x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Obamas impress their Washington neighbours

The first family have been praised for making an unprecedented effort to become true Washingtonians - but some critics want more.

Michelle Obama delivers Christmas toys from White House staff to the Toys for Tots distribution centre in Quantico, Virginia.
Michelle Obama delivers Christmas toys from White House staff to the Toys for Tots distribution centre in Quantico, Virginia.

Michelle Obama recently delivered large bags filled with some of the 500 Christmas gifts donated by White House staff to the US marines' annual Toys for Tots programme headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, about 56km from Washington. In the US capital, where 17 per cent of the residents live below the poverty line, Toys for Tots often provides a bit of Christmas cheer for children who would otherwise have very little. Since its founding in 1947, the programme has distributed more than 332.5 million toys to 158.7 million needy youths across the United States.

The first lady's Santa-playing, her much-publicised kitchen garden and healthy children fare, and her visits to schools to talk about good nutrition habits have been her most high-profile contributions to the local community. Hundreds of kilograms of produce grown on the White House grounds in the past year have been donated to Miriam's Kitchen, which provides healthy meals to the city's homeless. Mrs Obama worked the serving line at Miriam's, about 10 blocks from the White House, as one of her first volunteer efforts after moving to the neighbourhood.

Since her husband's election, expectations have been high that both Obamas would do much for the city they would be calling home for at least four years. Toys for Tots and Miriam's Kitchen would be just two of the many local organisations and places that would become part of their lives, locals envisioned. It all began a few days before January's inauguration when Barack Obama made a visit to Ben's Chili Bowl, a popular down-home eatery in the middle of the majority African-American city. A video of Mr Obama's visit there with the mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, is now featured prominently on Ben's website. It is the kind of place where a Hispanic house painter is found eating a half-smoke sausage, smothered with chilli of course, while sitting next to a black lawyer and a white college student.

Thus, Mr Obama's first dining out experience as president-elect in a city often divided along racial and class lines took on great symbolic importance. After the Ben's visit, one restaurant patron gushed: "I do like that he is just an ordinary guy interacting with the American people, and the visions of change can be noticed. Very nice." For any president, being a good neighbour is easier said than done, as work and pressing national and world events take over and every stepping out requires massive co-ordinating of federal and local security.

Nearly one year into their time in the White House, the view is mixed on how much the Obamas have embraced both what is known as "official Washington" and the city away from the Kennedy Center events, Capitol Hill and the high-powered meetings. How "ordinary" have they tried to be? "The Obamas have made more of an effort to become Washingtonians than any White House family I can recall," Harry Jaffe, who has written for Washingtonian magazine for two decades, wrote in an e-mail.

"They have visited local schools, in the manner of former First Families, but their visits are more numerous and less obvious stage sets for other agendas. "They don't seem to socialise with the Georgetown swells very much. In general, though, they have knit themselves in a very genuine way into the federal city." Most notably, the Obamas, either together or separately with others, have gone out to eat at a variety of the area's restaurants, from the high-end fare of the world-renowned chef Michel Richard's Citronelle to Georgia Brown's, Southern cooking at its best where shrimp and grits are a mouth-watering combination, to burger joints Five Guys and Hell Burger.

Mr Obama and his daughters Sasha and Malia made an unannounced Saturday visit in June to The Dairy Godmother across the Potomac River in Alexandria for frozen custard. After that visit, in which Mr Obama ordered a small vanilla custard with hot fudge and almonds, Sasha, a brownie sundae, and Malia, a vanilla custard in a waffle cone, The New York Times reported that Mr Obama "has told his advisers that getting out of the White House - even for a quick trip - is important to him as he tries to remain connected with the outside world and give his daughters a semblance of normality".

But the long-time DC-area resident and writer Wil Scheltema and many activists, especially on local political issues, were expecting much more "I am one of you" behaviour from the Obamas. Calling the first lady's Toys for Tots delivery a national photo opportunity, Mr Scheltema said: "So he's been to Ben's Chili Bowl, so what? He hasn't said squat on any DC issues, voting rights, gay marriage." Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University, in a DC suburb, puts a realistic perspective on those heartfelt sentiments in a town obsessed with politics. "Some are enamoured of all the first family sightings in the city - the president at a local chilli place or a burger joint, the first lady lunching at some fancy restaurant, but then some others see this as all symbolic and complain that the president has not committed his resources to such issues as full congressional representation in Congress for DC or even DC statehood," he said. "Indeed, the DC rights advocates are profoundly disappointed in Obama's record on these issues so far.

"So the social outings do create some level of connectedness between the first family and the city. But DC rights activists are not impressed by the window dressing; they want commitments on policy." rpretorius@thenational.ae