn’t fully appreciate that burden. That was something we worked through. And I think we’re both more patient with each other. We both know how to avoid making the other person feel aggravated. And I’m so proud of her and I think she knows how much I love and appreciate her. So, she puts up with me.
Michelle: I think it has made us stronger. Time and love and sacrifice and hard struggles, I think, make you stronger.
Barack: I also think that she knew at the beginning when I was doing this that if she came to me and said don’t do it, I wouldn’t have done it.
Michelle: That’s the key, for sure.
Barack: And if I ever thought that it was ruining my family, I wouldn’t do it.
Michelle: We’re constantly balancing each other. I know that if I were to say, “I can’t take this,” it would be over.