The insider's guide to Obama's new Washington power map
Where will Michelle get her hair cut? Where will David Axelrod thrash out budget deals at 2am? And where will Jon Favreau grab his sausage sandwiches to go?
Tuesday 20 January 2009
Away from the pomp and circumstance of Barack Obama's swearing in, a more discreet changing of the guard is taking place across Washington, DC. Thousands of George Bush's appointees will be clearing out their desks today and heading back to Texas. In their place will come wave after wave of tough-minded political operators from across America, but particularly from Chicago, who secured Barack Obama's victory through grit and determination.
Every new president brings an infusion of new talent, and team Obama is already making its presence felt around the city. As the accents change, so too does the geography; if you want to glimpse the new power-brokers at work and play, there's no point hanging around in Bush-era watering holes, restaurants and coffee bars.
The first surprise for new arrivals is the realisation of how segregated Washington is, with whites in the north-west and blacks everywhere else. But already the political centre of gravity is shifting away from the suburbs to urban areas around what is known as the U Street Corridor. An evocative address for jazz fans, U Street and surroundings once accommodated the nation's major African-American community until Harlem outgrew it in the 1920s. Now, the district's advantage is financial: it's a cheap place to live. You can rent an apartment for two for $1,200 a month; not far away, in Dupont Circle, you'd pay twice that. U Street is a multicultural hub teeming with restaurants, bars and other hangouts, much more in keeping with the Obama ethos of change. By day, the foot soldiers of Obama's revolution can be seen in the city's Starbucks coffee shops and Caribou restaurants, availing themselves of the free broadband while they look for work.
Some, like Obama's speechwriter Jon Favreau, already have jobs. While waiting for the transition, he set up shop in Starbucks to write the speeches Obama has given over the past three days. Those bright sparks yet to find an official role are seen clutching what is known as the "Plum Book" – the maroon-covered publication officially entitled "The United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions". It lists vacant positions in the new government. But finding a job in a new administration often turns out to be more about luck, so the wannabes are already busying themselves by hanging out in political watering-holes such as Bullfeathers.
For more senior Obama staffers – many veterans of Bill Clinton's second term – the city is being explored for other reasons, such as getting their children into the city's top private schools and settling into the quiet suburbs.
But, whether they're in a coffee shop at the crack of dawn or taking a stroll along a residential avenue, the dramatis personae of the Obama era will probably have work on their minds. The working hours for those on the lower rungs of the ladder are extraordinarily long. "On the campaign, they worked 24/7," said Michelle Hartman, an Obama supporter from Chicago: "Now, they've been told to expect to work 24/8."
COLUMBIA HEIGHTS WASHINGTON SPORTS CLUB
3100 14th St NW
At 7:35am one summer’s day last year, Barack Obama arrived unannounced at this sports club. As he strode in (with a few Secret Service agents in tow), a member of the gym’s staff,Takehia Wheeler, asked him to produce his membership card.“Last name?” she asked. He replied: “Obama.” “And your first name is…?” she said before flushing with embarrassment. He spent about 20 minutes on the treadmill and did some arm curls with weights before heading to the airport
NINETEENTH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH
4606 16th St NW
Founded in August 1839, this church is now located on 16th street, some four miles north of the White House. On Sunday, the Obama motorcade showed up at the church, which was packed with 250 parishioners who whooped for joy as the soon-to-be First Family arrived. If this becomes the regular church for the Obamas there will be a watchful eye on the pastor, Dr Derrick Harkins, to ensure he doesn’t embarrass Obama, as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright did back in Chicago with his “God damn America” sermonising
1739 N St NW
A favourite of political operatives. You will find them chatting in front of the hotel bars’ roaring open fire, planning ways to get their hands on the $800bn in federal funds being handed out by the Obama administration as it tries to kick-start the economy back into life. It has comfortable leather sofas and is decorated with old prints and maps
BUSBOYS & POETS
2021 14th St NW
