The Obamas, Making Their Mark in Washington Through Public Outreach
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The worker bees of federal Washington -- people like Mazzie Simmons of Waldorf, who commutes 30 miles to her desk as a retirement specialist at the Office of Personnel Management -- don't expect to hear high praise from the White House, or from anyone else, for that matter. "Nobody ever comes to say, 'Thank you for what you people do,' " she says.
Until, that is, Michelle Obama dropped by the agency last week, shook hands with hundreds of civil servants and lauded their dedication. In her 35 years in government, Simmons had never seen such a thing. Obama, a political rock star and fashion sensation worldwide, impressed Simmons as a down-to-earth woman who has "the interest of people at heart."
It was the ninth time the first lady had come to a federal agency, always to tumultuous welcome, to deliver a pep talk. From the auditorium stage, she told the bureaucrats that such visits give her the chance "to better understand not just the work that you do but the lives that you live."
Political hype? To a degree. But in their extraordinary outreach to ordinary local people, the Obamas have made themselves known to Washington in a way that no first couple has in modern memory -- crossing lines of race, class and power since moving into the White House.
"It's been nothing short of incredible," says Mayor Adrian Fenty. "It's really an unprecedented level of energy and commitment to Washington, D.C., and the issues that are important to the people who live here. It brings an excitement to the city that I haven't seen before, and I've lived here my whole life."
Locals know that Washington isn't one city but three. There is the federal core with its marble monuments and hives of government toilers. There are the leafy enclaves of the prosperous class, mainly in Northwest. And then there's the sprawling "other" Washington where poverty and crime persist.
Together or separately, the president and his wife have paid attention to all three -- but considerably more than their predecessors to low-income neighborhoods. They've staged events at public schools and community centers. On the service day held before the inauguration, he wielded a paintbrush at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an emergency shelter for teens; last month she dished out risotto to the homeless at Miriam's Kitchen.
And today, Michelle Obama has invited Jill Biden and a small army of congressional spouses and kids to bag food at the Capital Area Food Bank for distribution to a thousand school children who depend on the program to eat.
Besides do-gooder events, the first couple are also also prone to spontaneous, we're-just-folks outings: There's the president sitting courtside at Verizon Center, watching the Chicago Bulls; there's the first lady and her staff having burgers at Five Guys in Dupont Circle. Michelle Obama also expands her social circle on the weekends, cheering on her daughters at soccer and basketball games along with other parents.
"They are trying to become familiar with all of Washington," says longtime resident and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "They're good neighbors."
Not long after his election, Barack Obama spoke of wanting to "open up the White House," and his wife talked of "contributing to the community. " As first ladies often do, Michelle Obama has taken up the mantle of goodwill emissary and cheerleader for her husband's agenda. Doing so has pushed her to the forefront of community engagement. Along with introducing herself to thousands of federal workers, she has invited several hundred kids from low-income neighborhoods to White House events.
At a White House bill-signing in February, Brazile says she approached Michelle Obama and said, "Madame first lady, don't forget Anacostia. Many people often forget about the kind of places where we grew up."