By Amie Parnes - 01/18/13 12:29 AM EST
Change is all around President Obama and his family four years after he came to Washington aspiring to be an agent of change in the nation’s capital.
His wife, Michelle, initially reluctant to come to Washington, now enjoys sky-high approval ratings and has become one of the president’s greatest assets — and a fashion icon, gracing the cover of Vogue while lending a luster of political celebrity to mainstream brands like J. Crew.
The president’s mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, left her life in Chicago and moved into the White House residence to help make the family’s Beltway transition a little more seamless. (Sources close to the family say the first granny plans to remain at the White House in the president’s second term.)
The family also grew by one — with four paws: They got a Portuguese water dog named Bo.
And at 51, the president himself has gone from the youthful face behind the famous “HOPE” posters to a middle-aged man sporting a head of gray and, as he puts it, “dents and dings in the fender.”
“Americans are seeing an entirely different family than the one they saw four years ago,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University. “Even people who feel they follow the first family closely are clearly surprised at how much they’ve all changed.”
The change in the family is evident in both small and large ways. On the one hand, the president has finally kicked his longstanding smoking habit — and was occasionally seen chomping on Nicorette to help ease the transition. On the other, the first lady has grown tangibly more at ease with her public role, not to mention life in Washington in general. She is frequently seen around town lunching with a small circle of friends and going on “date nights” with the president.
Meanwhile, with her husband toiling in the West Wing, the first lady has been busy pushing her own initiatives — “Let’s Move!” which helps combat childhood obesity, and “Joining Forces,” an initiative she started along with second lady Jill Biden to assist military families — as well as a separate mentoring program.
Observers credit Michelle Obama for coming into her own during her husband’s first term.
“The one thing that was very noticeable to me during her convention speech is that she has proven that she can let her guard down and talk from the heart in a way that her husband has trouble doing,” Jellison said. “She has become an asset for her husband’s agenda.”
The Obamas endured their fair share of criticism during the first term.
The first couple was slammed by some for taking summer vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, which critics say was in poor taste during the down economy. Michelle Obama also drew disapproval from conservatives when she went on vacation in Spain with daughter Sasha and close friends in 2010. There was also the time when President Obama, in an appearance on Jay Leno’s late-night show, compared his bowling skills to the Special Olympics (the president moved quickly to apologize for the gaffe).
Then there was the less controversial, more lighthearted ribbing of the times Obama donned his so-called “dad jeans.”
“Those jeans are comfortable,” Obama later explained in an interview with NBC. “And for those of you who want your president to look great in his tight jeans, I’m sorry. I’m not the guy.”
From the start, the first couple took a page from the Clinton playbook in keeping their children far from the public spotlight and off the record.
The public got an occasional glimpse of the first daughters — now 14 and 11 — at the Easter Egg Roll, the annual turkey pardon and concerts at the White House.
And Obama has shared rare glimpses of his children to satisfy the public’s curiosity and humanize his own family.
When Malia, now a freshman in high school, got braces a couple of years ago, he told a crowd about it. He also broke the news in a television interview that his eldest daughter was off to sleep-away camp. And he has talked about coaching Sasha’s basketball games.
Obama mentioned his daughters again at a press conference this week, only to make the point that they’re growing old before his eyes and “don’t want to spend that much time with me.”
It remains unclear what lies ahead for the first family in a second term. Aides, who would not detail what a second term might look like, say Michelle Obama plans to continue to work on her mentoring program, along with her two initiatives.
And she, like her husband, might have a little more time to invest, observers say.
“As the second term ascends, in a year or so, she’s going to have more discretionary time or free time because her hands-on presence for her two daughters won’t be as necessary,” said Carl Anthony, who has closely followed first ladies and their families.
Anthony and other observers pointed out that in another four years, the first family will have to deal with another change, and one beyond leaving the White House: Malia will be off to college.