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Long IslandPolitics

Obama becoming entertainer-in-chief

The White House is the place to be onWednesdays.

Since the presidency changed hands less than six weeks ago, aburst of entertaining has taken hold of the iconic, white-columnedhome of America's head of state. Much of it comes on Wednesdays.

The stately East Room, where portraits of George and MarthaWashington adorn the walls, was transformed into a concert hall asPresident Barack Obama presented Stevie Wonder with the nation'shighest award for pop music on Wednesday.

A week before that, the foot-stomping sounds of Sweet Honey inthe Rock, a female a cappella group, filled the East Room for aBlack History Month program that first lady Michelle Obama held fornearly 200 sixth- and seventh-graders from around Washington.

Cocktails were sipped during at least three such receptions todate, all held on Wednesdays.

Bookending the midweek activity were a Super Bowl party forselect Democratic and Republican lawmakers and a dinner forgovernors, the new administration's first black-tie affair. It wascapped with a performance by the 1970s pop group Earth, Wind andFire, and a conga line.

The flurry of entertaining is in keeping with the Obamas'promise to make the White House a more open place for everyone.

The governors' dinner was "a great kickoff of what we hope willbe an atmosphere here in the White House that is welcoming and thatreminds everybody that this is the people's house," Obama told thestate chief executives after they had dined on Maryland crab, Wagyubeef, Nantucket scallops and citrus salad.

"We are just temporary occupants. This is a place that belongsto the American people and we want to make sure that everybodyunderstands it's open," he said.

At the dinner in the State Dining Room, the Obamas lookedcomfortable, chatting and smiling with their guests. Afterward,they escorted the governors down the hall to the East Room, whichhad been arranged with few tables and chairs to encourage dancingto "September," "Boogie Wonderland" and other hits from amusical group Obama listened to growing up.

The conga line formed after the media were escorted out and,apparently, after Obama had called it a night.

"Thank you also for waiting until I had left before you startedthe conga line," the president told the governors the nextmorning. "I hear it was quite a spectacle."

Some Obama guests say he immediately puts them at ease. Heindulges them and serves cookies, too.

"People like me felt comfortable in his presence," said Rep.Mike Honda, D-Calif., a self-described "poor country boy" whosaid he felt like a "freshman going to the senior prom" when heattended a White House reception for leaders of the congressionalcaucuses.

"Sometimes when you're in the presence of the most powerfulperson in the world, in the most powerful democracy in the world... I was in awe that I was comfortable," said Honda, chairman ofthe Asian Pacific American Caucus. "I think that's his style andhow he grew up, who he is.

"He's down to earth and engaging," Honda said.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., was among those invited for theSuper Bowl. He said Obama, an avid sports fan, joined his guestsfor most of the game between the Arizona Cardinals and PittsburghSteelers.

"It wasn't a circumstance where he came in and said 'Hi' andthen left," Franks said. "He actually stayed and watched thegame."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, said Obama was very cordial, and heand the first lady made guests feel comfortable. The presidenttalked to everyone before the game started, she said, including a12-year-old boy who asked Obama where the bathroom was.

"My favorite part was when he personally served us cookies --oatmeal raisin -- when we were watching the game," she said.

The gathering over hot dogs and hamburgers was one of severalget-to-know-the-members-of Congress events Obama held as he lobbiedlawmakers to support the nearly $800 billion tax-and-spend economicpackage he recently signed into law. His efforts produced noRepublican votes in the House and just three in the Senate, butFranks said he still appreciated the Democratic president's effortsto reach out to the opposing party.

"I think the value of social interaction like this is not somuch that it co-opts anyone in any way. It certainly didn't in mycase," said Franks, who said he had a substantive conversationwith Obama at the party, "I think it humanizes and personalizesopponents. We can diminish politics and try to work together forwhat's right for the country."

Obama played the role of "first fan" at the Wonder tribute,where he opened up about his and his wife's common enjoyment ofWonder's music.

"As Stevie knows, I'm a huge fan. And he has been a greatsupporter," Obama said before presenting the award-winning,singer-songwriter with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from theLibrary of Congress.

He said Wonder's songs "became the soundtrack of my youth" andthat in them he "found peace and inspiration, especially indifficult times."

Obama presented the medal to Wonder, then wrapped the singer ina bear hug. As the media were led out of the room, Wonder struck up"Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," which was a staple ofObama's campaign rallies.


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