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Rolling Thunder not expecting Obama greeting

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

The last time Rolling Thunder roared into Washington, the president welcomed the riders in the White House driveway with a smile on his face and heartfelt personal greeting. This year, maybe not.

"We initially got a call this year saying the president wasn't going to greet us," said Artie Muller, founder of the group that is marking its 22nd annual patriotic motorcycle ride through Washington to draw attention to policy issues influencing veterans, active-duty military, prisoners of war and those still missing in action.

But a second call in recent days revealed that the White House would do something.

"We expect it will be a member of the staff, not a meeting with President Obama. We really won't know until sometime on Friday afternoon. But this is a step in the right direction," said #Nancy Regg, a spokeswoman for the group, which has 88 chapters across the country and expects to draw as many as a half-million bikers for a "Freedom Ride" on Sunday from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

An administration official confirmed Thursday that a group of Rolling Thunder members were expected at the White House on Friday, but was unsure with whom they would meet.

The official said the bikers would meet separately with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

Mr. Obama has not shirked his outreach to the military, however. He met Thursday with 50 wounded soldiers and their families, and helped to assemble packages destined for overseas delivery. The president took off his jacket and manned a table, bagging camouflage-patterned fanny packs.

"We're going to work with the USO to put together 3,000 care packages for our troops serving in harm's way. We're going to give back to those who've given so much for us," Mr. Obama told the group, which included members of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"And I find that fitting and proper, a good way to kick off a weekend that serves to honor all the men and women who have worn the proud uniform of this country that we love," the president said.

First lady Michelle Obama has embraced military families as her signature focus in the White House, recently dining in a cafeteria at Fort Bragg and meeting privately with military spouses.

Rolling Thunder, meanwhile, is still on a mission. Whether Mr. Obama greets them or not, the organization has information to share.

"We've got a letter to pass on to the president about our issues and concerns. But we won't really know until Artie gets there," Ms. Regg said.

Motorcycles and Mr. Obama might not seem to be a natural mix in the public marketplace. But it's worth a shot, some say.

"Politicians constantly walk that fine line between being themselves and enhancing their core 'brand' and trying something new that could compromise the brand," said John Tantillo, a Manhattan, N.Y., branding and marketing expert.

"He could wear a baseball cap, tear off his sleeves, go against his image but if he's real, if he seems sincere, people will sense that. They may not like what they see, but they'll still respect him, and that's all a politicians can really ask for," Mr. Tantillo said. "Besides, he's really good at keeping up his brand. Maybe a motorcycle at a photo-op wouldn't hurt."

Former President George W. Bush, on the other hand, was very comfortable in the biker realm, as he was around pickup trucks and NASCAR. He was the first and only president to formally greet Rolling Thunder members, Ms. Regg said.

In 2008, Mr. Bush was made an honorary member of the group, accepted a cowhide biker's vest and posed for multiple photos. He also met with the group in the Oval Office.

"And I am just so honored to welcome you back. I want to thank you and all your comrades for being so patriotic and loving our country as much as you do. I don't know if this is the eighth time we've been together here, but it's pretty close.," Mr. Bush told the group, which included Mr. Muller.

"You've done a lot for the country, and the troops appreciate you, and the veterans appreciate you and your president appreciates you," Mr. Bush added.

Several Bush administration members rode with the group over the years, including Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, top economic adviser Edward Lazear and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten.

Mr. Bush's repeated meetings with Rolling Thunder members was a gesture that one Democratic strategist dismissed as a publicity strategy.

"One of the themes Bush has pushed is the idea that by going to NASCAR and by working on his ranch that he's a regular guy," an unnamed aide to Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and the party's 2004 presidential candidate, told the Los Angeles Times that year. "This is just another chapter in that effort."

Earlier in that presidential campaign, however, Mr. Kerry had driven a Harley-Davidson motorcycle onto the stage of NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."