This post has been corrected. Obama spent more than $300 in Austin, not in Denver.
Has food - especially junk food - played as large a role in the messaging of any other presidential administration as it has in that of President Obama?
Obama has long complained about feeling hemmed in by the presidency, and has made a habit lately of escaping the White House by walking down the street, skipping town and meeting with regular Americans who have written him letters or have some connection to an issue he plans to discuss. The common thread in almost all of these excursions? Food or drink. And nothing fancy.
The latest adventure came Thursday, when Obama had a burger and fries at the Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Del., with Tanei Benjamin, who wrote Obama last year about her struggles as a single mother. Why the Charcoal Pit?
“Biden told me the burgers are pretty good,” Obama said. Biden is, of course, from Delaware.
Obama has said his excursions out of Washington are meant to connect him with regular Americans and their struggles. The cuisine and restaurants chosen by Obama and the White House is yet another reflection that Obama is attempting to bolster his populist bona fides out on the road.
In recent weeks Obama strolled to Starbucks for tea, ate pizza with small business owners and others in Denver, plunked down more than $300 for barbecue in Austin, sipped a beer while shooting pool during a big night out with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and brought working parents to Chipotle. Obama's love of burgers runs deep, so of course he had a few out on the road. In Minneapolis he brought a working mother to a place that stuffs the cheese inside its burgers, because laying it on top isn't good enough, and ferried four workers on a Washington construction project to a Shake Shack.
Biden joined Obama and the four workers at Shake Shack. Biden had a shake, but could he and Obama have shared it?
“Me and Joe, we share shakes all the time,” Obama said, taking the meaning of a good working relationship to a new level.
Obama has also used his first food service job as a reminder that he's a regular guy. He's mentioned to audiences recently that his first job was scooping ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins in Honolulu. Obama has been photographed eating ice cream numerous times since and brought first lady Michelle Obama to a Baskin-Robbins on their first date.
"I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate," Obama told O, The Oprah Magazine.
Despite all this, Obama apparently no longer likes ice cream because he ate too much while working at Baskin-Robbins.
Frederick Douglas Opie, a professor of history at Babson College who studies food in politics and social movements, said food plays a powerful role for politicians, and Obama's recent meals are a way to try to reconnect with regular people.
"Why not try to identify with the common man by going to where you eat, from draft beer to Chipotle? I’m like you, I go to Chipotle," Opie said.
It was clear that Obama had not been in a Chipotle in a long, long time. He called the chain "Chipotles" and committed the fast food faux pas of reaching over the sneeze guard to point out what he wanted in his burrito bowl.
Obama also caught some heat earlier this month for quipping that there is crack in the White House pie. He said the confections (and we're guessing all the burgers) also made his cholesterol shoot up.
While food has always been central on the campaign trail (think candidates awkwardly eating state fair grub on a stick and obligatory stops for pie at New Hampshire diners) its presence in the White House was mostly confined to the president's private quarters or lost in the pomp and circumstance of state dinners. Food was often a punchline or a fun fact -- Bill Clinton's penchant for McDonald's hamburgers and expanded waistline, Ronald Reagan's affinity for jelly beans, Richard Nixon's love of meatloaf, John F. Kennedy's favorite fish chowder.
But in this age of celebrity chefs, seemingly endless choices in cooking shows, the craze for all things organic and the rise of social media, food has taken on an outsized role in Obama's White House. And there is a public and private paradox with how food is treated in the White House, especially of late.
While Obama is out on the road picking up brisket and knocking back microbrews, the president and the first lady have cultivated a culture of fitness and healthy eating inside the White House. Staff members have formed exercise teams and the Obamas' trainer offers his services to White House staff. Fresh fruit is available for snacking. Obama has even said that his favorite food is broccoli.
Michelle Obama has famously championed the cause of healthy eating and exercise, launching the Let's Move initiative to fight childhood obesity and planting the White House vegetable garden.
“The culture here has shifted pretty dramatically, in direct ways and indirect ways, based on their leadership,” Sam Kass, executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and the White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy, told our colleague Juliet Eilperin in April. “I think we really live that. I think that’s been a transformation for the kitchen.”
While Obama is using his public meals to interact with regular people, recent reports indicate that when Obama is not dining with his family, as he tries to do at 6:30 each night, he is staying up late into the night over rib eye steaks, pasta and wine with "interesting Italians" in Rome and dining with small groups that keep him intellectually stimulated.
Obama has reportedly invited celebrities including U2's Bono, investor Warren Buffett, actor Samuel L. Jackson and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to the White House for dinner.
It would not be the last time he dined with Wintour. Obama attends plenty of pricier meals while on the road -- at fundraisers, which can command up to $32,000 a plate, as a dinner at Wintour's New York townhouse did in June.