Obama Becoming A Man About Town
Local Outings Hit Hot Spots For Culture, Haute Cuisine (And Burgers)

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jan. 16: The Obamas and friends have an early birthday dinner for Michelle at Equinox on Connecticut Avenue NW.

Since moving into the White House in January, President Obama has been to a Wizards game at Verizon Center, a parent-teacher conference in Bethesda and a youth soccer game in Palisades. He's gone for burgers at Five Guys and frozen custard in Alexandria. He's had a half-smoke at Ben's.

He has been stuck, motorcade and all, in a traffic jam at the Springfield Mixing Bowl.

Does that make him one of us?

Whenever a new occupant unpacks at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., a question arises that is of little note to the rest of the country but of intense interest to his new neighbors: Is this one going to be a president . . . or a resident? (As President Ronald Reagan observed, just one letter makes the difference.)

Washingtonians really want their home to be more to the incumbent than just a matte painting for bill-signing ceremonies. They want him to see more than fleeting, tinted glimpses through limousine windows. If he's going to live here, they want him to live here.

Feb. 6: The Obama family sees the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at the Kennedy Center.

Whether Obama's local outings so far make him a Washingtonian depends on whom you ask.

Local restaurateurs are encouraged that the first couple has a taste for dining out. But A-list hosts are coming to terms with the fact that the Obamas don't seem big on private dinner parties (they have attended just one outside the White House, at the Georgetown home of adviser Valerie Jarrett).

Local parents can relate to the president's kid-centric logistical challenges, including one Saturday of back-to-back soccer games in different neighborhoods. Local activists and politicians wish he would include more of them in his photo ops. And preachers would like the president, who has attended only one Washington area church since taking office, to spend more time in local -- ahem, their -- pews.

The Rev. Ronald E. Braxton of Metropolitan AME Church in the District said he understands why Obama might be shying away from church shopping, given the intense, unseemly attention surrounding the president's choice of a house of worship.

"We have done the president an injustice in making it such an issue, both the press and the local churches," he said. "The attention has made it competitive among congregations."

May 5: Obama and Vice President Biden drive to lunch at Ray's Hell-Burger in Arlington.

For many, the president's early forays out of the White House represent a welcome awakening from the homebody tenure of George W. Bush, who famously preferred to spend evenings at home and weekends at Camp David or his Texas ranch.

"In their first two weeks in D.C., the Obamas probably went out more than President Bush ever did," said Victoria Isley, marketing chief at the D.C. visitors bureau. Her agency has already compiled an online guide to Obama's Washington to meet the demand from tourists eager to follow in his local footsteps.

The first family's outings have broadened the world's view of the capital beyond the government core, Isley said. "The C-SPAN-ness of official D.C. gets coverage every day," she said. "But the Obamas being comfortable in a city and exploring the city has put the spotlight on what it's really like here."

May 1: The president and first lady attend a school event at Imagination Stage in Bethesda featuring one of their daughters.

One thing pushing the Obamas out into the city: having young children in the house.

On the Saturday before Father's Day, Liz Davis was surprised to look up and see the sidewalk in front of her Del Ray frozen custard shop, the Dairy Godmother, suddenly filled with stern men wearing earphones. The first father was taking his daughters out for frozen custard.

Davis was delighted on two counts. Of course, she loved the boost in business that followed CNN's coverage of Sasha's choice of a brownie sundae (the next day, Davis sold five times her usual number of brownie sundaes). But she was also pleased because as a political daughter herself -- her father, Glenn Davis, was a congressman from Wisconsin for 20 years -- Davis realizes the importance of making sure children in Washington's power families get their share of normal family outings.

"You can't keep them prisoner in there," said Davis, whose shop now boasts a shellacked chair emblazoned with "Obama Sat Here."

May 2: The first couple have dinner for two at Citronelle in Georgetown.

Mark Knoller, the CBS White House correspondent who has been the unofficial archivist of presidential social outings for several administrations, said Obama is going to the kinds of places other presidents typically visited only in election years. Obama seems driven both by his daddy duties and his political savvy, keeping voters in mind with such folksy touches as frozen custard runs and cheeseburger stops, he added.

"That was a first," Knoller said. "You didn't see Bush loading Cheney into the motorcade to go get burgers."

Food watchers are hanging on the first family's every bite as they explore local eateries. Melissa McCart, who writes about restaurants on her Counter Intelligence blog, said the Obamas are hitting on interesting themes, from the sustainable farming connections of Equinox to the zany personality cult of Ray's Hell-Burger.

"Whoever is making reservations for them is as on top of things as some of the foodies in town, if not ahead," said McCart.

For others, Obama has yet to realize the promise they inferred when a Democratic, African American city dweller moved to the heavily Democratic, majority-black District.

"He hasn't been over here yet," said Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 activist and periodic candidate for D.C. Council. Actually, Obama has been to Southeast Washington at least twice (to hit a Five Guys near the ballpark and sign a national service bill at the SEED charter school). He also planted a tree at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast. But Seegars is still waiting for the motorcade to swing through her ward, the city's poorest.

"He lives in D.C. -- he could just stop and wave," Seegars said. "He could just stop at the Anacostia Metro station and greet a few people, shake a few hands, tell the young men to pull their pants up. It would show the world he was one of us."

June 5: The Obama family visits Fort McNair to assemble backpacks for children of armed services members.

Of course, after 9/11, only the most determined president can burst out of the security bubble for more than a few curbside waves. It takes the Secret Service nearly four years just to get over the acid reflux after a president's ritual Inauguration Day walk along Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I have movies of Bill Clinton and me jogging on the Mall," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "Can you imagine a president jogging on the Mall today?"

Clinton was also far more deeply engaged with the local political scene than Obama has been, Evans said.

"I'm unaware of his reaching out to any local politicians," said Evans. "But I'm not giving up on him. The president lives in my ward. Maybe I'll send him a letter inviting him to come visit city hall and meet the local government."

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