Sasha and Malia Obama and the politics of political kids


WASHINGTON, December 1, 2014 – Every parent of teenagers has seen the look: boredom compounded with contempt. It was the look on Malia and Sasha Obama’s faces when their father pardoned two White House turkeys.

I’m the father of two adolescent children, an almost 14-year-old boy and an almost 12-year-old girl. I know that look.

“Knock, knock.” My son rolls his eyes. “Come on, Harlan,” I say with a grin, “knock, knock.” No dice. His eyes and mouth freeze into a sneer as he goes to that secret teenager place inside his head and pretends that I’m just an unpleasant odor on the wind. With a sigh I turn to my daughter and say, “knock, knock.” She groans.

“Mom, please make him stop!”

Teenagers go through a phase where their parents are boring and embarrassing chauffeurs, our job to take them where they need to go without being seen. They supposedly outgrow it, though I don’t know that from personal experience. It looks like Sasha and Malia have entered that phase.

“TEEN CONTEMPT,” Gawker called it. “Malia and Sasha are so done with their dad’s turkey pardon,” said USA Today. Then GOP congressional staffer Elizabeth Lauten put her foot in it. “Rise to the occasion. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised, public events.”

Lauten isn’t really wrong, but only spitting into the wind. You shouldn’t make faces during a televised event. I often tell my son, “I don’t care how bored you are. Try to at least look interested.” I might as well tell the tide not to rise. His face is far too honest to lie, especially for his parents. Lauten must not have any teens in her house.

Lauten’s comments ignited an internet firestorm. Some people called for her head, which she obligingly delivered today. That’s probably excessive. We’re supposed to follow the Thumper’s-mom rule with regard to presidential and other political offspring: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Tell that to George W. Bush’s and Sarah Palin’s kids.

If there’s a battle to be fought here, it’s between Obama and Lauten – between the dad and the person insulting his kids. On December 6, 1950, Paul Hume, the music critic at the Washington Post wrote of President Truman’s daughter that she was “extremely attractive” but “cannot sing very well.” Truman wrote back:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay. It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. … Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Presidents are dads, and dads don’t appreciate other people picking on their kids, even when those kids are grown up. You pick on a presidential kid at your peril.

Journalists shouldn’t pick on political kids, but there’s nothing to keep anyone else from doing it except good taste. Some of the internet harpies who have gone after Lauten have certainly mocked kids themselves. Look at any video posted online featuring someone’s child, and you’ll find internet trolls out in force to make sure that child knows the world is a mean and vicious place.

Palin’s infant grandson Trig was dragged out for nasty comment, and her 14-year-old daughter Willow was briefly considered fair game for a sexual assault joke on late night TV. That joke fell flat and resulted in an apology. Lauten reminded two girls in the public eye that they’re in the public eye. If her comments are the worst they’ve read, they’ve been treated a lot more delicately than Amy Carter or Margaret Truman.

Lauten did a little more than just issue a reminder. She took the opportunity to use the Obama girls to make a swipe at their parents: “Your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department.”

It’s unfair to use a president’s kids as a weapon against him, to make them a proxy for his character and behavior. The press has generally been good at avoiding that, but not perfect. But now we live in a world of social media and bloggers, of hyperpartisans who think no more of mocking a child online than of mocking a policy. Fairness went by the wayside years ago.

Sasha and Malia are teenagers. Their mom and dad have the near thankless task of civilizing them, a long and difficult process. Let’s go easy on the Obama girls, but let’s not go crazy on Lauten, either. And while we’re at it, let’s be less cruel to the next Justin Bieber who comes along.


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James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.
  • Claire Hickey

    As the mother of a 17-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter I wholeheartedly agree. Great piece Jim. 🙂

  • CarolinaSistah

    I too have seen that look and it is not so long ago that I had the look with my own parents. We need to lighten-up — the two-party antagonistic relationship is becoming toxic to life.

  • Tessa Yaeger

    Obama is delusional.