Obama Land

Popular First Family Gives Washington A New Vibe That Visitors Can Feel

November 01, 2009|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

A year has passed since the history-making election that proclaimed Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States, and national polls suggest that for many Americans the "honeymoon" is over. In Washington, however, each political bump this new administration suffers seems only to strengthen the city's love affair with the first family.

When I spent a few days there recently, Washington still felt fully in thrall to Obamania. Indeed, those few people I encountered who could recall ancient history - meaning, the previous administration - were quick to describe what a pall George W. Bush cast over the nation's capital. Besides frequently bragging about how his tax policies were "starving the beast," (that beast, of course, being Washington), President Bush was famously uninterested in the city's cultural and culinary attractions. His most memorable dining experience in the capital, one wag told me, was the pretzel that nearly caused him to choke to death.

"President Bush was always dissing Washington, but Barack Obama doesn't," said Peggy Clifton, a researcher at the Library of Congress. "So, most people who live and work here are much happier now. We feel like there's finally someone in the White House who respects what this town actually does - which is govern."

Visitors will see that glowing pride reflected in the city's swank new restaurants, ritzy new hotels and spruced up landmarks.

While we ate lunch at Sonoma, a popular dining spot near Capitol Hill, Clifton, a longtime observer of the local scene, remarked on how quickly the president had changed Washington's mood. It's already abundantly clear that the Obamas, in residence barely nine months, adore their new hometown. Many Washingtonians are falling all over themselves to show the feeling is mutual.

Affectionate puns on the president's name are nearly epidemic. Are you ready to "Barack the casbah"? Want an "Obamarita" with those nachos? Nearly everywhere one looks there are pictures of Barack and Michelle; their daughters, Sasha and Malia; and even portraits of Bo, or "Bobama," the first puppy.

I'd arrived with a several-day itinerary suggesting ways to "explore Obama's Backyard" that I had downloaded from washington.org, the city's official tourism Web site. Look! It's the Hay-Adams Hotel, where Michelle posed for her Vogue cover shoot. Here's Ben's Chili Bowl, where Barack prefers the "half-smoke" chili. And there's the Blue Duck Tavern, where the Obamas celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary in early October with some of executive chef Brian McBride's American-style cooking, made with local ingredients. Because I'd decided to make my own visit "green," by taking only the Metro around town (no rental car, no taxis), there was Obama's smiling face on my Metro card, seemingly giving me an eco-fist bump every time I swiped it through the turnstiles.

Finally, I began to wonder if Madame Tussauds is on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee. How else to explain the remarkably unflattering likenesses of Republicans like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and both President Bushes, 41 and 43; yet the newly installed wax statues of the Obamas render them as considerably more attractive than they appear in real life?

Dreams can come true

One afternoon, I discussed the "crush" Washington seems to have on the Obamas, almost as if they are the prom's king and queen, with Barton Seaver, a well-regarded local chef who recently opened a new restaurant, Blue Ridge.

The couple's vocal championing of locally grown vegetables and produce - don't miss Michelle's thriving vegetable garden and beehive "towers," a new addition to the White House's front lawn - has raised the national consciousness about more healthful eating, he believes. This has not only been good for Washington's restaurants, but the city's overall vibe.

"Thanks to the Obamas, D.C. is becoming the city it should be, not only politically, but culturally and financially. Then again, it really does wonders for civic pride when suddenly there's a few extra billion dollars to spend!"

Seaver's last comment hints at a curious inversion of economic reality one feels around Washington these days. Belts continue to be tightened as the so-called "Great Recession" still pummels most of the United States, yet within the Beltway, the capital seems awash in money.

According to the Washington Convention and Visitors Bureau, new hotels are being constructed at a record pace, with 18 new properties under way. This summer saw the launch of a new W Hotel and the sleek Donovan House. Venerable spots like The Jefferson, Hilton Washington and Georgetown's Four Seasons have all undergone extensive, and expensive, renovations.

"Bush didn't make Washington a place you wanted to visit, but that Obama has turned the city into a very attractive destination," says Liliana Baldassari, director of public relations at the Four Seasons Hotel.

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