After eight years in the White House, the Obamas have achieved superhero status. As they prepare to re-enter the real world, Stylist asks: what’s next?
Words: White House Correspondent, Kate Glassman Bennett
Illustration: Nikkolas Smith
If we’d popped Barack Obama on a pedestal back in 2009, the current political climate has him strapped to a jetpack – hovering over our heads as we gaze up with wet eyes and a lump in our throats. Because, in case you hadn’t realised, the world appears to be in pretty dire straits, and it only serves to highlight the immeasurable positivity of Obama’s impact over the past eight years. Publicly beloved by everyone from Beyoncé to Oprah, and adored by Europeans (Obama’s approval ratings in France and Germany are near 90%) his impending exodus from the White House suddenly feels like a tangible loss that affects us all. Together, we’ve bought into him as the guy to save the world from impending doom.
After all, if anyone could do it, it was Obama. During Barack’s two terms as POTUS, the 55-year-old has legalised gay marriage, reformed the US healthcare system and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s ended the war in Iraq, signed the Fair Pay Act and invested in renewable technology. He even read out mean tweets about himself on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Meanwhile, Michelle has oh-so-casually embarked upon a mission to end childhood obesity within a generation and won access to free school lunches for 21 million children from low-income families, overcoming food industry giants like Walmart and McDonald’s in the process. And with a track record like that, mentally fitting the family out with a cape or two really isn’t too much of an imagination stretch.
Because the Obamas have certainly achieved superhero status: being treasured for their decency, grace and obvious concern for society’s injustices. They have shown themselves to be a different breed – made all the more treasured by what is taking their place.
But as the Trumps’ White House move-in date dawns, their predecessors have a few other plans in the works before publicly donning their Lycra leotards. “We’re going someplace warm,” Barack confirmed to Oprah Winfrey during an interview in December – joking that sleep, not to mention taking his family on a well-deserved holiday, are his top priorities immediately post-White House. And in the long term? Well, any Batmobile (Barackmobile?) investments are being kept on the down-low. Instead, the primary focus will initially be on the Obama Foundation and Library – a multi- million-pound complex being built in Chicago for a 2018 opening, intended to serve as a learning annex for the projects and programs the president and first lady plan to champion long after 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is in their rear-view mirror.
But first, there’s the very small matter of a very large (and very white) house that needs packing up – in a structured Inauguration Day operation that lasts exactly six hours. Bubble wrap and all.
“It’s a complex few days,” says Elizabeth Thorp, a DC insider who has worked with the Clinton Global Initiative. “Moving one president out and another in is a precision-driven feat of choreography only seen once every four or eight years.” From the exact moment the Obamas depart the White House for the Capitol Hill swearing-in ceremony of Donald Trump as the new President at noon, through to the parade and festivities, a crew of a few hundred hand-picked removal people and White House staff load out the Obamas and bring in the Trumps. “There are so many details, but the same movers are utilised, so there isn’t much in the way of surprises – and typically very few, if any, gaffes.”
With 132 rooms in the White House, it’s quite the undertaking. The chief usher of the White House Angella Reid is charged with overseeing details, from making sure the kitchen staff stocks the refrigerator with the Trump family’s favourite foods, to ensuring every last piece of Obama-approved artwork is bubble-wrapped and handled with care. Every item is photographed, and maps of the rooms are made with templates for the decor to be perfectly aligned. “There is no margin for error,” says Thorp.
All new furniture will be decided by the Trumps after move-in day, but they will likely be shown examples and suggestions for which decorations and objects of Americana they are allowed, and encouraged, to place throughout the White House, a transference generally presided over by the White House Historical Association, a non-profit organisation that assists with such procedures. Michelle Obama, for example, infused the White House residence with modern pieces of art, reflective of diversity. She also employed a private decorator, Michael S Smith, to transform the family’s living quarters into a comfy, tasteful place to live.
“Because of Michael Smith, the private residence of the White House has not only reflected our taste but also upheld the proud history of this building,” she said of his work. “Above all, it has truly felt like a home for our family.” Smith actually worked with the Obamas before their moving-in day in 2009, outlining a sketch for each room.
Fridge contents packed up, there follows a final photo opp with the Trumps, and a ceremonial walk by the whole family to Marine One (the giant, military-green helicopter used to ferry the President to and from the South Lawn of the White House). However, unlike President Bush, who popped back to his Texas ranch, or Bill Clinton, who moved with Hillary to Chappaqua, New York, the Obamas will only be flying a couple of miles north. For the first time in presidential history, they’ll be staying in Washington, just two miles from the White House, while 15-year-old Sasha finishes school at local private high, Sidwell Friends.
