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The Obamas: Portrait of an American Family

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Soon we will vote for our next president, and for the first time in history, one of the two candidates is a Black man. For a year, Essence pursued an interview with the entire Obama family‹to no avail. Finally, this summer ESSENCE became the only Black media outlet allowed a glimpse into the lives of Barack, Michelle and their two girls, Malia and Sasha, when we were invited to their South Side Chicago home. Weeks later, veteran political journalist Gwen Ifill was with the family as they campaigned in a small mostly White western town, and she flew with them to a Black church in the urban Midwest.

Barack Obama is sitting in the back of his rented luxury campaign bus with its granite counters and two flat-screen TVs. The Illinois senator's arms are wrapped around his wife, Michelle, whom he doesn't get to see much these days. At this very moment he is, of all things, singing.

I've just asked them how their lives have changed since he won the Democratic presidential nomination. There have definitely been changes, especially for Michelle Obama, who used to pride herself on campaigning by day and rushing home to her daughters each night. Now she is spending more of her days and nights on the road, but seldom in the same place as her husband. And when their daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 get to see their dad, they likely have to share him with thousands of adoring strangers. "Daddy's gone a lot," Sasha notes. "We don't see him that much."

But on this Fourth of July, everyone is together. Even though there are at least a half-dozen aides and family members on the bus with us, it feels intimate back here. Michelle and Barack are curled up on the beige couch, while the children are reading and coloring a few feet away. Michelle folds her long legs to her chin and leans into her husband as he explains the reality of their lives. When he pauses, she finishes his sentences.

Their ease with each other recalls the day several weeks earlier when ESSENCE arrived to photograph the Obamas at their large Georgian Revivial home on Chicago's South Side. Barack stood on the lawn playfully teasing his wife as she posed for our cameras. Now, as then, his customary public caution melts away when he is with his family. Under relentless media scrutiny, Barack Obama says his family is going the extra mile to "maintain this little island of normalcy in the midst of all this swirl of activity."

But family snapshots of this sort are rare, as are moments when the Obamas can just chill. "Michelle has done a heroic job of managing the house, the family and still finding time to campaign and be out on the road," he says, after directing staff members to turn off the television, which was tuned to Fox News Channel. "I'm always marveling at everything that she can do."

And then he sings.

"I'm every woman," he croons. She cringes. He laughs. "That's Michelle. It's like, Chaka Khan! Chaka Khan!"

Credit: Kwaku Alston

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