How Costco explains the Obama presidency

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician in possession of low approval numbers must be in want of a tub of pretzels. And so today, President Obama went to Costco, proving that his administration's romance with the second-largest retailer in America is stronger than ever -- and might just be the most successful union of a politician and a supermarket in American history.

George H.W. Bush tried to prove his love for grocery shopping before his inauguration by saying that the press and the Secret Service would be unable to stop him from escaping to the deli down the street to grab bagels. Three years later, it was clear his passion hadn't been strong enough to withstand the pressures of being president when press secretary Marlin Fitzwater had to try and prove to reporters that the president had ever visited a grocery store. Former New York representative Anthony Weiner ran in to a similar problem last year when shopping for the food-stamp challenge during the mayoral campaign. Without the help of the press corps -- which followed him into the store and warned him to stay away from tofu -- it's unlikely Weiner would have kept to his budget. Obama did make some miscalculations with his grocery alliances at the start of the presidential career, when his Iowa farmer small talk included the dreaded words, "Whole Foods," something the national press diner embeds found wholly shocking. After he became president, however, Obama found Costco, and his life has never been the same. Here are some of the highlights of this beautiful friendship.

(Screenshot from the New York Times, September 11, 1971)
(Screenshot from the New York Times, September 11, 1971)

Costco and the Osama bin Laden raid

On May 1, 2011, the top members of the Obama administration were hunkered down in the Situation Room, planning the mission that would lead to the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. And what kept the White House going late at night? "A staffer went to Costco and came back with a mix of provisions — turkey pita wraps, cold shrimp, potato chips, soda." That's right, Costco played a small but important role -- who knows what kinds of decisions Obama would have made if he were hungry -- in one of the most important moments of his presidency. White House food critic Tom Sietsema analyzed the food choice at the time:

The choice of a wrap rather than a slice of bread to bundle the turkey strikes me as very Bush-era, wraps being so yesterday. Maybe there wasn't an option at Costco -- which, by the way, is more than one food professional's not-so-secret source for choice cuts of meat, chicken and cherries in season. The food is all very easy to eat. Nothing requires a utensil, or much concentration, unless the shrimp included tails. Had the first lady walked into the room, no one would have felt obliged to hide what they were eating; the turkey and shrimp would have met her approval. As for the potato chips and soda ... hey, everything in moderation.

Costco and the 2012 election

Without Costco, would Obama have even been re-elected? Well, yes. But, the retailer did play an important role in countering Walmart's support of Republican candidates and issues while also proving an easy way for Obama to mention income inequality and smart job creation on the campaign trail. Costco founder Jim Sinegal is a vocal supporter of Democratic politicians. His company gave more than $2o million during the 2012 election cycle (mostly supporting issues and politicians in Washington state). Over the course of Obama's presidential career, Costco has given $100,000 to him and another $100,000 to Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC. Costco was also a big supporter of the 'Yes' on Initiative 1183 Coalition, giving over $20 million to the group campaigning for a privatization of liquor sales in Washington state. Costco employees also vote Democratic -- only 5 percent of the $102,600 donated by Costco employees in the 2012 election cycle went to Republicans. Susan Brotman, wife of the other Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman, was an Obama bundler in 2012 who collected over $500,000 in campaign donations. Sinegal wrote an email blast sent out by the Obama campaign in July 2012. In the same month, Obama held a fundraiser at Sinegal's house in Seattle, during which he said "the story of Costco and everything that you guys have done I think is representative of what America is all about." Sinegal even gave a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, although not the most memorable one.

Walmart has also given $100,000 to  Obama over the course of his career, but they also give more to Republican causes than just about any other company. An investment adviser for both companies explained the dichotomy in 2004 (yes, Costco and Walmart have been political opponents for awhile). "Wal-Mart is extremely strong in Republican strongholds; they are a red-state retailer. Costco is stronger in Democratic states. Costco is a friend to labor. Unions hate Wal-Mart."

That's not exactly true, though. Some Republicans are also a fan of Costco's business model -- the thought that investing in employees is the best way to make bank long-term. Like Mitt Romney. Bruce Springsteen is to Chris Christie as Costco is to Mitt Romney.While in Tampa for the 2012 Republican National Convention, Ann Romney said on Fox News that Costco has "got great produce." Her husband added, "She also got me one of these three-packs of shirts the other day from Costco. And they're very nice shirts." Of course, Costco didn't give the GOP presidential candidate any donations, while Walmart gave him around $66,000. There's a reason Romney went to Walmart to gather material for his less-than-well-planned Hurricane Sandy "storm relief event." But when the campaign ended and Citizen Mitt returned, where did he go to buy bulk paper towels?


STERN/DOUBLE VISION MEDIA

 Biden and Costco, a.k.a. "I'm looking for pies."

Soon after Obama and Biden won reelection in November 2012, the vice president went to the a new Costco to celebrate. Well, he mainly wanted to talk about extending some of the Bush tax cuts, but because he is America's charm laureate, he tempered politics with many free samples and a few purchases, including  "flowers, children's  books, fire logs, a 32-inch Panasonic TV and a large apple pie." Apple pie!

Vice President Joe Biden is shocked at how much money he saved at Costco -- and is perhaps a bit sugar-high from all the pie. AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Vice President Joe Biden is shocked at how much money he saved at Costco -- and is perhaps a bit sugar-high from all the pie. AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Obama visits Costco

And finally, the much awaited presidential visit to Costco. After Biden's trip went so swimmingly, what better place to campaign for a minimum-wage hike than the place Obama has been talking up for treating its employees so well? The event was mostly an abridged version of the economic portion of his State of the Union -- he even repeated the "Mad Men" line -- except with way more Costco jokes (which he probably workshopped with Biden).

Exhibit A:

I needed some time to pick up a snow shovel and one of those 50-pound bags of dog food for Bo and Sunny. I was told I'd get a big-screen TV, too, for the Super Bowl coming up -- 80-inch. So 60 is not enough? Got to go 80.

In fact, nearly all of his jokes were about picking up things in bulk. Exhibit B:

Before I grab a 10-pound barrel of pretzels and  -- 500 golf balls ...


President Barack Obama greets an employee in the bakery at a Costco store in Lanham, Md. Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, where he spoke about raising the minimum wage the morning after his State of the Union address. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Near the end of the speech, Obama cycled back to the real reason he's BFFs with Costco -- not turkey wraps or donations (okay, maybe donations a little bit) or free samples -- but because it's the perfect marriage of both economic ends of the Democratic Party: the fighting income inequality end and the protecting businesses end:

Let me just leave you with something I heard from Costco’s founder, Jim Sinegal, who’s been a great friend of mine and somebody who I greatly admire.  And Jim is rightly proud of everything he’s accomplished.  “But,” he said, “here’s the thing about the Costco story.  We did not build our company in a vacuum.  We built it in the greatest country on Earth.  We built our company in a place where anyone can make it with hard work, a little luck, and a little help from their neighbors and their country.”

This isn't a one-sided relationship, although the White House seems to reap the most benefits from their many shout-outs and appearances at the store. In June 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek published a profile of the company and its CEO Craig Jelinek asking "Can the rest of corporate America become more like Costco? " Which happens to be the same point Obama has been trying to hit home by mentioning the chain so often.

Whoever the next Democratic presidential candidate -- or maybe even the next Republican presidential candidate -- is, they'll be able to save themselves a lot of grocery store grief by sidling up to Costco as quickly as possible.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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