Consequently, the family has rented an 8,200ft, £4.7 million home in the posh enclave of Kalorama – a neighbourhood of stately mansions favoured by heads of state, diplomats, ambassadors and old-money Washingtonians. “Kalorama is one of the oldest and richest, neighborhoods in the area,” explains Susanna Quinn. As the founder of on-demand beauty app Veluxe, which has several DC power players on its client roster, Quinn’s a true Washington insider – even married to a former White House chief counsel. “It’s not hip or trendy, but location-wise, Kalorama is close enough to Sidwell Friends and downtown that it makes sense for them.” It was recently reported Obama has also leased office space for his post-White House professional needs in a super-green, environmentally sound building that’s home to the World Wildlife Fund.
And their new nine-bedroom, red-brick home – recently renovated, with an open kitchen- family room, and decorated with pops of bright patterns and colour by local interior design firm JD Ireland – is being thoroughly tricked-out by the Secret Service to accommodate the family. There are new fences and gates being added, as well as space for a trailer to serve as a spot for the 24-hour security a former president receives for the rest of his or her life. Additionally, one of the house’s two garage bays is being transformed into an office with a loo, perfect for on-site agent needs.
Career-wise, the world is Obama’s oratory oyster. Money’s not likely to be an issue: as a fiercely thoughtful speech-giver, Obama could make £160,000 per private speaking engagement. George W Bush reportedly makes up to £145,000, but Obama’s more eloquent delivery will likely boost his price, says one VIP talent booker familiar with these transactions. “There’s a likelihood Obama’s speeches will make him a millionaire many times over within a relatively short time,” says the source, who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect his client relationships. “He can do a handful of private gigs and be quite successful.” There’s also his annual presidential pension, which gives him a salary of about £166,000 – paid for by the government.
But it’s a lucrative book deal that most former presidents and first ladies rely on – The New York Times estimated the couple could be looking at £17-37 million combined for their masterworks. His would be minimum £9 million, hers £8 million, say publishing experts – as reports grow that Barack is likely to prioritise social issues in the long term.
“He will do more with criminal justice,” says one White House insider, of the way Obama hopes to shape a younger generation and give voice to the injustices inside America that have sometimes plagued inner cities during his administration. “He can be louder and more controversial without worrying about the repercussions.” He can also have fun. Last year in an interview Obama said he likes to binge-watch his favourite shows (like Game Of Thrones) and would maybe invest in an NBA franchise.
But Obama’s commitment to changing America’s national conversation has led friends to believe that, ultimately, he’ll remain a presence in global politics. After all, he still cares enough to keep fighting those bad guys. “Societies and cultures are really complicated,” he said recently. “This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. Your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm, lift up and fight for treating people with kindness, respect and understanding.” A true superhero could not have said it better.
The FLOTUS factor
As for Michelle, she is openly eager about living a less restricted lifestyle. “I want to walk down the street, I want to sit in a yard that’s not a national park. I want to go to Target again! I’ve heard so many things have changed,” she confessed last year. “I tell my friends they will have to give me re-entry training... I’ve been living in a cave.” Well, not exactly; as first lady, she did still dine out quite a bit with girlfriends. Two favourites of late are Masseria on Capitol Hill and Fiola Mare, an upscale Italian seafood restaurant in Georgetown on the Potomac River. She’s also attended regular classes at cult spin spot SoulCycle, plus Solidcore, described to us by one of her friends as “Pilates on crack”.
Considering her focus upon fitness and health as first lady, it’s no surprise that both will likely stay in the foreground of Michelle’s life post-administration. Obama, on a visit to Laos last autumn, said: “My wife, I think, will continue to work on nutrition issues, but you know, she’s going to probably be more involved internationally as well as domestically than she has been, now that our girls are getting older and she can travel more.”
But one thing Michelle will definitely avoid? Politics. FLOTUS made it clear in her December ‘exit interview’ that she has no intention of being President, or even having a minor role in Washington. “She’s not into the political scene,” says Quinn, who has friends in common with the first lady. “There’s no way she would ever want to be in DC more than she already has been; she’s not a big fan of the 24/7 world of Washington politics.”
Malia and Sasha
The same seems to apply to the youngest members of the family. Malia, 18, is due to attend Harvard in September (where Barack and Michelle studied in the Eighties), following a carefully planned (internship-crammed) gap year. And the aspiring filmmaker will start without the notoriety of her dad’s job hanging over her head quite so much. “I’m not ready for her to leave,” Barack has said of his eldest daughter’s impending move. “She’s a really smart, capable person and she’s ready to make her own way.” Meanwhile, Sasha has another two years at her $40k-a-year school before she has to make plans – although insiders say the talented dancer is likely to spend the summer working at Nancy’s again, the family’s favourite restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard.
Two more superheroes in the making? We’d put good money on it.