‘FOUR more years,” came the elated tweet from Barack Obama, a tweet which confirmed his second term as president. Four more years. Three little words which had his detractors weeping and his supporters rejoicing. All but two of them, perhaps.
Malia and Sasha Obama have rarely been pictured since they joined their father on stage at his 2008 victory rally, aged 10 and 7, looking smiley, excited and utterly unaware of the extent to which their lives were about to change. When they stepped on to that same stage last week, now 14 and 11, between the grins and the waves, could a hint of apprehension, disappointment even, be spotted on their young faces?
Four more years in the White House hothouse to Malia and Sasha means four more years of Secret Service supervision and press attention. It means four more years of Facebook bans and your parents being, like, “sooo embarrassing” in front of 300 million people. By the time Obama comes to the end of his second term, Malia will have lived out her teens in the White House and Sasha will barely remember life before her father became the most famous man on the planet.
The long corridors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may be perfect for roller-skating, but for the offspring of a number of US presidents, they’ve proven to be claustrophobic. In last week’s episode of Homeland – the hit US show about life in the CIA – the teenage son of the vice-president on his first date had his every fumbling move watched by the Secret Service.
Such an embarrassing scenario is far from fictional; when asked, in an interview on election day, whether Malia will be allowed to date, the president replied: “I think any young man who has the guts to get through Secret Service deserves a hearing.” Snogging in the back row of the cinema certainly isn’t as much fun when a pair of burly minders are watching from behind mirrored aviators.
Sure, there are upsides. Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan got to host her senior prom in the White House. Amy Carter, only daughter of Jimmy, moved into the White House when she was nine and met Pope John Paul II. Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary, met Nelson Mandela. Plus, being driven in a car with those little flags on the roof must be fun.
Jenna and Barbara Bush, granddaughters of George Bush and daughters of George W Bush, wrote the Obama girls a letter offering their advice about growing up in the White House, suggesting they absorb as much of the excitement of it as they could: “Slide down the banister of the solarium, go to T-ball games, have swimming parties, and play Sardines on the White House lawn. Have fun and enjoy your childhood in such a magical place to live and play.”
It sounds like a lot of fun, but being the child of a politician who becomes the leader of the free world is surely a bit like being the child of a teacher who becomes the headmaster at your school: OMG mortifying.
“I embarrass them all the time,” Obama said recently of his two daughters. Indeed, it’s possible that in 20 years’ time Malia and Sasha will be telling a therapist about the “mom jeans” their father wore on national television or the time he did a funny dance on Ellen: OMG social suicide.
Plus, this time around there isn’t even a puppy in it for Malia and Sasha. In his 2008 victory speech their father told them that they had “earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House”. In last week’s speech they were told that “one dog’s probably enough.” All that smiling and waving and following dad’s instructions to “just look like you’re listening” and no puppy at the end of it? Bad show dad; they were probably expecting a pony this time.
From the outset, the Obamas have tried to make life as normal as possible for their two children. However, the offspring of presidents past have attested that being a member of America’s first family is rarely easy. Luci Johnson, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, described the White House as a “museum, a public fishbowl and a prison”.
Aged 19, the Bush twins were arrested for under-age drinking. It’s practically a rite of passage for many teenagers, but becomes national news when your father happens to run the country. One story goes that at first Bush considered not running for president because of his daughters, saying: “They would be in college about then and it would ruin their lives.”
They appear to have survived. Jenna got married and has carved out a life as a media commentator and also works for her father’s foundation. Barbara has become a human rights activist and a prominent campaigner for same-sex marriages. Chelsea Clinton, after earning her Master’s degree at Oxford University, is now, at 32, a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works with the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative.
For other political offspring, life in the White House has been a riot, particularly in the early days. Tad Lincoln was just seven when his father, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1861. He loved watching the Union soldiers who protected his house and had a child-sized uniform made up for him, using a toy cannon to bomb the door of the Cabinet Room. Amy Carter had a treehouse on the South Lawn while John F Kennedy’s infant son John’s favourite hiding place was under his father’s desk in the Oval Office.
After all, can there be a better place for a game of hide and seek? Generations of presidential children – and even presidents – think not. In a letter to a friend written in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt said: “This coming Saturday afternoon I have agreed to have a great play of hide-and-go-seek in the White House itself, not only with these children but with their various small friends.”
Perhaps the Obama girls are a little too old for hide and seek now. Sleepovers, trips to the mall and rolling their eyes at their parents are more likely to be the order of the day. However they spend their father’s second term in the White House, one thing’s for sure; they’ll definitely be waving and smiling. Four. More. Years of it. «