Busboys is perfect for the new liberal aristocracy who have moved into town. It’s a left-of-centre bookshop with tomes about the American Communist Party sitting side-by-side with the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist Paul Krugman, whose book ‘The Return of Depression Economics’ is flying off the shelves. The attached restaurant specialises in southern dishes like catfish, and the barmen serve deadly dry martinis. There is also free WiFi and the restaurant's communal tables are usually busy with Obama staffers catching upon their emails as they wolf down the soul food
818 Connecticut Ave NW
The President-elect brough this wife to Equinox for her 45th birthday last week, and everyone in the restaurant sang “Happy Birthday” as she received a special dessert from the chef. It’s also a favourite of the singer Bono, who was in town for his free concert on Sunday and will be looking for money for development aid. No one can recall seeing George Bush dine out in Washington,although Dick Cheney often caused a security commotion outside his favourite Georgetown restaurants
MARIE REEDRECREATION CENTER
2200 Champlain St NW
Where will the President gethis sweat on? Will it be the Marie Reed Recreation Centre or the Columbia Heights Washington Sports Club? Last week, Obama came to Marie Reed, a somewhat dilapidated sports club, to shoot hoops with his pals. The regular members have been on the lookout for him ever since
POLITICS & PROSE
5015 Connecticut Ave NW
The crowd here is a lot more staid than at Busboys, but this is probably the best political bookshop in America, with prominent authors giving talks almost every night of the week. The coffee shop downstairs not only serves decent espresso, but several authors use it as their writing den and can be seen pounding out their daily 3,000 words
OFF THE RECORD
One Lafayette Square NW
This cosy spot is in the basement of the Hay Adams Hotel, where the Obama family stayed last week.The bar is a favourite of lobbyists and political operators as it is just across a small park from the White House. Many of the high-powered people coming to see the President are likely to be staying at the Hay Adams, and come 6pm, and as soon as the stars and stripes have been lowered, they will be popping in for their sundowners
2400 6th St NW
This is the epicentre of black student life in Washington and near the U Street Corridor where the young Obama staffers are most likely to congregate. It’s teeming with black-owned clubs, pubs and restaurants, and is where Washington’s centre of gravity is already shifting. It’s all down to economics. Sharing an apartment near Dupont Circle will cost $1,200 per head, while over near Howard University it’s likely to be $600 per person. The Obama political machine is famously thrifty and, on the campaign trail, staffers were given a miserable daily allowance
SOUL DAY SPA AND SALON
25 Florida Ave NW
Nicole Cober-Blake, a 37-year-old African-American former lawyer, is one of the many salon owners in the city who have been trying to attract Michelle Obama and her friends. This sleek, upscale spa offers underarm waxing for a mere $15
BEN’S CHILI BOWL
1213 U St NW
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a great place for a late-night snack. Obama was there last week with the mayor of DC, Adrian Fenty. The 50-year-old institution was a favourite of Bill Cosby when he was a young performer in the city, and the owners, Ben and Virginia Ali, claim that Cosby courted his wife Camille there in the early 1960s. When riots swept through Washington following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Ben’s remained open throughout, feeding both the activists and the firefighters and police who were trying to restore order
3426 Connecticut Ave NW
The Uptown is where the young politicos go to travel back in time to see a movie in 1950s style. The seats are big and plush,and it has a balcony. It’s been showing ‘Frost/Nixon’ for the past month – and there’s no sign of the run ending
1751 Pennsylvania Ave NW
A two-minute walk from the White House, early-morning visitors to this bakery should keep their eyes peeled for the Obama speech writer JonFavreau grabbing a “trinacria sausage sandwich” ($7.55) for his lunch. Everything in this huge lunch den is freshly baked, and many in the Obama crowd already love it. It’s fast food that’s also authentic and traditional
410 First St SE
Bullfeathers has a 40ft bar — and a three-hour “happy hour” to tempt Congressional staffers and their friends. One of the best ways to make connections with political movers and shakers is to buy a round for the hard-working, stressed-out staffers who frequent watering holes within walking distance of the cubicles
Street NW, between 20th and 21st Streets
The line at Manush’s goes at a snail’s pace, as Manush himself loves talking to his customers about philosophy as much asselling the hot dogs they’ve come here to buy. Young politicos flock to him. Based near the State Department, his flame-cooked hot dogs and pretzels are among the best in DC. It’s the best place to watch the enthusiastic young staffers chill out after their 60-or 70-hour weeks
Leonard Doyle is The Independent US Editor
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