When Barack and Michelle Obama announced they were staying in Washington after eight years in the White House, there was a palpable buzz.
The conventional move for a post-presidency life is back home: a return to roots, a presidential library and distinguished service. No modern president has remained in the nation’s capital after leaving office; the last was the ailing Woodrow Wilson in 1921. So the idea of the vibrant, glamorous Obamas — two of the most famous people in the world — living here was a very big deal. Expectations were high.
Longtime Washingtonians hoped they would become unofficial ambassadors for the nation’s capital, embracing their adopted city. Instead, they’ve embraced their new lives as private citizens, emphasis on “private.”
In the past 18 months — aside from a few carefully curated public appearances — they are rarely spotted around town. They still love going to restaurants and attending the occasional exhibition or play. But outside a rarefied circle of close friends, they fly pretty much under the radar.
“I think that the Obamas probably appreciate that folks in D.C. are letting them just live their lives as private citizens and continue to be part of this community,” said Stephanie Cutter, who served as a senior aide in the Obama White House.
In the nation’s capital, the Obamas have created a protective bubble that allows them maximum flexibility and minimum public exposure. That bubble is literal: The street in front of their home is blocked by a police car, with officers on duty 24-7, a standard security detail for any former president. Visitors to the block must check in with the officers before proceeding to any of the homes. Not that anyone would run into the Obamas: They rarely walk their dogs and typically come and go from a secured side entrance of their home.
But that bubble is also figurative: Residents nearby wouldn’t talk about their illustrious neighbors. The Obamas, they say, are quiet, unobtrusive and entitled to their privacy.
The Obamas have always been careful about controlling their message, and the code of silence extends to almost every aspect of their social lives: Speak without authorization and you could be exiled from Obamaland.
“Please don’t quote me,” said one local acquaintance, who then admitted she rarely sees the couple. “I’m very honored that they are doing well.”
Through their spokeswoman the Obamas declined to comment for this story. And no one in their inner circle would discuss their post-presidency life in Washington. Their Instagram and Twitter feeds are strictly on brand: Favorite causes, public appearances, romantic birthday wishes, envy-worthy vacation shots.
One is hard-pressed to find signs that they live here. There’s a shot of their two dogs walking down the sidewalk that Michelle posted in March 2017, and a tweet from Barack when D.C.’s hockey team won the Stanley Cup last month: “Congratulations to the @Capitals! This @NHLBlackhawks fan knows what it’s like to lift that cup — and I’m happy for all the Caps fans who cheer so hard for their team . . . .”
Get over it, Washington. The Obamas may own a home in the nation’s capital, but they’ll never really be Washingtonians.
Most people assumed that the Obamas would move back to Chicago, where they still own their Hyde Park home. But eight months before leaving office, the president said they would stay in town until younger daughter Sasha graduates from Sidwell Friends in June 2019.
After renting the home of former Clinton administration press secretary Joe Lockhart in Kalorama, they purchased the eight-bedroom manse for $8.1 million last spring, giving the first indication that this city might be their home base even after Sasha leaves for college.
Earlier this year, Michelle told Ellen DeGeneres that the family has settled into their new home. Barack, she explained, has the smallest room for his home office, Sasha a two-room suite because she’s the only child living at home, and Malia — who started at Harvard last fall after taking a gap year — has “a room in the attic somewhere.”
The former president has an office in the West End, where he’s working on his memoirs and receiving visitors. And he’s golfing a lot. Obama joined Columbia Country Club and Robert Trent Jones Golf Club but plays on courses all over town.
Michelle is a regular at Solidcore, a fact touted on the exercise studio’s website, which also states that the owner “doesn’t talk about her fitness clients.”
There are public photo-ops: The Obamas visit schools, Boys & Girls Clubs and other educational programs. Museums and theaters in Washington hoping for the Obama touch have been treated to a few: The couple dropped by the National Gallery of Art for the Theaster Gates show and the Kennedy Center for a performance of “The Humans,” and Michelle attended “The Wiz” at Ford’s Theatre as well as concerts by Erykah Badu, Ledisi and Bruno Mars.
The biggest public splash was the unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery in February of the Obamas’ official portraits, which have attracted record crowds.
