Like a reality show set on the glorified soundstage at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the details of one family's life have captivated the country -- if not the world -- making the Obamas seem within reach, an ordinary family that just happens to be living an extraordinary existence.
The White House, eager to cultivate an image-making media machinery that thrives on personality, has invited coverage from such outlets as television's "Access Hollywood" and "Extra." Aides dole out exclusives accordingly, acutely aware of the shelf life for cover stories in glamour and celebrity magazines.
Administration officials have even weighed the economics of paparazzi photography, strategically releasing images of the family to diminish the monetary value of unauthorized pictures and give the White House control over how the family is portrayed. In return for access, celebrity news outlets must refuse to publish unauthorized pictures -- or risk being cut off by the White House.
"If there are no images, then you create a supply-and-demand problem where the supply is none and the demand is huge," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. "If there is at least some supply that continues in a way that is respectful to who they are, you drive down the price and the paparazzi is not part of the equation."
The efforts have yielded political benefits for a president who, not long ago, was viewed by many as a rarity: a biracial candidate with roots in Hawaii, Kenya and Indonesia whose campaign was routinely forced to swat down rumors that he was a Muslim. On election day, polls showed that many Americans still were not sure whether Obama shared their values; now surveys show approval ratings in the 60s with a vast majority saying they trust him.
Michelle Obama, who scored dismal poll ratings last year when critics accused her of disrespecting America, now scores higher numbers than her husband -- in the 70s.
Much of the family coverage is coordinated by Michelle Obama's office and guided, in part, by a newly hired aide with unusual experience in the industries that shape image. Camille Johnston, a former aide to the Gore family, has worked as an executive in the magazine and entertainment worlds and until recently headed the Dodgers' communications department.
Since November, American magazine readers have seen a steady stream of coverage lionizing the Obamas and their marriage -- with access parceled out to Vogue, People, Essence and O, Oprah Winfrey's magazine.
"The Obama team has been masterful in the management of the image and the allocation of stories," said Angela Burt-Murray, editor of Essence, a magazine geared toward black women that was given access to Michelle Obama and her mother for a spread on their family life. "There's definitely a science to the way they're approaching this."
Embracing celebrity news outlets is nothing new for presidents or political figures, who are usually eager to relate to average Americans. The Clintons and Bushes sought coverage in People magazine, Ladies' Home Journal and other media that would showcase the families' softer sides. Bill Clinton inaugurated the tradition of appearing on late-night network television shows.
But White House aides and celebrity news executives say the Obamas are taking this engagement to a new level -- a result of intense public interest in the first black occupants of the White House and of the Obamas' desire to portray themselves as regular folks.
The White House last month welcomed a correspondent from "Extra," a celebrity TV show, for a sit-down interview with social secretary Desiree Rogers, a close Obama friend. One portion was headlined, "Obama Family: A to Z!"
Rogers assured viewers that the Obamas are "real people." She said that the first lady "maybe likes food a little bit more" and the president "would be satisfied just to have a salad and a boiled egg."
"They're much more fun to cover," said Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer of "Extra." "Michelle, with her friendship with Oprah, is just such a player in this world. And that love story with him -- it's almost too good to be true."
Last week, the Obama family put itself front and center as daughters Malia and Sasha joined their parents on the White House lawn for two made-for-television events. The girls participated in the annual Easter Egg Roll, and then starred in one of Washington's great media frenzies as they introduced Bo, their new Portuguese water dog. The pictures of the girls frolicking with the puppy were carried by celebrity and mainstream news outlets alike.
The White House also recently struck deals leading to favorable personality-driven coverage in two of the country's most prestigious newspapers -- promising the New York Times an exclusive look at the first lady's vegetable garden and the Washington Post the scoop on the puppy.
The Post, however, was beaten by an unusual rival: the celebrity website TMZ.com. Unnamed White House staff also provided some inside details on the dog to Us Weekly in time for the magazine to feature a photo spread of Bo's first trip to the White House.