Obamas Open White House for Annual Easter Egg Roll

Obamas reach out to local students and same-sex families for Easter event.

April 10, 2009, 10:15 AM

WASHINGTON, April 13, 2009— -- President Obama's fatherly side came out today as more than 30,000 excited kids packed the South Lawn for the White House Easter Egg Roll, an annual rite of spring that dates back to 1878.

But although festivities were focused on children, there was also a political aspect to the event.

About 110 same-sex families with kids were expressly invited today through gay and lesbian organizations. While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents first attended the roll in 2006, this is the first time, the Family Equality Council says, the White House specifically encouraged them to participate in this tradition.

"I'm so proud to be here for my moms today to know that we're treated equally," said one mother attending the event.

Today's roll got off to a slightly shaky start, when the microphone stopped working as Obama stepped up to make his welcome speech. After a few awkward and funny moments -- the president tried to speak into the Easter bunny's ear -- Obama's daughter Malia tested the mike and declared for all to hear: "is it on? Oh, yea."

"Hello everybody, that's Malia, our technical adviser," Obama joked.

But pretty soon the good times were rolling.

"This is one of the greatest White House traditions, because it reminds us that it is the people's house," a casually dressed Obama said from the balcony of the Truman Library. His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, their two children, his mother-in-law Marian Robinson, and the Easter Bunny accompanied him. "Seeing so many children out here having a great time just fills Michelle and myself and the entire family with a whole lot of joy."

This year's theme, "Let's Go Play," emphasized health and fitness, and the first lady encouraged the young visitors to let loose.

"Our goal today is just to have fun," she said. "We want everybody to think about moving their bodies."

The president spent some time with the children, helping one girl roll her egg through the finish line, shooting hoops and reading about imaginary beasts from "Where the Wild Things Are" -- complete with sound affects and a little acting, making one little kid cry.

"These wild things can be a little scary," Obama said with a smile.

Later, Obama mused about the roll at an event at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"It was a spectacular, spectacular outing," he said. "All the kids out there were having fun. It reminds us why we do the work we do."

The Obama Touch

This year, the president Obama and first lady put their own spin on the Roll, in keeping with their pledge to make the White House more open and inclusive.

More than 30,000 people from 45 states and the District of Columbia took part in the festivities on the South Lawn, including families from as far away as Hawaii, Alaska, and California.

"We wanted to do something from the kids' perspective," White House social secretary Desiree Rogers said on ABC's "Good Morning America. "We had a young child artist draw the program and we had the National Children's Museum work with us on all of this. We did a mini focus group with kids... So that's why we're so proud to be able to present today."

In the past, families could score coveted tickets by waiting in line for hours on the morning of the event. Tickets were available on a first come, first serve basis. For the first time, tickets were made available online so families from across the nation could have the opportunity to attend.

The day's activities were all meant to encourage the nation's youth to lead healthy and active lives, something that Michelle Obama has indicated will be one of her signature issues in the White House. In addition to the traditional egg roll, there were a variety of activity stations, including a kids kitchen and organic garden, a sports court with basketball and soccer, the Hop to It! area offering jump rope, dance and yoga, a Storytime Stage, and an arts and crafts station cleverly called Eggpress Yourself.

This year's Roll was also studded with stars.

Sports stars like the Washington Wizards' Etan Thomas, women's soccer players Brianna Scurry and Abby Wambach, and local hoopster Marissa Coleman of the University of Maryland women's basketball team were on hand at the basketball court and soccer field set up on the South Lawn.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was joined by actor Josh Duhamel, soccer player Julie Foudy and Washington Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham on the Storytime Stage. This morning, there were musical performances by Ziggy Marley and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, who sang the national anthem and could be heard saying to Obama as she gave him a hug, "Come to my show."

The White House Easter Egg Roll dates back to the presidency of Rutherford Hayes, who invited local children to roll eggs on the South Lawn, though the tradition of egg rolling in Washington began with first lady Dolly Madison in 1814.

Madison invited local children to join her for an egg roll at the Capitol grounds that year, and the messy tradition continued until 1876 when Congress stepped in and banned the use of the Capitol lawn for children's activities.

