When she stepped onto that stage in Chicago on election night, my breath caught. She was tall to the point of stretching, effortlessly poised and graceful beyond reproach. The metaphor is often overused, but she was gazelle-like.
I'm speaking, of course, about 14-year-old first daughter Malia Obama, the teenager who has inherited not only the physical gifts of her famous parents, but also the expectations that come with their very existence.
"Sasha and Malia, before our very eyes, you're growing up to be two strong, smart, beautiful young women, just like your mom," President Obama said in his victory speech on Nov. 6.
Like teen gymnast Gabrielle Douglas before her, Malia seemed to truly enter the national stage representing a new generation of young women -- and black women -- who seem unburdened by the stereotypes that have weighed down their predecessors. It wasn't long ago that Michelle Obama, whose national approval rating is about 66 per cent, had to bat down worn-out labels like militant, unpatriotic and, of course, angry. But Malia (and her sister, Sasha) seem somewhat exempt from that when it comes to their national perception.
In a recent New Yorker article titled The Malia Generation, the Obama daughters' growing up was offered as a symbol of the ripening message of hope in the country:
"Mitt Romney had tried to win the election, in part, by making people a little ashamed of how they'd felt back in 2008 -- that their hopes had gone bad ... And yet some things hadn't faded, it turned out. Obama won, and will still be the president when Malia is old enough to vote for his successor," wrote New Yorker senior editor Amy Davidson.
Malia is like a standard-bearer -- not just for black women, who see in her a fountain of youth that reflects hopes for an entire generation, but also the electorate at large. The folks who remember the Obama girls as cute and cuddly. The ones who wrote so effusively in 2008 about the image of these two little brown girls playing on the White House lawn with their furry dog, Bo. They were the final touches of a Rockwellian American portrait, its dream desegregated.
Just as Malia and Sasha have grown (as all kids are wont to do), the reality of the dream has also changed -- but not the vision behind it. The economy, which has grown steadily, is still not where the president originally promised it would be. The deficit is mounting. Education is weakening. Tension in the Middle East grows while partisanship shrinks across-the-aisle cooperation in Washington.
There are these and plenty more stark realities for the president to face outside the bubble. The same can be said of the stark reality of simply growing up, changing, getting older -- exactly what the Obama girls are doing before our eyes.
"I just wanted to build a fence around her and keep her away from all the ugliness of the world so that she would continue to be as beautiful as she is," joked a friend of mine upon seeing Malia wave to the Chicago crowd. "She's just as poised and humble as she could be. Thank God Michelle is her mama."
The president has continually echoed that same praise, and for her part the first lady has fought to keep the family dynamics' status quo at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Last year she told Today.com that White House staffers should expect Malia and Sasha to make their own beds and clean their own rooms.
"We fight for their normalcy," she said. "I find myself checking with friends: 'How did the girls seem?' And they'll say, 'No, they're the same kids. They're the same girls.' I'm like, 'OK, good. Just tell me if you see anything. Just let me know.' "
Following the election, the entire country knew two things about the Obama girls: They had most definitely changed, and somehow stayed the same.
In keeping with the new theme of the campaign, there's much to look forward to in the next four years of the Obama administration. Immigration reform, energy independence and education reform were all on the agenda in the president's victory speech. All the while I imagined high school, first dates and college applications filing up those four years, too. And I became even more hopeful about the way forward.
-- The Root
Helena Andrews is a contributing editor
at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays.