Even if his thoughts were elsewhere, Obama keeps to his calendar in California
san francisco — President Obama’s motorcade, 20 vehicles deep, wound through the Highland Park neighborhood Friday in Southern California and stopped at the crest of a small hill. Only the president’s custom black sport-utility vehicle continued, veering up a steeper street until it disappeared.
Somewhere out of the view of reporters, Obama got out and entered a makeshift recording studio in the garage of Marc Maron, host of a popular podcast. WTF? That is actually the name of Maron’s show. But it was as good a question as any to ask about why Obama was there to begin with. In Charleston, S.C., community leaders were searching for answers about a shooting that killed nine black Americans at a church two nights earlier. In Highland Park, the leader of the free world was sitting down for an hour-long chat with a comic who describes himself as an “Iggy Pop Woody Allen.”
Down the hill, a crowd had gathered near the president’s entourage, and a man dressed as a clown was juggling bowling pins.
“I think it’s highly unusual,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz acknowledged later to reporters aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to San Francisco. “I’m fairly certain this is the first time a president of the United States has been interviewed in a garage.”
Maron’s interview won’t be posted until Monday, so the public won’t know until then what they discussed. But the mere fact that Obama kept the interview at a time of national trauma highlights a reality of the office of the presidency: Life goes on.
Time and again, Obama has carried on business as usual— with only brief interruptions— in the face of crisis or tragedy. He often makes a statement to the public, as he did Thursday at the White House, speaking emotionally about the Charleston killings, but soon resumes his regularly scheduled programming.
To the White House, the value of maintaining a schedule is clear for a number of reasons. Aides said that if the president regularly altered his schedule to meet the demands of breaking news, he would constantly be in reactive mode and fail to make progress on any number of priorities.
In addition, Obama and his advisers reject the notion that a president must be responsive to the demands of television pundits or rival politicians. Last summer, when the president juggled rounds of golf during a series of foreign policy crises in the Middle East, one of his senior advisers said: “There’s no timetable for solving these problems that’s going to meet the cable news cycle speed. It’s not a tenable thing. We’d much rather do this right than do it quickly.”
For Obama, the shootings in Charleston were clearly in his thoughts during the first half of a four-day California trip. Though he had made impassioned remarks at the White House before leaving, the president spoke about the shootings publicly at each stop in Southern California and in San Francisco, where he attended four Democratic fundraisers and addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“I am not resigned” to gun violence, he told the mayors. “I refuse to act as if this is the new normal.”
The president was in touch with lawmakers in South Carolina, personally calling Mayor Joe Riley and other authorities and offering any federal aid they might need. But White House aides offered no hint that plans were in the works for Obama to visit Charleston.
After past tragedies, the president has been wary of arriving too quickly for fear of diverting resources from the local investigations. In many of those cases— in Aurora, Colo., in 2012, for example, and in Newtown, Conn., also in 2012— he later traveled to the cities to pay his respects in person.
Yet even if his thoughts were elsewhere, the president went about his other duties in California. During a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Beverly Hills estate of movie mogul Tyler Perry, Obama held Perry’s infant son and reminisced before a crowd of 250 donors— including “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner and actress January Jones— about the time his own daughters drooled on his lapel.
“Oh, it’s okay,” the president said with a chuckle. “Nobody noticed.”
That night, he dined privately at his hotel with movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and director Steven Spielberg.
At times, the president’s activities, juxtaposed with the unfolding crises, can appear discordant or crass. He played golf minutes after speaking about the beheading of American journalist James Foley in Syria. He was at a ritzy Martha’s Vineyard party during the first night of riots in Ferguson, Mo. He hoisted beers with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a sports bar at a time when thousands of Central American migrants were being held in overcrowded border patrol facilities in Texas.
Obama plans to play golf in Palm Springs this weekend before returning to Washington on Sunday evening.
In California, he has been surrounded by celebrities and power brokers at high-dollar fundraisers. Even at the mayors conference, Obama descended the stage and approached the rope line to shake hands with people in the audience when he came across entertainer MC Hammer, wearing sunglasses. They hugged, and Hammer posted several pictures of the encounter on Twitter.
“What A Historic Day !!!” Hammer wrote.
But for Obama, the main point of the trip was to rally fellow Democrats and raise money for a party that will attempt to coalesce around a Democratic standard-bearer to succeed him and presumably carry on his legacy. At each stop, the president recited a litany of achievements, including the economy, health care and the environment— and then ticked off a list of challenges that remain.
“I’m really proud of this record,” he said at the Sea Cliff home of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
Then he was off again, on to the next stop in an itinerary that had been planned long ago.
President Obama holds one of the twin daughters of Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) and his wife, Monica, upon his arrival Saturday at the Palm Springs International Airport. With his scheduled trip to California, business carries on as usual for the president.