Thursday, March 26, 2009

Could It Really Be Him? Yeah, Probably

GO BULLS! President Obama’s team lost; it may not have bothered 5-year-old Nick Aiello.

Michelle Obama with Jill Biden, center, and Michelle Fenty

THEIR NEW HOMETOWN President Obama at a casual D.C. spot.

During the Bush years, Washington got used to a homebody president who preferred bringing friends into the Executive Mansion to venturing outside it. But these days, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, are popping up all over this city.

The Obamas have gone to parent-teacher conferences, school sporting events and visited working-class and gentrifying communities that have rarely served as stomping grounds for American presidents and first ladies — speaking to students at a charter school in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and worshiping in a black church, among other activities. (The president and friends also tossed a basketball around at a city-run recreation center.)

Political observers are still debating whether this out-and-about style simply reflects the personal inclinations of the Obamas or some political calculus (or both). But one thing is clear: No other modern president has reached out so widely to so many corners of the city, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian.

That is no surprise to friends of the first family. The Obamas, after all, are city people, former community organizers who have long felt at home in the urban landscape. Mr. Obama is the first president since Richard M. Nixon to be elected while living in a city neighborhood, in his case, Chicago’s racially and economically diverse Hyde Park. And the Obamas are now eager to explore the city beyond the White House walls.

Of course, the social schedule of the president and first lady is also a powerful political tool, a way to nurture political alliances and to cultivate political narratives. The Obamas can enjoy their time out on the town while, at the same time, reaping potential dividends by reinforcing their promise to bring change to Washington and honing an image of openness and accessibility, some Washington watchers say.

Some warn, however, that such a schedule can also carry political risks, particularly if it undermines the mystique of the presidency, the image of power and command that a president needs to enact an ambitious agenda. Americans love the idea of the common man in a position of political power. (Think Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”) But they can also lose some respect if a politician seems too familiar. (Think Jimmy Carter in his cardigan.)

The Obamas know that it’s different. As the first African-American couple in the White House, they want to reach beyond the prosperous, predominantly white corridors of Washington.

“We were taught you have to get to know the community you’re in, and you have to be a part of that community,” Mrs. Obama said during a visit to Mary’s Center, a health clinic that serves a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. “D.C. is our community now, and it’s our home.”

For ordinary people, the unexpected encounters with the new president and first lady are astonishing. Joe Clark, a corporate lawyer who sat near the president at the basketball game, described the experience as “surreal.”

“I couldn’t believe that he was so accessible that I could literally shake his hand and heckle him about needing to suit up because his team was losing,” Mr. Clark said.

That is not to say that the Obamas can live anything close to a normal life here.

Mrs. Obama and her staff also visited Miriam’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen, where the first lady bumped into Bill Richardson, a 46-year-old homeless man. Mr. Richardson was so stunned that he could barely stammer thank you as Mrs. Obama scooped a helping of mushroom risotto onto his plate this month. “I was expecting some lunch, but this is the president’s wife; this is her right here,” said Mr. Richardson, who said he planned to get to a phone as soon as he could. “I’m going to be like, ‘Mom, you’re never going to guess who I’ve seen.’ ”

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