Two years later, children were in search of space to roll eggs, and so they gathered at the White House gates until President Hayes allowed them to come onto the grounds to roll eggs. And with that, a tradition was born.

Obamas Reach Out to Local Schools, Students

This year, some lucky local children were able to score coveted tickets without logging on to the White House Web site.

The White House distributed 4,000 tickets to students from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Half of those tickets were given directly to D.C. public schools.

The Washington students, ranging in age from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade, were chosen by their principals and will come from 20 public schools that have been singled out for demonstrating academic growth over the past year.

Last Monday, Duncan joined D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee at Plummer Elementary School in southeast Washington to surprise a group of third-grade students with invitations to the White House.

Duncan said that giving tickets to local students "was just a perfect opportunity to say to the school community here, 'Great job, keep working hard, we couldn't be more proud of what you're accomplishing.'"

Duncan said this is the largest number of Easter Egg Roll tickets given out to local students in more than a century. Around 200 Plummer students, from pre-K to fourth grade, will attend the egg roll today.

The outreach to local schools and students for the Easter Egg Roll is just another example of the concerted effort the Obamas have made to reach out to the Washington community and its students and open up the White House.

In less than three months, the Obamas have together visited a local public charter school to read to students; invited Washington public high school students to attend the State of the Union address as guests of the first lady; celebrated women's history month with visits to local high schools; welcomed elementary school students to the South Lawn to take part in the groundbreaking and maintenance of the new White House vegetable; and set up an internship specially for a local student.

"We're close, this isn't a distant relationship," Michelle Obama said of her family, her husband's administration and the local community.

D.C. school officials and administration officials point to Duncan's background as the head of an urban school system and the Obamas' history of working in their community. The president has made education reform one of the key elements of his budget and domestic agenda.

But the efforts by the Obamas and administration officials in just a short time show more of a commitment to engaging with the local community than previous administrations in recent history, and it is not going unnoticed in the nation's capital.

"It means the world," said one D.C. public schools official about the Obamas' efforts. "During the election, most of our schools held mock elections. The iconography resonates well with these kids. They get it, it's not lost on them that it's a huge deal and that this administration is taking them seriously."

The Obamas decided not to send their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, to a public school, and instead opted for the private Sidwell Friends School. Aides said that a number of local schools were considered, but Sidwell was the one that best fit what the Obama girls needed, noting security and privacy concerns.

To mark women's history month in March, the first lady hosted a White House gathering for what she deemed to be "women of excellence," which included musicians Alicia Keyes and Sheryl Crow, actress Phylicia Rashad and basketball star Lisa Leslie Lockwood.

The women fanned out across the city and suburbs to visit area schools to talk with students about their career goals and ambitions.

Michelle Obama made it clear that day that she wants to forge strong ties with the local community and its students.

She said that many Washington students need to be reminded that the White House is not some far-off place, "that they can imagine the people who live here and what goes on here, and that there's a close connection between their lives and ours."

To cap off that day, Michelle Obama hosted a group of D.C. high school students for dinner and entertainment at the White House.

Even President Obama got involved in outreach to the local school community. In the early days of his presidency, Obama and his wife paid a visit to a public charter school in Washington to read to a group of surprised second-graders.

The president told the students at the Capital City Public Charter School that he and the first lady "wanted to get out of the White House ... we wanted to see you guys."

Surrounded by eager students, the Obamas read "The Moon Over Star" by Dianna Hutts Aston, about Neil Armstrong's moon landing.

When the first lady broke ground on the new White House vegetable garden, she turned to 20 students from Bancroft Elementary to help her with the plowing and digging.

While the first family will use the garden for their own vegetables, the first lady wants to use it as a teaching tool for kids in Washington and all around the country.

Last Thursday, some Bancroft students came back to the White House to help plant vegetables and herbs, just as the first lady promised. These students will see their work come full circle when they are invited back to pick vegetables after they harvest.

The White House announced last month the establishment of a part-time, unpaid internship specifically for D.C. students, thought to be the first of its kind. The first lady will deliver the commencement address at the Washington Mathematics Science & Technology Public Charter School June 3.

ABC News' Yunji de Nies and Huma Khan contributed to this report.