Michelle Obama to John Boehner: ‘Whatevs’

January 22, 2013

In the streets and ballrooms of the U.S. capital, for most of Monday’s posturing, poem-reading, parading and partying, inaugural celebrants joyously welcomed the Obamas back to the White House on their own dime.

Robust private entities, corporations, Democratic Party contributors and tens of thousands of ordinary Americans wrote non-deductible checks to show their regard for the guests of honor. Republican voters worried about their tax dollars should be relieved that very little of the weekend’s Democratic National Committee victory festivities were paid for by “we the people.”


Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies members  Sen. Lamar Alexander, left, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Speaker of the House John A. Boehner, Chairman Charles E. Schumer, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (U.S. Senate photo)

Only the pomp and circumstance part of the day required federal funds, budgeted and administrated by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, a bicameral bipartisan group that acts as co-organizers and co-hosts for the quadrennial transfer of power.  According to JCCIC’s Facebook page, since 1901, the group has been responsible for the “planning and execution of the swearing-in ceremonies and luncheon for … the President and Vice President of the United States at the U.S. Capitol.”

(Those watching the day on television might have noticed the considerable number of times the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Schumer, was in camera range during those two events.)

The swearing-in half of the committee’s ceremonial responsibilities was exquisitely scheduled minute by minute (“11:46 Vice President Biden sworn in by Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; 11:50 President Obama sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts”). The other portion of the prescribed events – a sumptuous, albeit awkward, mid-day meal under the dome of the Capitol – was a comparatively loosely scripted occasion. In the spirit of reconciliation and comity, leaders of the two political parties and their guests sat down and ate lobster together, despite having been in pitched battle for the past two years.

In this moment of history, the Grand Old Party is at a political disadvantage.  Their nominee for president was defeated, and though they retained a House majority, they lost seats on both sides of the Capitol.  The true spoils of the Democratic victory will be policy gains from progressive executive orders, and, ideally, positive legislative action.  Perhaps as a symbol of gifts to come, at the post-swearing in lunch, Republican leaders presented their successful rivals with ceremonial vases.

After repeatedly dangling him from a fiscal precipice during 112th Congress, John Boehner will need to offer more than a nice lunch and some household furnishings to make peace with the returning commander in chief.  Despite a promising start in the new session, with another debt ceiling deadlock temporarily avoided, the heretofore obstructionist, highest-ranking Republican in America, will have to be pretty charming and much more legislatively accommodating to expect a reciprocating invite to a meal at the second-term president’s place of business. Couples dates with his wife and Mrs. Boehner are even less likely.

Monday’s lunch was open to the press but its politically powerful participants were not mic’ed. Reporters could try to eavesdrop, but conversations among the guests were not recorded.  (Though Schumer may one day have a microphone surgically implanted, for this event even he had to step to the podium to be heard.)

Despite the absence of sound – except Mr. Schumer thanking the caterer in the background – one of the most widely viewed moments was a candid instant, isolated by blogger Matty Rab, when Boehner, seated on Michelle Obama’s left and executing his hosting duties with what looked like exuberant bonhomie, tapped her on the shoulder.   Decidedly underwhelmed by her host’s enthusiasm, Michelle barely glanced in his direction and leaned in so her luncheon partner could talk over her to her (slightly) more receptive husband on her right.

The video shows the first lady’s new bangs framing an immediately iconic extended-lash eye roll, followed by a short but unmistakable head shake – communicating instantly in a shot seen round the world, the universal gesture for “whatever.”

Bonnie Goldstein is a Washington-based writer. Follow her on Twitter at @KickedByAnAngel.

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Melinda Henneberger · January 22, 2013