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American Girls: For Obama's daughters, White House life isn't going to be normal
The American Girl catalog couldn't write a story more compelling than the Obama family's upcoming adventure.
Malia and Sasha Obama find their lives turned upside down when their father becomes president and moves the family into the White House. Their new home is a fully staffed mansion with a swimming pool, movie theater and bowling alley, but will the sisters ever feel comfortable inside the ornately decorated 135-room house? With their mother's help, the First Daughters must learn to adjust so their father can concentrate on helping the country!
The real-life story may not have American Girl's simplistic plot, but the Obama sisters will face dramatic changes when they become the youngest White House inhabitants since Amy Carter. In the time it takes for President-elect Barack Obama to be sworn in, they'll be transformed from Hyde Park girls into American princesses.
"Their lives are not going to be normal," said historian Sandra Musgrove, who has written books about first children. "It's not normal to be a president's child. When your father is the president, you're royalty in this country."
Future First Lady Michelle Obama has described her upcoming role as "Mommy-in-Chief" to emphasize that the girls will be her top priority while living in the White House. Many also expect their maternal grandmother, who helped care for them during the campaign, to have a regular presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"If Barack is in the White House or in our house, the girls are going to be the center of our universe," Michelle Obama said before the election. "We're going to make sure they're protected and that they have some level of normalcy."
For Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, that probably means they'll be expected to follow the current Obama household rules such as making their beds, setting their own alarm clocks and adhering to a strict 8 p.m. bedtime. It's unclear whether they'll get a raise in their $1-a-week allowance.
Once in Washington, the girls are expected to maintain their current slate of extracurricular activities, which include weekly dance classes and soccer practice. And just as he did during the campaign, Barack Obama almost certainly will adjust his schedule whenever possible to attend his daughters' activities.
"I think you're going to see the president of the United States at soccer games and ballet recitals," said Dan Shomon, a former aide. "That's going to be a priority for him."
The girls have only spoken once to the media, in a giggle-filled "Access Hollywood" piece last summer in which they said their dad hates whining and that they like it when their parents hold hands. The Obamas immediately called the innocuous interview a "mistake" and resumed their stance that the girls were off-limits to reporters.
Photo opportunities have been limited to rare convention or Election Night appearances, though Obama reluctantly let photographers snap shots of him and Sasha walking to a Halloween party before shooing them away.
But keeping Malia and Sasha out of the limelight will get tougher in January, when the public will hunger for stories about the button-cute first daughters and their White House adventures.
The girls currently attend The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, one of the city's top private schools. Aides say Michelle Obama is researching Washington D.C.-area schools, but no decision has been made.
The school choice will be the most important decision the Obamas make on the girls' behalf, historians say. Amy Carter attended a public school to bolster her father's everyman image, but she struggled making friends and was not allowed to play outside during recess because the playground was too close to the street.
The Clintons avoided such problems by enrolling their daughter, Chelsea, at Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker-run school where she was a National Merit Scholarship finalist in 1997. The Obamas are expected to consider the same K-12, coeducational school for their daughters.
"The Obamas should send the girls to a private school," said Bonnie Angelo, author of the book "First Families." "Most people who know Washington well think that's the sensible thing to do."
In the coming weeks, the Obamas will receive a large book filled with pictures of all the furniture sets in the White House inventory. The girls can select their bedroom pieces from these photographs or can bring their own beds from Hyde Park.
According to White House rules, Malia and Sasha can paint and decorate their rooms however they choose—as long as mom and dad sign off on it. Other parts of the mansion must meet design standards, but nothing prohibits the First Daughters from hanging Hannah Montana or Jonas Brothers posters in their private quarters.
The girls will have access to all of the mansion's amenities, including the outdoor pool, tennis courts and a 50-seat movie theater. Amy Carter frequently roller skated in the East Room and had a treehouse on the South Lawn.
While historians say Amy Carter had a lonely childhood in the White House, they believe the Obama girls will fare much better because they have each other.
"There are so many nooks and crannies and hidden staircases that they can explore together," Angelo said. "Girls that age are going to feel like they're living in a Nancy Drew book. It's going to be so exciting for them."
Tribune reporter John McCormick contributed to this report.