'It's just Barack'

The Baltimore Sun

As Barack Obama surveyed the pandemonium, he spied two familiar faces in the crowd.

Striding toward the podium during a campaign rally at the Comcast Center in College Park in February, the Illinois senator paused before addressing his exuberant supporters to speak to his wife's aunt and uncle on the sidelines.

"I know, I know - 'It's just Barack,' " he quipped to Carleton and Stanette Robinson of Columbia, guessing at what they were thinking and poking fun at himself.

"What's the big deal, right?"

The anecdote from the campaign trail provides as good a snapshot as any of the next president of the United States, the couple said last week while recounting it.

"Barack is a really, really nice guy and just one of the family," said Carleton, a younger brother of Michelle Obama's late father, Fraser.

"We like to give him a hard time," he said, sometimes calling him "Mr. Politician" and the like, "and he likes to throw the zingers right back."

As their niece and her husband prepare to officially take the world stage Tuesday, the Robinsons joked that they are finally "coming out of the closet."

"Being related to Barack and Michelle is something we have mostly kept to ourselves," said Stanette, a financial adviser for Capital Financial Partners in Hunt Valley.

Very few of Carleton's colleagues at Northrop Grumman, where he is a senior project manager, know of his connection to the incoming first family. Stanette, 55, worked at a Columbia polling place on Election Day, with no one the wiser.

"We're just common people who are trying to wrap our minds around all this," said Carleton, 56. "I mean, Barack's Barack."

If it has been difficult for the Robinsons to digest that their in-law soon will be the leader of the free world, the swirl of inaugural activities that begin today might help cement the notion. The Harper's Choice residents will be joined in Washington for a series of festivities by their two children, Marcus, 22, and Carlynne, 20.

Tomorrow, the Robinson clan will participate in a service project that Michelle Obama has organized to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, a nationwide give-back initiative the president-elect is spearheading this year. The first-lady-to-be told them where in the nation's capital to congregate but has kept mum on what they will be doing, Stanette said.

"You can bet that Michelle has crafted something special," Carleton said.

The prelude to the historic events Tuesday has found the Robinsons reflecting on their niece's early years.

"I close my eyes, and I can picture Michelle coming up in life," Carleton said. "She always had an opinion on everything and was always strong-willed.

"She's a product of the inner city - as all of our family is - so it's good to see that hard work and sacrifice can make things happen," he said.

"When people were referring to Barack and Michelle as 'elitist' a while back, I just said, 'Huh?' We're all from the South Side of Chicago! There's nothing elitist about that."

The laughter comes easily as the couple dishes about their niece and her husband.

"We were impressed with Barack when Michelle first started dating him," Carleton said.

"But when he said he was writing a book about his life, we said, 'What life? You aren't old enough to have a life yet!' " recalled Stanette, referring to Obama's Dreams from My Father.

Musing on the life on which the Obamas are about to embark in the White House, the couple's mood turned serious.

"They won't even be able to drive themselves [in their car] again - just think of that," Carleton said. "There are a lot of sacrifices ahead, big and small."

"We - and we hope the American people - are praying that world events don't entirely shut down that family from living their lives," Stanette said.

In the meantime, inauguration aside, life goes on as normally as possible.

The Obamas are still discussing what breed of dog to get for their daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, Stanette said.

The Robinsons took their wire-haired fox terrier along when they traveled to the Obamas' home in Hyde Park, Ill., to spend Thanksgiving with them and the rest of their extended family.

"When we knocked on the door, the girls opened it and started squealing, 'Look! Tucker's here!' and I'm thinking, 'What about us?' " Stanette said, chuckling.

"Michelle pointed out to Barack how much the girls love Tucker, but he's saying he wants a bigger breed - 'no little bitty sissy dog' for him."

The family has narrowed their pet search to a Labradoodle, which is a Labrador-poodle mix, or a Portuguese water dog, Stanette said.

The Obamas' transition from Chicago, which saddened even the president-elect, would have been easier if they could have moved directly into Blair House, their temporary residence before the move to the White House, Stanette said.

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard spent Monday night at the presidential guest quarters, bumping the Obamas from settling in before the girls began attending Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

"Now, you know that is a large place, and they wouldn't have cared if he stayed there as their guest," she pointed out, somewhat annoyed.

After moving into the Hay-Adams Hotel instead, the family finally moved Thursday into Blair House and, of course, will move once more to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

While Michelle's mother, Marian Robinson, has been in the news lately over her move to the White House and speculation whether it will be temporary, Stanette said she thinks her sister-in-law will stay put once she gets there.

"Marian is pretty private, and she already told me she may spend some time here with us on the weekends," she added.

"But I think they will all feel more grounded if Marian is there," she said. "It will be like taking a little piece of their former life with them."

Looking ahead, the Robinsons predict only success for the Obamas - and, they hope, two terms.

Their niece will be an excellent first lady, they said, working to shore up Washington's public school system and connecting with families of military personnel.

Their nephew-in-law "was ordained to do this," Carleton said.

"But we truly had no idea there would be this kind of madness" surrounding the swearing-in ceremony, Stanette said.

"All I know is, it's going to be a long day on Tuesday," Carleton said, "and I'm still shopping for comfortable shoes!"

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