By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008
Nicanor Obama began to realize he might be on to a good thing when he didn't get a speeding ticket not long ago. After stopping the 28-year-old for a little lead-footing near the Verizon Center, a District police officer looked at his driver's license and put the citation book away.
"He said, 'Well, I'm going to let you go because you have the Obama name' " is how the Arlington County resident recalled the encounter.
Since Election Day, his moniker has sparked goodwill, from nightclub freebies to hearty handshakes from fellow students at the University of the District of Columbia, where he studies political science. "I'm not related to the president, but I think Obama is a good name to have right now."
Their lives might not have changed as dramatically as a certain Chicago-based Obama family, but the area's non-Barack Obamas have been basking in a little low-watt glory of their own. Suddenly, having the most famous last name in the world means cashing a check, flashing an ID or making a dinner reservation might never be the same.
"I signed up for a Harris Teeter card the other day, and the woman was, like, Obama?," said Denise Maye Obama, 19, of Alexandria. "She said: 'That's a first. Are you related to the president?' Everyone asks if I'm related to the president now. One of these times I'm going to say yes, just for the fun of it."
Having a famous last name of any kind sparks a lifetime of predictable checkout-line chitchat; just ask anyone named Sinatra or Kissinger (or, in this reporter's experience, anyone sharing a name with a certain electric-guitar master). But being asked whether you can sing "My Way" or play "Purple Haze" pales in comparison with "Can you get my cousin pardoned?" or, more earnestly, "Can you get me inauguration tickets?"
Denise, a recent graduate of T.C. Williams High School and a freshman at the University of Virginia, said she is asked daily whether she can leverage her name for good seats at the parade or a White House visit. But the only time she has seen the other Obama, at a campaign rally in Charlottesville, she had terrible seats. "My name didn't do me much good that time," she said. "I didn't even get to shake his hand."
At the very least, according to Francisca Obama, a graduate student in Human Resources at Strayer University, no one forgets or botches her name any more.
"Sometimes African names are kind of hard," said Francisca, 29. "Now I don't even have to spell my name. Everybody knows it already."
If it's good to be an Obama, it's also exceedingly rare. According to databases, there might be fewer than 20 Obama families in the United States, compared with more than 11,000 Clintons and 60,000 Bushes. (Whitepages.com shows more than 70 Obama listings, but many of those are clunky fakes, including the entry for Hillary C. Obama of Cleveland.)
Sharing a presidential name can bring small blessings, according to others who have seen their names rise to the highest office in the land.
"People will remember your name, that's for sure," said Jackie Nixon, a research director at National Public Radio. Nixon, who married into her presidential name, said that memorability was a professional bonus when she once worked as a social worker in Missouri, even if some people only remembered one of her handles. "I had one client who always called me Jacqueline Nixon and another who always called me Tricia Nixon. But at least they remembered me."
"It was a really big deal for a fairly brief period," said John Eisenhour, 69, of Alexandria, who shares a pronunciation with the 34th president if not an exact spelling. He was a high school student when his surname entered the Oval Office, and he instantly enjoyed a more conspicuous presence at school dances. "The young ladies would remember your name, which wasn't always a good thing."
Nicanor Obama said he has been riding a small social wave that started election night, when he was waved under the rope line at a Washington nightclub with no cover charge. He was the toast of the delirious crowds that night, he said.
And last week, when Nicanor and his family went to visit a cousin and her new baby at Virginia Hospital Center, they created a minor buzz in the lobby when they asked for Josephina Obama's room.
"They said, 'Obama? Is she one of the Obamas? Are they here?' " Nicanor said. "They treated us like VIPs."
Nicanor, like most of the Obamas in this area, is a native of Equatorial Guinea. The name is common there -- much more so than in Kenya, in fact, where the president-elect's father was from -- and Guineans wonder whether they can make their own claim to a branch of the president-elect's family tree. There are also a few Obamas of Japanese decent.
"Every day, I'm having so much fun with this," said Susie Obama, a real estate investor in Palm Coast, Fla. "When I stop at the bank, they say, 'Roll out the red carpet.' I get e-mails from Japan saying, 'Hello to the first lady.' "
It's all a big improvement over her most recent name association, she said.
"I'm so glad Obama is finally a good guy. I really had a hard time for a while there with Osama."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.