One morning in late January, I am standing at one end of the grand red-carpeted corridor that runs through the center of the White House, when suddenly the First Lady appears at the other. “Heeeee’s comin’,” she says of her husband’s imminent arrival. “He’s coming down the stairs now.” The president is on his way from the residence above, and just a split second before he appears, the First Lady, in a midnight-blue Reed Krakoff sleeveless dress and a black kitten heel, slips into the tiniest bit of a surprisingly good soft-shoe, and then the two of them walk arm in arm into the Red Room to sit for a portrait by Annie Leibovitz. The photographer has her iPod playing the Black Eyed Peas song “Where Is the Love?” It is a mid-tempo hip-hop lament about the problematic state of the world. As the First Lady and an aide laugh together over some inside joke, the president starts nodding his head to the beat: “Who picked the music? I love this song.”
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder
As I’m gettin’ older, y’all, people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin’
Selfishness got us followin’ the wrong direction
A few minutes later, Leibovitz has the president sit in a comfortable chair and then directs the First Lady to perch on the arm. At one point, the First Lady puts her hand on top of his and, instinctively, he wraps his fingers around her thumb. “There’s a lot of huggin’ going on,” says Leibovitz, and everyone laughs. “You’re a very different kind of president and First Lady.”
That they are. Put aside for a moment that they are the first African-Americans to preside in the White House, or that it feels perfectly normal to see the president enjoying a hip-hop song in the Red Room before lunch, or that the First Lady has bucked convention by routinely mixing Thom Browne and Alexander McQueen with J.Crew and Target, or that Malia and Sasha’s grandma lives with them upstairs, or that the whole family texts and takes pictures of one another with their smart phones. What is truly unusual about the Obamas is that, in their own quietly determined way, they have insisted on living their lives on their terms: not as the First Family but as a family, first.