- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Perhaps it’s their interaction with local schoolchildren - or their family outings to popular restaurants.

Maybe it’s his support for D.C. congressional voting rights, or his casual games of hoops at a city recreation center.

The reasons vary, depending on who is doing the surmising, but one thing is clear: The District has embraced the Obamas, in part because the Obamas have embraced the District.

“They are supporting our city, and our city is supporting them. It is fantastic for Washington,” says Todd Gray, executive chef and co-owner of the upscale Northwest restaurant Equinox, where the first family celebrated first lady Michelle Obama’s 45th birthday in January.

“I think ‘inspiration’ is a key word for the Obamas because they are inspiring so many people - inspiring confidence. Everyone is excited about what they are doing for the city,” Mr. Gray says. “People are excited about the energy they’ve brought here.”

Equinox isn’t the only place about town where the Obamas have been seen.

Declaring his family “neighborhood people” at January’s first-ever Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, President Obama indicated his plans to integrate himself and his family into the D.C. community.

As president-elect, Mr. Obama played basketball with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty at an indoor basketball court at Marie Reed Community Learning Center on Champlain Street in Northwest. Mr. Obama’s local credibility soared after his high-profile visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, where he ordered the popular half-smoke.

In February, the president watched the Washington Wizards from courtside seats at the Verizon Center. He cheered for his hometown Chicago Bulls, but D.C. fans apparently forgave him. After all, the Wizards won - 133 to 90.

City residents also looked the other way in January, when Mr. Obama blithely suggested that the District was filled with winter wimps for closing schools after a storm dumped snow and ice on streets and sidewalks.

“We’re going to have to try to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town,” Mr. Obama said. But outrage over the faux pas disappeared faster than the snow itself.

The administration also has reached out to the city’s social scene, inviting top editors of three of Washington’s local luxury-lifestyle magazines - Capitol File, DC magazine and Washington Life - to a meeting to discuss how they could engage the community and build grass-roots support for some of Mr. Obama’s programs.

Mr. Obama made a special effort to reach out to D.C. public school students in late March, when he created an internship opportunity - the D.C. Scholars Program - for high schoolers to learn about public service while working in White House offices for the summer.

On the policy side, the president has expressed support for the D.C. Voting Rights Act, which the Senate passed in February. He had co-sponsored a similar measure in 2007 when he was still an Illinois senator.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Obama described himself as a “strong proponent” of the District receiving a representative vote in Congress.

The bill would permanently expand the number of House members from 435 to 437 by giving the heavilly Democratic District its first-ever voting representative and adding a counterbalancing representative to Republican-leaning Utah’s delegation until after the 2010 census, when it would be reassigned based on census results. The D.C. delegate position, currently held by Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, would be eliminated. The bill is on hold.

“The president is not only a supporter of the city’s voting rights efforts, but is also vocal about his commitment to ensuring District of Columbia representation in Congress,” Mr. Fenty said. “The president has given the city his support and commitment, and I am confident his administration will work as fast as humanly possible to achieve this goal.”

Mrs. Obama also has made it a point to reach out to schools in the area and engage herself in the community.

In February, she told a teenager at Mary’s Center, a health care clinic in Adams Morgan, that the District is now her family’s community, something that people must get to know in order to actively be a part of it.

“Our job is really to just share our stories, to make these kids understand that where we stand today is not an impossibility by any stretch of the imagination,” the first lady said while hosting 200 students for a Black History Month celebration.

Mrs. Obama visited Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast in March to express her concern about education in the area and to encourage struggling students in D.C.’s school system, often described as the highest-spending, worst-performing system in the nation.

That same week she hosted a groundbreaking of the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn, where elementary students helped prepare the grounds for planting and harvesting.

Family outings have been common as well. The Obamas have visited the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts twice - once to enjoy the Alvin Ailey dance troupe and once for a musical tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

In addition to Equinox, the Obamas have dined at Georgia Brown’s and Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, both in Northwest. They also grabbed a quick bite at a Washington staple, Five Guys.

D.C. resident Mike Sweeney said the vibe in the city has definitely changed owing to the Obamas’ involvement in the community.

“Everyone is now molded together as one, and there is a lot more positivity,” he said. “I never thought I’d see this day come, not just because of race, but because of the unity they bring.”

Before moving to the District, Mr. Obama said he would be shopping around for a church to attend in Washington and would choose one in an effort not to be disruptive to the city.

While the Obamas have not necessarily settled on a particular church, they attended services at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church on the Sunday before his inauguration and more recently attended St. John’s Church across from Lafayette Park on Easter.

Capitol Hill resident Emily White, 23, attended an early service at St. John’s that day and caught a glimpse of the president, who came in for the 11 a.m. service.

“It was exciting to see the Obama family out in their community connecting to the people. I think it really shows he is a people’s president,” she said.

Another resident, Bruce Thomas, said that he is very impressed with what the first family has done related to their integration into city affairs.

“You can see among the crowds the unity. People are just more involved in politics,” he said.

Mr. Thomas was among those who visited Madame Tussauds wax museum in Northwest this month to see the unveiling of a Michelle Obama figure. The first lady’s figure now stands beside a wax rendering of Mr. Obama, which has stood in the gallery since February 2008.

According to tourism corporation Destination D.C., there has been an upsurge in interest and excitement in the city versus other markets across the country.

One factor that the organization can track on a steady basis is hotel performance.

Destination D.C.’s director of communications, Rebecca Pawlowski, said that for the month of March and the beginning of April, hotel occupancy locally held steady from where it was last year, while hotel occupancy nationwide has declined.

“It’s the same sense of energy and excitement that buoyed us during the inauguration period, and it has helped D.C. do relatively well,” she said.

Ms. Pawlowski said the Obama family has encouraged the company to advertise summer promotions with strong family angles, including Destination D.C.’s new Obama family itinerary, which offers groups an opportunity to experience the city’s hot spots, Obama-style.

“We have a young first family that is plugged into a city. They’re from an urban background and used to going out to restaurants and being involved in community issues, so they are bringing that here,” Ms. Pawlowski said.

The suggested tour features visits to Equinox and Georgia Brown’s, where Mrs. Obama lunched with Mr. Fenty and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

It recommends a date night at the Kennedy Center and an exploration of historic U Street, with a stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl, of course.

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