Lunch at the White House

By Jennifer Parker

Feb 24, 2009 4:11pm

Charlie Gibson and I had the chance to lunch with the president at the White House today — a traditional part of the rollout before a presidential speech to a Joint Session of Congress.

As always, the food was terrific (Maine Lobster Bisque with Chive Truffle Beignets. Seared Virginia Striped Bass, with Porcini Espuma, Crushed Potatoes, Braised Leeks and Swiss Chard. Vanilla Fresh Fruit Confetti, with Toasted Pound Cake and Lemon Sorbet) and the conversation was enlightening.

Even though much of the conversation was off the record, we can summarize it like this, with quotes attributed to a senior administration official.

Here’s the analogy for how the White House is thinking about the economy and the speech: "the patient is sick" and the president is the doctor. Tonight he’ll explain to the country "what’s going on, what we’re doing about it, and assure everyone we’re going to be fine."

He’ll be explainer-in-chief on the economy. The president believes his biggest job is to make sure that everyone "understands the links" between the credit crises and their lives.

He has "no interest in helping bankers who made $50-million bonuses," but has to explain that "we need the credit system to work." People have to come away from the speech understanding the link between their laid off neighbor and the rescue plan for the banks.

The speech will also address energy, health care, and education — and how they fit Obama’s overall strategy for the economy. A little foreign policy too, but President conscious of not trying to do too much in 45 minutes.

Most of the discussion about how to deal with the banks and the chances of nationalization was off the record.

The White House mantra is that the president will do whatever is required, and it’s clear from the conversation that the president thinks his team has come up with the best approach possible among a series of uncertain and difficult options.

In this context, Obama often thinks of the person (a former president, I think) who reminded him: "by the time a decision reaches your desk, it’s really hard."

Obama clearly relishing that part of the job, "the day to day work of figuring it all out." Also loves living above the store. (We also learned that he stretched out on the Oval Office sofa one day for his first official nap). He gets up every morning at 630am, works out and has breakfast with Michelle.

He’s in the office from 9 to 6:15, then back to work in his Old Treaty Room study. Lots of paperwork most nights, but he did make time last night to see the movie Gran Torino. Also checked out Slumdog Millionaire a couple of weeks ago, but relied on us to fill him in on Hugh Jackman’s performance at the Oscars.

The only part of the job that still chafes is the "bubble." Seems like it was especially frustrating at Sasha’s basketball game last Saturday. But overall he approaches the job with "profound gratitude" and immense confidence.

–George Stephanopoulos

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