By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
President Obama, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs joked, wanted to spend his birthday at Chuck E. Cheese, but the restaurant was booked.
So as he marked his 48th year Tuesday, the 44th president opted to celebrate in a place known for similarly childlike antics: the White House briefing room. He walked into the room unannounced at the start of the daily gathering and presented half a dozen cupcakes to Helen Thomas, who turned 41 on the day Obama was born.
This, of course, assumes that Obama was, in fact, born in Hawaii on Aug. 4, 1961, as state officials attest, and not on some other date in some other country, as conspiracy-minded conservatives believe. If they are correct, it may be more appropriate to wish the president a happy birther day.
Either way, Obama's unexpected arrival in the briefing room turned the place into something very much resembling a Chuck E. Cheese game room, without the red plastic crowns. Some correspondents leapt to their feet, only to be shouted down by the cameramen. Others whipped out their pocket cameras and took snapshots. Raghubir Goyal, a press corps regular who works for an obscure Indian American publication, positioned himself so Obama would have to shake his hand when leaving.
A transcript furnished by the Federal News Service captured the kerfuffle:
MR. GIBBS: Chip?
Q Is that -- (off mike)?
MR. GIBBS: Chip?
Q That's the great thing --
Q Oh my --
Q Happy birthday, Mr. --
Q Happy birthday, Mr. President!
Q (Singing.) Happy birthday to you.
(All singing "Happy Birthday.")
Q Sit down!
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (Off mike.)
Q Down, down.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: This is the kind of -- this is the kind of --
Q Happy birthday. (Cross talk.)
Q Sit down! Lester!
Q Happy birthday, Mr. President.
Obama waited for Thomas to blow out a candle, then sat down next to the longtime correspondent and put his arm around her for a photo. "Get a picture with the birthday kids," he proposed to the photographers. "Helen wished for world peace, no prejudice," he reported after a brief chat with her. "But she and I also had a common birthday wish. She said she hopes for a real health-care reform bill."
Obama ignored a question about North Korea and departed the room, leaving Thomas with the plate of cupcakes.
It had to have been a significantly better birthday celebration than Obama had last year, when he was still a candidate. Then, his national trip director left the boss's present in a taxi in Chicago. This year, Obama got to mark the occasion over the weekend with family and friends at Camp David. And on Tuesday, it seemed everybody wanted to sing to him. A group of schoolchildren on a tour tried to get his attention by singing "Happy Birthday" under the North Portico.
Another tour group, this one an assembly of Senate Democrats, sang to Obama during a luncheon in the State Dining Room. His senior adviser, David Axelrod, reported to MSNBC that the Democrats sang "in rather good harmony, which I think is a good auguring."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) emerged from lunch singing Obama's praises. "This was a wonderful time we spent together," he announced. "He really kind of reminded me of the days when I was an athlete and the coach was giving you a pep talk before the game. You came out of that pep talk that the coach gave you ready to take on the world. We're ready to take on the world."
Other birthday wishes were less harmonious.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, environmentalists marched with birthday hats and a giant mask of Obama's face. They had Danish pastries and a mock plane ticket for him to attend the climate-change conference in Copenhagen in December.
Karen Ignagni, president of the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, observed the president's birthday by holding a teleconference where she claimed that the White House had "demonized" the industry and employed the "usual Washington poll-driven playbook." This, she alleged, was to distract Americans "from the sinking support for a government-run program."
Senate Republican leaders, preparing to leave town, exulted in their ability to block health-care reform so far. "All indications are at this point that the American people would like for us to slow down," announced Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Back in the briefing room, reporters, recovering from the presidential birthday visit, sat down again and pulled out their notebooks, which were full of questions about rising unemployment, trouble in Iran, complaints from pro-Israel groups, and protests at health-care reform events across the country. The party was over.
"All right," Gibbs said. "Now that we've had the main event, let's get to the more mundane topics like whatever you all want to ask about today."