President Barack Obama moved his family into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue 5 1/2 years ago vowing to shield his young daughters from the prying eyes of the public and the media.
Now, he talks about them everywhere.
At a fundraiser Tuesday night in Seattle before heading to California, Obama joked about looming driving lessons for Malia, who turned 16 on July 4. In the East Room last week, the president said 13-year-old Sasha’s “pig-out indulgence” was pie. In May, he said he had found it “jarring” to see Malia - who worked in Los Angeles this summer as a production assistant on Steven Spielberg’s new CBS show, “Extant” - in high heels for her first prom.
The president is a proud father, musing about his daughters the way all parents do, but he is also a politician who seeks a personal connection between his existence in the White House and the regular lives of the people he governs. More and more, he tries to use his daughters as the bridge.
In the midst of talking about crises both foreign and domestic, Obama mentions the girls in East Room policy events, Democratic fundraisers, pep-rally speeches, one-on-one television interviews, question-and-answer sessions and overseas news conferences.
“This is a generational fight,” Obama said last month about protecting the environment, which prompted yet another mention of his girls. “You talk to Malia, you talk to Sasha, you talk to your kids or your grandkids, and this is something they get. They don’t need a lot of persuading. They understand how important this is.”
Other times, his daughters serve as emphasis for a political argument. When the president calls for action to make choosing a college easier, he mentions his own dinner-table conversations with Malia about where she might go. When he chides Congress for failing to meet deadlines, he uses his daughters as examples of punctuality. When he weighs in on society’s struggles about race relations and same-sex marriage, he cites his daughters as examples of open-mindedness.
“When I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are - they’re better than we were - on these issues,” Obama said last year as he talked about racism after the not guilty verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager in Florida.
Obama’s running public commentary about his daughters sometimes displays a wistfulness that his time with them is racing by as fast as his presidency.
“Part of the reason I’m here is because I’ve got to practice, because Malia is graduating in two years,” Obama said during commencement remarks at Worcester Technical High School in Massachusetts last month. “So I’m trying to get used to not choking up and crying and embarrassing her.”
The president’s mentions of his daughters also offers a glimpse of their life in the White House. According to their father, Malia and Sasha live on their iPhones, play soccer, basketball and tennis, run track, often finish their homework a day ahead of time, and are allowed to watch television only on weekends.
They also bear similarities to their mother: In a town-hall-style meeting in South Africa last year, Obama said that he was “surrounded by opinionated women” at home, and that Malia and Sasha take after his wife, Michelle.
Inside the East Wing, where the first lady’s staff is charged with holding the line against most media coverage of the daughters, aides say the talkative president craves being a normal parent.
Which might explain why the details about Malia’s first prom this spring did not come from reporters, gossip blogs or attention-seeking First Friends who decided to dish. Instead it was Obama, who, in an interview, spoke about Malia’s preparations for the dance at her school, Sidwell Friends, in Washington.
Although the details about Malia’s prom date were “classified,” Obama said, he spoke of how his daughter looked beautiful, if too grown up.
“It’s fair to say that the first time you see your daughter in heels is a bit jarring,” Obama volunteered on ABC’s “Live With Kelly and Michael.”
For now, the White House refuses to say any more than Obama did about how or where Malia might start learning to drive this summer. (Obama has not driven a car since he became president.) But in 1995, Chelsea Clinton got a lesson from her father at the secluded Camp David on Catoctin Mountain in Maryland.
“Oh, she’s going to get her license,” Michelle Obama said of Malia at a Fourth of July celebration this year.
The president chimed in: “She is. She’s getting her license, but she has to practice a little bit before that happens.”