Politics

Nine Things You Didn’t Know About The Obamas

I’ve been covering the Obamas for five years for the New York Times, watching their transformation from promising Chicago couple to President and First Lady of the United States. Here are a few surprising things I learned about them, from my book “The Obamas,” out in paperback this week.

1. Michelle Obama considered delaying her move to the White House

Jason Reed / Reuters

By Election Day 2008, she was quietly contemplating sitting out the school year in Chicago with her daughters and moving over the summer. In retrospect, this shows just how new she was to the presidency: there’s no way the nation would have approved of a commuter First Lady. But her apprehension was also understandable, because living in the world’s most famous house-museum-military complex with two young kids is far more challenging than it looks.

2. The president has a sly sense of humor about race

Obama does not dare joke about race now — too sensitive. That wasn’t always
the case. As a Senate candidate, he was once playing hooky from meeting with donors when a white aide named Peter Coffey finally tracked him down at the barbershop. A few hours later, the candidate returned to the office. “The relationship between a black man and his barber is sacred,” Obama mock-bellowed at Coffey. “They are closer than man and wife. For failing to understand this truth, your punishment is to watch the movie Barbershop. And for further punishment, you will then watch the sequel, Barbershop 2.”

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

3. When you’re president, you can’t really go home again.

Jason Reed / Reuters

Obama began his term thinking he would take his family back to Chicago to recharge every couple of weeks. But their first trip in February 2009 was more invasion of Normandy than weekend getaway. The Secret Service dropped black curtains down the sides of their home and they tied up traffic in Chicago. “We live in the White House now,” Michelle Obama told staff upon returning to Washington. Their trips home have been sporadic since.

4. The dinner rule

The White House is the first place the Obama family has ever lived together full time. Before then, Obama was always commuting to Springfield, Ill. or Washington DC. As president, he decided not to miss dinner with his family more than twice a week, with exceptions for emergencies. This meant limiting certain presidential activities—West Coast trips, Washington outreach. Because he was intent on being with his family, “there just weren’t that many hours in the day left for reaching out and just picking up the phone” to outsiders, Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor, told me.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

5. Michelle Obama has been used as a Congressional bargaining chip

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

How popular is the first lady? So popular that in June 2009, former Rep. Allen Boyd told the White House he would only vote for the energy bill if Michelle Obama appeared with him at an event for a volunteer organization in Florida. (Boyd, who is white, faced a potential black primary challenger.) Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel agreed to the deal, to the frustration of the first lady, who found out later that she had been promised without her consent. The energy bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate, Boyd lost to a Republican in 2010 anyway, and the West Wing staff learned never to book the first lady without asking her first.

6. They put on goofy talent shows

Jason Reed / Reuters

On the Obamas’ yearly Hawaii vacation, they work on talent-show acts with friends, presenting them just before they go home. The first lady and her girlfriends have written and acted in their own “Real Housewives” episode; the president and his buddies have sung “Stand by Me.”

7. Everyone in the Obama family has a different degree of freedom

Imagine what your family’s life would be like if every member had a varying degree of freedom: dad required a massive motorcade to go many places, the kids had far more leeway, and mom was somewhere in between. How would it affect family outings, birthday celebrations, and such? Would those with more freedom stay home anyway, to keep others company? Would dad insist that others go out without him? The Obamas have to think through those questions all the time.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

8. The modesty of Marian Robinson, first grandmother

MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images

Mrs. Robinson, now 75, unexpectedly ended up in the White House after a quiet lifetime spent raising children, working as a secretary, and caring for a husband with multiple sclerosis. When she traveled on Air Force One for a 2009 state visit, it was the first time she had ever been abroad. Oprah wanted to interview Mrs. Robinson, but she declined because she liked to browse the discount racks at the Filene’s Basement near the White House in peace. “They think I’m just another person who works at the mansion,” she told an aide— meaning, a member of the housekeeping staff.

9. Some of the most touching moments of the Obama presidency are ones we never see

At a 2010 bill signing for a law strengthening sexual assault laws, a rape survivor named Lisa Marie Ayotte was supposed to introduce the president, but she broke down at the podium and grew too emotional to speak. Obama strode out before his cue, placed a reassuring hand on her back and stood with her as she haltingly finished her story of being beaten and raped as her two little girls hid. Amid the crush of the presidency, the event drew little attention.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Jodi Kantor is a New York Times correspondent and author of the bestselling book The Obamas. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

More News
Now Buzzing