By William Wan and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 5, 2009
With a brief glance out his car window -- barely visible through cordons of Secret Service officers, black SUVs and security barricades -- the soon-to-be leader of the free world bid a brief hello last night to the town he will now call home and to his new neighbors: scores of spectators camped outside his temporary quarters at the Hay-Adams Hotel.
There were no speeches, no ceremonies or official welcoming committees. Instead, Barack Obama, a man famous for his no-drama persona, arrived in the nation's capital in a similarly subdued fashion.
His limousine pulled up to claps and cheers from crowds lining the blocks near the hotel and also the cries of protesters angry about the Gaza Strip -- a reminder of the vexing problems he will face when he takes office. Then, in seconds, he was whisked inside.
Although the moment was brief, its historic nature was not lost on many in the crowd. For some, it marked the beginning of a long-promised day. For others around town, it was the move that triggers a thousand other moves, as loyalists of the old regime make room for coming appointees, staff workers and their families.
And throughout the District, longtime residents talked about forging a new kind of relationship with their president, one more intimate than any before.
Although such talk was rife with grand references to history, Obama's early arrival yesterday was driven by something a little more mundane. Like many parents, the Obamas wanted to make sure that their children would get to school on time.
Students at Malia and Sasha's new school, Sidwell Friends, return from winter break today. And Michelle Obama, who has said her children are her first priority, hoped to get her kids off on the right foot by having them start class along with everyone else -- even if that meant arriving more than two weeks ahead of the inauguration and the official move into the White House.
The family had asked to stay at Blair House, a guesthouse near the White House where the president-elect typically lives just before inauguration. But they were rebuffed by the Bushes, who said the building was already booked "by White House officials, the State Department and its Office of Protocol for various events."
So the Obamas headed to the posh Hay-Adams, just off Lafayette Square, a stone's throw from their future home on Pennsylvania Avenue. The future first lady and daughters arrived Saturday night, hurried in mostly out of view by a caravan of black SUVs.
Yesterday afternoon, after hours of waiting, the crowd across the street from the hotel got a flash of excitement as Michelle and her two girls left at 1:37 p.m. Although the future first family was again enshrouded in black SUVs, some in the crowd swore they spotted -- for half a second through the windows of the second car -- Michelle Obama in a red coat waving to them.
Later in the afternoon, the president-elect left Chicago for Washington, boarding an Air Force jet emblazoned with the presidential seal and frequently used to transport the vice president or first lady. When he stepped off the plane at Andrews Air Force Base an hour and a half later, he was greeted with a salute.
Obama told journalists on board that he "choked up" when he left his empty house in the afternoon. One of Malia's close friends had dropped off a scrapbook full of pictures of the girls since they were in preschool.
Asked whether he was looking forward to moving to Washington, Obama said: "Yeah, although living in a hotel for two weeks, we kind of did that for two years."
Officially, the city had no special welcome planned for Obama, just plenty of street closings near the hotel at 16th and H streets NW. But local leaders and residents were abuzz yesterday about the larger impact his family might bring to town.
Many pointed to Barack Obama's community organizing days in Chicago and Michelle Obama's stated plans to invest in the District as signs that this family's relationship with the city will be strikingly different.
"They're going to be District residents, not just Washington area residents," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
For too many presidents, Gray and others said, Washington and the District of Columbia have been two distinct worlds separated by a vast chasm. The former swirls around the Capitol and the White House. The latter offers the diversity of all eight wards and insists that its residents know the difference between a half-smoke and a hot dog.
And for so long, the District has longed for a president who could bridge those two worlds.
"The Obamas see that dichotomy," said Adam L. Barr, founder of DC for Obama. "There's something historic about his being the first black president and this being a black-majority city."
All day yesterday inside the Hay-Adams, locals tried their best to jump-start that relationship.
Just off the lobby, where a lavish $65-a-plate Sunday brunch was underway, almost none of the well-dressed diners mentioned Obama or his family already ensconced in a suite upstairs.
Don't let the cool demeanors fool you, though, said one diner. "That's what everyone's thinking about even if they don't say it," Terrance Mason said later, a safe distance from the elegant dining room. "Just to be in the same building, to be breathing the same air. It's amazing."
Since moving to the District in 1999, Mason has run into the country's three most recent presidents. So with his 40th birthday coming up yesterday, Mason made reservations at the hotel's restaurant. What better way to celebrate than to go four for four?
Even before Obama's arrival, Mason noted, the 44th president had already made his mark on the city, or at least in the dining room of the Hay-Adams.
"I come here every couple months," Mason said. "I've never seen so many fellow African Americans up there before. He's already shaking things up, you know what I mean?"
A few tables away, one local family said they were so desperate for a glimpse of the future first family that the father had reserved a table for the brunch. So, decked out in their Sunday best, Jabreel Hampton and his wife and children slowly sipped their drinks, snapped photos and prayed that Michelle Obama or one of her daughters would somehow see their table and join in their mid-morning meal.
"I was thinking, 'They got to eat,' " said Hampton, of Damascus.
But instead, his family spent most of brunch nervously working out -- in vain, it turns out -- what they would say to the famous family.
"We love you," his wife suggested.
"We're glad that you're the president," his 8-year-old daughter offered.
It's not clear how close the Hamptons and other supporters will get to the Obama family in coming days and weeks, nor how much the Obamas will see of their newly adopted city.
By last night, when Obama's black limo pulled up to the hotel about 7:30 p.m., his new home had been transformed into a secured fortress. Steel barricades lined the sidewalks. Dual layers of concrete barriers cut off all paths to the hotel. All weekend, the hotel wouldn't even confirm that the Obamas would be guests. The most a spokesman would say was that its suites offered "an especially good view in the wintertime of the White House."
When the motorcade finally passed by, some in the crowd claimed that they spotted the president-elect, clad in a navy suit and blue tie, through the limo's windows. Others, including protesters busy demanding a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, missed it entirely.
Regardless of what they saw, many said they would be telling their children and grandchildren for years to come of this day, when the man who became president spent his first night with his family in the city they would now call home.
Staff writers Matt Zapotosky, Philip Rucker, Kristen Mack, Hamil R. Harris and Elissa Silverman and staff researchers Meg Smith and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.