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A family expected to balance state dinners with sleepovers

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FAMILY FIRST: Barack Obama with Michelle and daughters Malia (red dress) and Sasha during an election night gathering in Chicago.
FAMILY FIRST: Barack Obama with Michelle and daughters Malia (red dress) and Sasha during an election night gathering in Chicago.

Jodi Kantor

When Verna Williams called to congratulate Michelle Obama on Wednesday morning, she offered to stop calling her old law school buddy “Meesh” and start calling her something more dignified.

Ms. Obama dissolved into giggles, and the two traded title ideas, one sillier than the next, all of them too ridiculous to repeat to a newspaper reporter, Ms. Williams said.

A day after the election, the Obama family of Chicago’s Hyde Park is beginning to figure out how to become the first family of the U. S.

As the first black President and his family, they will be a living tableau of racial progress. Friends say they are acutely aware that everything they say and do — the way they dress, where Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, go to school, even what puppy they adopt — will have symbolic value.

“Here’s an intact black family, a happy family, with beautiful kids and a loving extended family,” Ms. Williams said, “and they happen to live in the executive mansion.”

For President-elect Barack Obama and his family, leaving Chicago means dismantling the protective cocoon they have built around them.

Loving vigilance

Throughout the campaign, Malia and Sasha, who will be the youngest White House occupants in decades, spent many hours in their grandmother’s tiny South Side apartment, in the same building where their mother was raised. Their private school at the University of Chicago is laced with neighbours and allies who watch over the girls with loving vigilance.

When the girls and their mother have needed an escape, they could retreat to the backyards of long-time friends, where they jumped rope or turned up the volume on their iPods and danced with abandon to songs by Soulja Boy and Beyonce. Ms. Obama, a creature of the South Side and of habit, has spent nearly every Saturday for the past 10 years with the same two friends and their brood of children, most recently at a Pizza Kitchen where the group hashes over their weeks together.

All of that must change.

On Wednesday afternoon, Michelle Obama spoke with the first lady, Laura Bush, who invited her and her daughters to visit the White House. The hunt for a school begins now, Ms. Obama told friends. In Hyde Park, she has a reputation as a fiercely attentive mother, one who watches Malia’s footwork closely at soccer games while other parents drift and gossip over coffee. Friends say she will apply the same scrutiny to her daughters’ transition to Washington.

“Because she is Michelle,” said Sandra Matthews, a friend from Chicago, “she will manage that, she will direct it,” instead of relying on others to research schools.

As parents, the Obamas believe in giving their daughters some sway over decisions that affect them, she said. And so, note to headmasters: The preferences of Malia, a solemn-eyed Harry Potter fan, and Sasha, the family ham, could weigh heavily.

Prized guests

The Obama White House will surely entertain the usual Washington dignitaries and foreign heads of state, but the most prized guests might be the girls’ friends. “We may see sleepovers at the White House, groups of young girls in their sleeping bags hanging out with Sasha and Malia,” said Ms. Williams.

Instead of trying to create an entirely new social world in Washington, friends predict that the Obamas will transport some of their Hyde Park world to the capital instead. On the campaign trail, they were accompanied by bands of relatives and friends. In part so the girls could have familiar playmates, everyone brought their families along.

The Obamas will come to Washington with a fifth family member, one who has so far remained mostly out of the spotlight. Marian Robinson, Ms. Obama’s mother, is a widow and retired bank secretary who has served as the girls’ chief caretaker during their mother’s frequent absences. Aides say they do not yet know whether Ms. Robinson will formally move into the White House, but it is certain that Malia and Sasha’s grandmother will be near at hand and available when her parents have to travel.

Once Ms. Obama has settled her girls, she has said, she would move on to the matter of exactly what sort of first lady she wants to be. Although she dresses with unusual care, friends say she has only a certain amount of patience for the domestic arts.

As first lady, Ms. Obama has said, she plans to make herself an advocate for working parents, urging better access to child care for all. As a first lady trying to juggle public duties with two children, she will be an illustration of the very issue she describes.

“She’s going to be engaging in the balancing act herself,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian.— New York Times News Service

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