Obama Family's First Year: Out on the Town and At Home with the First Couple

The Obama's first year reveals they might be bigger homebodies than expected.

January 18, 2010, 12:32 PM

Jan. 22, 2010 -- President Obama's every word and movement is covered meticulously by hundreds of journalists, but last weekend he was able to prevent any leaks about a special occasion -- a surprise birthday party for first lady Michelle Obama, who turned 46 on Jan. 17.

The president and first lady joined friends and family for a private dinner at a restaurant in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Once word eventually got out that the first couple was dining at Restaurant Nora, a crowd of about 50 people gathered at a nearby corner, and when the Obamas exited the restaurant, they broke out into a singalong of "Happy Birthday."

The night was another example of the Obamas taking in their new city and socializing beyond the gates of the White House.

The couple frequently dined out in their hometown of Chicago and even had a regular Friday night date, until the rigors of the 2008 presidential campaign kicked in.

There was an expectation that that social presence would continue in Washington and the president himself said indicated they would be a part of the tapestry and fabric of their new city.

"[W]e are neighborhood people," the president said on his first night in office, at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball. "[I]f you think about it, the word neighborhood starts with the word neighbor because it indicates a sense that we as Americans are bound together. That what we have in common is more important than what drives us apart."

The workload of the presidency, and perhaps the logistical challenges of living at the White House and having a large security detail, seem to have limited the Obamas' appearances on the social scene. The first lady has admitted to enjoying just vegging out on the couch and watching some television in her limited free time.

But when they moved to Washington last January, in the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day, the Obamas seemed to be everywhere.

There was the president-elect having lunch with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty at local landmark Ben's Chili Bowl, which used to bear a sign that said nobody ate for free there except Bill Cosby. (Now that has been amended to allow for free half-smokes for President Obama.)

Obama dropped by a cocktail party at a steakhouse to meet new members of Congress, dined with conservative pundits and columnists at George Will's home in suburban Maryland and played a pick-up basketball game at a Washington recreation center.

But then he took the oath of office and with those 37 words came pressing foreign and domestic policy challenges and a to-do list that he laid out during the two-year campaign.

Sure the Obamas have had a few dinners out, including a date for their anniversary in October.

But their most notable date night last year was not even in Washington. The president and first lady flew to New York City in May to have dinner and see a Broadway show, fulfilling a promise Obama had made to his wife during the campaign.

Obama, an ardent hoops fan, hit up an NBA basketball game and sat courtside and joined his family at a George Washington University basketball game when they took on Oregon State, coached by the first lady's brother, Craig.

There was the trip to suburban Virginia with daughters Malia and Sasha for frozen custard last summer.

Adding it all up, it seems that the Obamas have been bigger homebodies than expected, and they certainly have not taken the D.C. social scene by storm as many were hoping they would. The weekly cocktail parties at the White House have stopped. The presidential box at the Kennedy Center is used most frequently by first grandmother, Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama's mother.

Compared to their predecessors, George W. Bush and Laura Bush, the Obamas are social butterflies.

"It's hard not to compare them to the Bushes because they were here for so long and they were staunch in their desire to not be on the social scene whatsoever," said Sommer Mathis, the editor of DCist.com, a blog dedicated to local news, entertainment and culture in the nation's capital. "They didn't go out at all. They weren't here to make friends."

But Mathis said that even if the first family's appearances out and about in Washington have grown less frequent," seeing the Obamas out in the city, getting burgers, going to restaurants and taking their kids to do charity work -- you see them and that is a big change."

Last year Destination DC, the official convention and tourism corporation for Washington, hoped that the Obama appeal would draw in tourists hoping for a celebrity sighting.

It looks like they were right. While year-end tourism figures for 2009 are not yet available, Destination DC said that international tourism increased in 2009, visits to the Smithsonian museums were up from 2008 and hotel occupancy was relatively flat, which they say is a good thing in the tough economic times.

Officials from the tourism corporation said that many of the restaurant's the Obamas have dined at have seen a bounce in business, sort of like the Oprah effect on books and products.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at Ben's Chili Bowl, where lines snaked down the block for weeks after the president stopped by for lunch. Now the crowds have settled back to the normal size, but there frequently are tourists who drop by just to see the place that Obama put on the map.

Republicans Out, Democrats In -- Is the Nation's Capital a New City?

When Democrats won the White House last year and completed their takeover of the trifecta of power in the nation's capital, there was considerable buzz in Washington about how the city would change.

Out with the Republicans, in with the Democrats. Would the social scene shift away from the Georgetown bars frequented by young Bush administration staffers to watering holes populated by young Democrats on the U Street corridor?

Yes and no. Of course when there is a change of administration, especially a change of party, there is a new feeling in the city, but the great turnover that was expected did not pan out.

Some neighborhoods grew more popular -- and crowded -- as they became inhabited by young Obama administration staffers, but the city was already seeing a boom in development. The newbies in town tended to move into those areas that were on the rise. Republican bars in Georgetown are still hopping.

"The sense that people who don't live here have that a new administration in the White House dramatically changes the city I think is pretty overblown," said Mathis.

Obamas Hold One State Dinner, Gate-Crashers Make It Infamous

One social standard first couples are judged by is the number of state dinners they hold at the White House. While the Obamas welcomed the nation's governors for a formal dinner, they held just one state dinner last year, in honor of Indian Prime Minister Singh. That event is now infamous because of the gate-crashers, Tareq and Michaela Salahi and Carlos Allen, who were able to attend the exclusive event without an invitation.

Bush hosted just six state dinners for foreign leaders, far less than his predecessors. There were over 30 state dinners during the eight years of the Clinton administration. Former President George H. W. Bush hosted over 20 state dinners, while President Ronald Reagan hosted more than 50.

But if you aren't lucky enough to score an invitation to a state dinner -- and don't have the chutzpah to just show up for one -- you can still see Washington as the Obamas have this year. Destination DC has developed an Obamas' Washington itinerary for tourists, or perhaps curious Washingtonians, that lays out where the first family has been this year and how their footsteps can be retraced. It is sort of like a bus tour of celebrity homes in Hollywood, but a bit more wonky.

Michelle Obama has been more visible and out and about in Washington in the last year. She has talked about sneaking out with her staff for lunch, has dined at restaurants with friends and kept up the pledge to have close ties with the local community.

"She has the garden, local school children to the White House all the time," Mathis said about the first lady's vegetable garden that was established with the help of local students.

Just this week the first lady surprised tourists who were visiting the White House by greeting them and chatting about her dog, Bo, and her new home.

Even if the first couple is not popping out for burgers any more or hanging out at the hottest new restaurant, Mathis said that the Obamas are still the most famous people in town.

"I don't think the novelty of the Obamas has totally worn off a year in," Mathis said. "It's still pretty exciting when people get on Twitter, and they're telling me they saw Michelle at this place having lunch."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events