The White House may be the most important center of power in the world. But it's also just a home, a place that can make kids feel happy and comfortable, or not. When Michelle Obama brought her daughters to visit last week, they were seeing that White House, the place that's potentially good for sleepovers and hide-and-seek. Laura Bush had invited them, and the First Lady also made sure that her own daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were on hand. Bedrooms were high on the agenda. The Bushes escorted Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, to the suite of rooms traditionally used by White House children, including the Kennedys, Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton. The girls spouted typical-kid questions: "Can I get a new bed?" "Where can I put a picture of the Jonas Brothers?"
"They're not anxious," says an Obama family friend, who asked not to be identified discussing the girls. "They're excited. There's a good anticipation." It's Michelle who has questions and concerns. She has sought advice from Hillary Clinton (who counseled her on protecting the kids' privacy) and Rosalynn Carter. Michelle's goal, says another friend who didn't want to be named for the same reason, is to understand "how to raise daughters in the national spotlight, how to keep them out of it as much as possible and keep them normal as much as possible."
But nothing is normal about growing up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The residential quarters are surprisingly modest—parts resemble a lovely bed-and-breakfast furnished with high-quality antiques—but the full White House has an executive staff of more than 90, several kitchens and its own pastry team. Three staff calligraphers handled 16,000 invitations to White House parties this year. The chief floral designer, Nancy Clarke, has been around since the Reagan years. The horticulturist and superintendent of the grounds, Dale Haney, has been tending the flower beds since the Nixon era; one of his jobs is to help look after presidential pets, so he'll have to get used to the Obamas' new dog after years of managing Barney. The Obama kids will be able to enjoy a bowling alley under the North Portico and a family movie theater in the East Colonnade.
The Obamas may enforce a bit of normalcy by making the kids do chores and make their beds—advice that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave to Hillary in 1992. But the Obama family will grapple with issues that former first kids haven't had to face. Chelsea Clinton, the last girl of a similar age in the White House, grew up well before the era of Facebook and cell-phone snapshots. Banning Facebook entirely could risk alienating the Obama girls from their peers, but restrictions will almost certainly be necessary for their own protection. Schools that were once valued for their ability to protect famous kids from prying eyes are now wide open if their students choose to post photos or status updates.
Michelle took her daughters to two of Washington's most prestigious private schools last week: Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day School. The girls, like most kids, wanted to fit in. "My son asked one of the Secret Service agents yesterday why he was hiding behind a doorway in a hall," a GDS parent e-mailed NEWSWEEK. The agent responded that Malia "had asked him to hang back so she could be more 'normal'." The parent said other GDS kids referred to the Secret Service agents as "bodyguards," and thought it was cool that reporters were seeking student comment.
The Obamas announced last Friday that they had decided on Sidwell. They "selected the school that was the best fit for what their daughters need right now," said spokesperson Katie McCormick Lelyveld. Before the announcement, it had been a favorite Washington parlor game to handicap the leading contenders. Parents from both Sidwell and GDS were talking about the pluses (of their own school) and minuses (of the competition). At least a few parents at a third top school with ties to Obama's world, Maret, were feeling snubbed because there hadn't been a public visit. "There will be gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts if they don't come there," said a Maret parent, who didn't want to be named making fun of other parents and school administrators, before the decision was announced.
For Barack and Michelle, as well as the kids, figuring out whom to trust will be a bigger part of life than ever. All sorts of strangers love you when you live in the White House, and think everything you have to say and do is interesting. The media are endlessly fascinated. In the past, news outfits have been mostly respectful of presidential kids. But that may be different in the age of freewheeling blogs looking to make a splash. Still, Sasha and Malia could have one advantage over some of their recent predecessors: they're preteens and will have a chance to get used to the spotlight before they enter the inevitable gawky years. Until then, they should enjoy the bowling and the in-house movies while they can.