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Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Pop & Politics contributor Judy Kurtz is the "In the Know" columnist for The Hill
They're the daughters of the commander in chief, but these days, Sasha and Malia Obama are the ones commanding the spotlight.
The pair of teenagers, looking more glam and mature than ever, recently stole the show as unexpected guests at their first state dinner at the White House for the prime minister of Canada. Now, as President Barack Obama nears the end of his time occupying the Oval Office, all eyes are on what Sasha, 14, and Malia, 17, will do (and wear) when they no longer call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.
"[In] 2016, I feel like they really kind of stepped it up," style expert Naina Singla tells E! News. "I think probably just because they're a little bit older, they're kind of at that age."
"Other girls are looking to them as kind of trendsetters," Singla says. "As they're getting a little bit older, I think they're just getting more comfortable with taking on that role."
Pete Souza / White House
The state dinner earlier this month—in which Sasha and Malia looked stunning in designer ballgowns and chatted it up with the likes of Ryan Reynolds—was a kind of "coming out" for the Obama daughters, says Doug Wead.
"I thought that was just wonderful," Wead, a former special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and author of the book All the Presidents' Children, says of the state dinner appearance. Their attendance there, Wead says, was certainly no accident.
"I know from my experience in the White House, that was crafted, and plotted and thought through ad nauseam within the family, and had to be agreed upon. The girls had to go, 'OK, we're into this. We're invested in this happening.'"
What also happened at the dinner with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says Singla, was a style-worthy moment for the blossoming young women.
"I think it is hard because they grew up in the White House being so young. They could've been rebellious and worn clothes that weren't appropriate. But I think they both really managed to be so put together," the fashion guru says. "I think they've both been able to strike a balance of knowing when to look sophisticated and proper and then there are times when they kind of let loose."
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Over the past 200 years, Wead says, the role of first children has "evolved pretty dramatically," but they've always had an important place at the White House—even among presidents who were childless or empty-nesters.
"I think it's because children are a contrast to the sycophants that surround power," Wead, who's penned more than 30 tomes, says. "They're honest and they're unpredictable. And I think that's why people in power delight in them. They're just so surrounded by layers of people who tell them what they want to hear. And the kid will come up and tell them, ‘Your speech was a flop, Dad.'"
But being a welcomed presence at the White House doesn't make life as a "first kid" any easier. "They all struggle, as you and I do, as all of us do, with establishing a separate identity from their parents," says Wead. "That whole process becomes complicated and corrupted by the extreme celebrity of the mom and dad…In any given moment, half of the country admires your mom and dad and half of them hates them. And that will always be."
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Growing up in the public eye can be particularly tough for presidential offspring. Chelsea Clinton has said she developed a "thick skin as a survival tactic" after recalling when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh compared the then-12-year-old to a dog. Limbaugh also hurled insults at former President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy Carter, once calling her the "most unattractive presidential daughter in the history of the country." Former President George W. Bush's twin daughters, Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush, also faced the unwanted gaze of the media spotlight and were dubbed "party girls" after getting cited for underage drinking as teenagers.
Wead (who describes himself as an "old right-wing Republican") praises the president and Michelle Obama for raising the seemingly poised and polished duo: "You really have to credit the Obamas as great parents, whatever your politics or your views of government."
Although their dad has less than a year left in office, Wead says he suspects the country will still be glued to Sasha and Malia's every move as they continue to reach new milestones.
"I think they'll be beloved by the nation, honored by the nation," says Wead. "There's just genuine bipartisan admiration for them."