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Archive for Friday, November 7, 2008

A young family, a new style

The Obama family, from left, President-elect Barack Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and Michelle Obama, wave to the crowd at an election night rally Tuesday in Chicago in this file photo.

The Obama family, from left, President-elect Barack Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and Michelle Obama, wave to the crowd at an election night rally Tuesday in Chicago in this file photo.

November 7, 2008

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This April 14, 1963, file photo shows President John F. Kennedy and family outside the Palm Beach, Fla., home of the president's father after a private Easter Service. From left are first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr., 3, President Kennedy, and Caroline, 5.

This April 14, 1963, file photo shows President John F. Kennedy and family outside the Palm Beach, Fla., home of the president's father after a private Easter Service. From left are first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr., 3, President Kennedy, and Caroline, 5.

It was a mere fleeting image amid all the others that were beamed into our living rooms on that momentous election night: 7-year-old Sasha Obama in her black party dress, bounding gleefully up into her father's arms, each in turn planting a happy kiss on the other's cheek.

But the heart-tugging moment was as poignant a reminder as any that a vigorous, appealing young family is entering the White House - one that will bring a dramatically different energy and style to the presidency.

And on that night, it wasn't hard to see why some have been tempted to make the comparison with another highly telegenic first family who fascinated and inspired the country nearly a half-century ago: the Kennedys.

Youth, style, optimism - all those hallmarks of Obama's ascension to power remind Ted Sorensen, the speechwriter and adviser to John F. Kennedy, of his former boss. And, he says, an infectious sense of confidence. That's something few of us who watched Obama on that balmy Chicago night could have missed: The sense of calm and assuredness, though not cockiness, that he projected as he accepted the mantle of the most powerful job in the world.

"Kennedy had that confidence, too," says Sorensen. "And it carries over. Just as Kennedy's election restored confidence to a nation, Obama's will have the same results - confidence of Americans in our leadership, of consumers in our economy, of other countries in America."

Obama style

What will mark the style of an early Obama White House? Friends of the new first couple say the mansion will be infused with the spirit of Sasha and her 10-year-old sister, Malia, just as the Kennedy White House is often remembered as a playground for Caroline with her pony, Macaroni, or John Jr., who liked to hide in the Oval Office desk.

"He may be the president-elect, but those two young daughters will still be a major focus of his life, and a major part of the White House," says Kirk Dillard, a Republican state senator from Illinois and a friend of Obama's. "Barack is a pretty hip and engaged father, and those girls have him wrapped around their little fingers." He expects dance recitals and soccer games to fill the family's spare time.

The White House staff will be grateful for their presence, says Betty Monkman, a former chief White House curator who worked there for 30 years.

"Any house is so much more alive with children, and it's the same with the White House," says Monkman. "The kids come in, they bring their friends. It makes it a home." Monkman recalls pumpkin-carving parties with Amy Carter, a scavenger hunt for Chelsea Clinton.

Party people?

What kind of first lady will Michelle Obama be? On the trail, we saw this striking 44-year-old woman become an increasingly effective advocate for her husband, drawing big crowds at her own events, and all the while drawing praise for her sense of style.

Sandy Matthews, a close friend from Chicago, says the first priority of the pal she calls "Mich" (pronounced "Meesh") will be getting her girls settled.

After that, she expects her to focus on issues she embraced on the campaign trail - the challenges facing working women and military families, for example.

Will she and her husband be enthusiastic White House hosts, holding grand dinners a la Jackie Kennedy? Friends aren't sure. "They're pretty relaxed and casual types," says Matthews.

Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California, imagines the Obamas hosting events with impressive guest lists, given celebrity enthusiasm for the president-elect.

And though Obama tried hard to downplay the celeb factor when the Republicans likened him in a Web ad to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, Boyd suspects that "those rules will probably loosen a bit - at least until the re-election campaign."

(One can also imagine that Obama booster Oprah Winfrey will have an open invitation to the White House.)

Fashion update

There's one area where many are hoping for the immediate influence of Michelle Obama: the often maligned world of Washington fashion, where Jackie Kennedy's famous sense of style has never been replicated.

"Undoubtedly, fashion will change," says Rochelle Behrens, a designer and also a former intern in the Bush White House. "Michelle Obama has an easy, unfussy, simple style of dress that harks back to the Camelot days of Jackie Kennedy. I think we'll see people latch onto her style."

Specifically, Behrens hopes to see the new first lady, who like her husband works out religiously, spearhead the return of the bare arm - she was widely praised for a purple sleeveless sheath early in the campaign.

"I can't think of a first lady who was unabashedly able to bare her arms and shoulders in the East Wing," Behrens says. And while we're at it, the bare leg may win out, too: Michelle Obama has said on national TV that she avoids those pesky pantyhose.

Other possible changes, according to Behrens: fewer puffed sleeves on the streets of Washington, and fewer sequins at night. And in a troubled economy, women will be happy to know that their first lady shops online at J. Crew.

And her husband? One men's fashion expert foresees a nationwide influence on the shape of suits. "Barack Obama will cause a generation of men to look at the way suits fit," says Tyler Thoreson, editor of men.style.com. "A fitted, tailored look will feel more natural to the average guy after seeing it on the leader of the free world."

Other hallmarks

On a more substantive style note, will we see, in the Obama administration, a renewed emphasis on carefully chosen words and elegant rhetoric?

Sorensen, the Kennedy speechwriter, notes how the McCain campaign sought to denigrate Obama's rhetorical talents, as if to say elegant words meant no substance.

"Just words?" Sorensen asks. "That's what Kennedy used to summon the country to a better understanding of responsibility to fellow citizens, to galvanize U.S. efforts in space exploration, to explain on national TV that the Soviets had missiles 90 miles from our shores. Believe me, eloquence is a very important asset in the White House."

Finally, if Tuesday's victory rally is any indication, we may be seeing four more years (at least) of real public displays of affection between Barack and Michelle Obama. Matthews, Michelle's friend, hopes these spontaneous moments continue.

"I really teared up when Michelle looked into Barack's eyes on Tuesday night and told him, 'I love you,'" she says.

"The country needs to see a genuine marriage with love and emotion. She was telling him, I think, that they're walking down this road together. And you know, even a president needs to hear that."

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