And restaurants, of course. The Obamas eschewed the Washington social scene in favor of more intimate date nights during their White House years, and that hasn’t changed.
In the past year they’ve eaten at Dabney, Rasika, Del Mar, Maydan, and Fiola Mare, to name a few — often tucked away in private rooms. Their VIP status scored them a table at A Rake’s Progress before it had its official opening for a celebration of Michelle’s birthday.
There’s a fine line between respecting privacy and bragging when the Obamas make an appearance. Restaurants typically skirt the issue when customers or employees share a sighting: One tweeted a photo of the couple at Tail Up Goat; another excited patron videotaped the former president at Nobu.
In March, Hank’s Oyster Bar owner Jamie Leeds tweeted her own encounter, admitting that she was “star struck.”
The Obamas can’t just slip into a restaurant. Their security team went to the Hank’s location at the Wharf two days prior and checked perimeters on the day of their reservation. The Obamas, Valerie Jarrett and friends sat at a corner table overlooking the water; their detail sat at the next table. Customers took pictures from afar but did not approach; one party sent a round of shots. Guests clapped as they shook a few hands on the way out.
“You could feel the energy in the room,” said Sabrina Zahid, the restaurant’s marketing director. “You could tell it was a special night.”
Despite all this, why does it feel as if they're not really here?
From a political standpoint, keeping a low profile follows a long tradition: It’s considered poor form for a president to outshine or criticize his successor, something more likely to happen when they live in the same city.
But also because they travel a lot to promote their pet platforms: youth leadership, health care, women’s rights and wellness. This week, Barack is in South Africa for a Nelson Mandela birthday tribute; Michelle took in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s show Sunday in Paris.
Several of those trips include paid speeches, the modern golden goose for every former president and first lady. Individual speaking fees are not disclosed, but according to multiple media reports, the Obamas get top dollar: He receives an average of $400,000 per speech, and she gets about $200,000. His spokesman explained last year that the speeches allow the couple to donate to their favorite social programs.
There are also exotic trips for living their best life: kite surfing in the Caribbean with billionaire Richard Branson (they returned the favor by having him over for a drink at their D.C. home), a luxury getaway to Tuscany, and a vacation last year in French Polynesia on David Geffen’s $590 million yacht with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen. As one does.
“What happens on the boat stays on the boat,” Winfrey told reporters.
Details are even harder to come by here. Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., who persuaded Obama to attend a private fundraiser for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, did not respond to requests for comment. Jarrett, one of their most trusted confidants, declined to answer questions about their post-White House life.
Given the close ties between Winfrey and the Obamas, it seemed probable that they would go to her “Watching Oprah” exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They weren’t at the opening party for 700 people. Maybe they had a private tour or attended a VIP event with Winfrey? A museum spokesman never responded to questions.
There’s one other factor, a more subtle and complicated aspect of their lives here: Most of their closest friends are African American. They move in an elite, exclusive circle that entertains privately and does not tweet, Instagram or share details about their own lives, much less the Obamas’.
“Black Washington is not observed by white Washington,” says a friend who is not authorized to speak about the Obamas but socializes with them. “They’re still the first couple of the world. But the notion that they’re not here is something black people laugh at.”
They are around — just protected, he explains. “The Washington they travel in is appropriate to their ages. People in their 50s and 60s don’t whip out their phones and tweet about it.”
We'll all see a lot more of the Obamas soon, at least on television.
“Becoming,” the autobiography by Michelle Obama, will come out in November; her husband’s new book is scheduled for next spring. Both are part of a reported $65 million deal with Penguin Random House, one of the largest advances in history. Expect a very public book tour, because they need to sell a record number of books to justify that amount.
There’s also a new multiyear development deal with Netflix to produce scripted series as well as documentary and feature films. Terms were not disclosed.
A year ago, they announced plans for the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side, both a presidential library and a community center. The Obama Foundation, a key focus of his post-presidency and developer of the presidential center, is also based in Chicago and held its first summit last October.
Sasha is scheduled to graduate next June. Her older sister will presumably be at Harvard for the next three years.
So, yes, the Obamas are based in Washington — for now. Just don’t get your hopes up that they actually, you know, live here.