While publicly identifying with the nation’s have-nots, the Obama administration has been cultivating the Beltway social elite behind the scenes.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration invited top editors of three of Washington’s local luxury lifestyle magazines — Capitol File, DC magazine and Washington Life — to a meeting where they discussed, among other things, how President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama can embrace Washington’s glittery social scene.
The White House is “identifying taste makers in order to help create grass-roots interest in some of the programs they are working on,” said Washington Life’s Michael Clements, who attended the meeting. “They wanted to introduce themselves. It was certainly a departure from previous administrations.”
The Obamas “are trying to push the vibrancy of Washington night life to the forefront,” said Tony Hudgins, the associate publisher of DC magazine, who also attended the meeting, organized by Michael Strautmanis, a deputy to Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
A White House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity dismissed the notion that a publicly populist Obama White House is privately courting socialites, contending that the meeting was held to explore how the Obamas can “engage in the community.” The aide also pointed out that similar meetings were held with representatives of sports, entertainment and philanthropic organizations in Washington.
The outreach to the luxury lifestyle glossies, which cater to the region’s highest socioeconomic strata with knowing coverage of everything from the choicest real estate and most exclusive parties to the plushest resorts and spas, is not the only recent evidence that the Obama administration is eager to forge ties with the nation’s social and style arbiters.
Last month, White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, who has said she intends to make the White House the “people’s” mansion, was rubbing shoulders with the kinds of people who land in the pages of People at New York Fashion Week.
A chic and soignee Ms. Rogers was photographed seated next to fashion high priestess Anna Wintour at the Carolina Herrera fashion show, where a design bears a price tag in the thousands.
White House sources have been cited in the press explaining that Ms. Rogers was on a mission to recruit young artists and new ideas for White House entertaining. But a White House aide speaking on the condition of anonymity disclosed to The Times that Ms. Rogers made her trip to New York for Fashion Week on her own time and at her own expense.
Sheila Tate, who served as press secretary to first lady Nancy Reagan, said the Reagans also reached out to high society by hosting a reception during their transition in 1981 and that Mrs. Reagan cultivated a tight friendship with Georgetown grande dame Katharine Graham.
“The president and first lady set the social scene,” Ms. Tate said. “They are the style-setters.”
However, she said, the administration must be sensitive to the popular mood, especially during hard times. “The White House should entertain and entertain appropriately,” she said. “But the economy should be the number one priority right now, not parties. If you spend too much time partying lavishly, you will get slapped back for it. I think the president is taking on too much.”
Chuck Conconi, a former social columnist, said the Obamas are taking a leaf from the Reagan playbook by blending social Washington, political figures and Hollywood. “The Bushes weren’t doing much,” he said. “They spent most of their time at Camp David or at their ranch, so there was not so much competition to get in to certain parties. But the Obamas are very smart. They remind me a lot of the Reagans. No one used the social structure of Washington quite like Ronald Reagan.”
The Reagans were known for using glamorous, connected intermediaries like Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti to lure jaded journalists and political enemies to social functions like White House movie screenings to achieve political ends.
It was the Reagans, after all, who skillfully brought together Princess Diana and actor John Travolta in 1985 for one of the most famous dances and subsequent photo ops in presidential history, and shamelessly charmed House Speaker Tip O’Neill with their dazzling parties.
If the Reagan formula for mixing politics and glamorous play has made a comeback in the Obama White House, the severity of the spreading economic crisis — as well as the administration’s economic populism — has cast the “play” part of the equation in a harsher light.
The new players in social D.C. will be the “people from Chicago, and the people close to the president,” Mr. Conconi said. “You are going to see a lot of people falling in love with Rahm Emanuel, if that’s possible to do.”
Indeed, Obama aides Reggie Love, Macon Phillips and Jon Favreau all made Washington Life’s just-announced “The Young & the Guest List,” a coveted annual list of Washington’s most-sought-after social guests younger than 40.
The Obama courtship of Washington’s socialites does not surprise Georgetown novelist Jane Stanton Hitchcock, who has observed the area’s social milieu for more than 10 years.
“Washington used to be a sleepy town. Increasingly, the social life and political life has melded together and the parties have become more lavish with all the good and ill that comes along with that,” she said. “There’s a lot of competition, especially among the women, and the social knives come out. But we are tribal people, and it’s always going to be this way with all the backbiting.”
Praising the Obamas for “wanting to get to know their neighbors,” Ms. Hitchcock said, “That’s not social climbing. That’s normal.”