WASHINGTON // As life in the White House beckons, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle could be forgiven if over the past weeks the thought "What have we got ourselves into?" has crossed their minds. Now they are swapping their elegant Chicago home for the nation's most exclusive address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, they are also waving goodbye to their past lives to become the country's top power couple.
"First families have really struggled to carve out some sense of normality. The White House is the most public fishbowl and you're living your life in a fishbowl," said Robert Watson, a historian. On Jan 20, there will be no more intimate dinners out for the Obamas, such as the night they celebrated their election triumph at their favourite Chicago restaurant, Spiaggia. (They reportedly sipped margaritas, and Mr Obama feasted on wood-roasted scallops).
There will be no more popping out to the mall for a spot of shopping, no more BlackBerry usage, and even getting a hair cut could pose a challenge. "I can't go to my old barber shop now. I've gotta have my barber come to some undisclosed location to cut my hair," Mr Obama, 47, joked last week, admitting he will miss the "small routines of life". In exchange though, they will be living in the nation's most coveted mansion, complete with 132 rooms, 45 bathrooms, a 10-pin bowling alley, cinema, theatre, tennis court, swimming pool and a jogging track.
All a far cry from the first White House occupants, John and Abigail Adams who moved in 1800 before it was finished and comprised just six rooms. Little thought had been given to the plumbing and amenities, so Abigail ended up hanging her laundry in the East Room. Now there are about 100 staff at the First Family's instant beck and call, most of whom have outlasted several administrations. "In the middle of the night if you want anything from a grilled cheese sandwich to fine French cuisine, you just press a button and there it is," said Mr Watson, co-ordinator of American Studies at Lynn University, and author of more than 20 books including Life in the White House.
Chefs may already be salivating at being asked for slightly more challenging dishes than those cooked for George W Bush, known for his simple tastes such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, macaroni cheese, or spaghetti and meatballs. "Obama likes TexMex and has very eclectic tastes, like things with pine nuts. There is definitely an East-West fusion there," Mr Watson said. The biggest challenge for the Obamas though will be bringing their children up in the full glare of the world's press amid an insatiable curiosity about the girls' lives.
Daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, seven, will be the youngest children to live in the White House since the Kennedy family in the 1960s. "First children are kind of like the country's first pets, their mascots, and they like to watch what they do and become fascinated with them," said Mr Watson. "Inevitably, one of the girls will flunk a test and then the whole country will all know about it." Mrs Obama, 44, says she intends to focus on her children's well-being, and it is thought that her mother, Marian Robinson, who gave up her job to care for the children during the campaign, may be moving in with them.
The two women accompanied the girls on a trip to the White House this week to be shown their new bedrooms. First Lady Laura Bush said that during Mrs Obama's first visit they had shared concerns about protecting their children. "We talked about making the White House a home for a family," Mrs Bush said. Mrs Obama is already seeing things in a positive light. "I envision the kids coming home from school and being able to run across the way to the Oval Office and see their dad before they start their homework.
"And having breakfast. And he'll be there to tuck them in at night." she said. * Agence France Presse