Photo: The White House
The White House was kind enough to invite Business Insider and me to a private briefing on the economy yesterday.
The briefing featured the President’s whole gang–Alan Krueger (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors), Gene Sperling (head of the National Economic Council), et al. Basically, we got a preview of how the White House will likely frame the economy during the election.
And that was cool. I’m always happy to chat with the President’s economic team.
But I’ve never met the President before–this one or any other.
So, even though the President’s name wasn’t on the agenda, I was hoping he might pop in.
And he did!
At about 3:30 in the afternoon, the White House’s Director of Communications, Dan Pfeiffer, was at the head of the table, chattering away, and the 20-odd journalists in attendance were appearing to take notes attentively but probably actually catching up on email…
And then, boom, there he was, standing by a door in the corner, President Obama.
To get a sense of the effect this had on the room, imagine a bunch of kids in a lazily supervised study hall suddenly snapping to attention when the principal unexpectedly walks in with a rock star in tow. Everyone sat up suddenly in their chairs, grabbed papers and pencils (and cell-phone cameras), and began frantically paying attention.
Obama glided to the vacated head of the table (mission accomplished, Dan Pfeiffer had vanished in thin air). He said he would say a few things and take a few questions and then shake everyone’s hand.
And then there we were, sitting at a table with the President of the United States.
A few observations:
- Thanks to the magic of television, I have spent hundreds of hours in seemingly close proximity to President Obama over the last several years–more time than I’ve spent with anyone else other than my colleagues and family. So, sitting at a table with him felt, at first, extraordinary, and then, almost immediately, routine.
- I have never seen someone make less of an effort to charm a room and yet so instantly establish a connection (at least with me). Yes, it helps that Obama’s the most powerful man in the world. You don’t need to be particularly funny or engaging when you have that attribute. But Obama just started speaking in the soft “just among friends here” intimate tone that he usually speaks in, pausing, as he always does, to carefully choose every word. And it quickly felt like this was, in fact, just a conversation among friends.
- Equally remarkably, I discovered that it’s possible to zone out while in a small meeting with the President of the United States. I’ve listened to Obama talk about the economy so many times that when he started talking about the economy, I started doing what I often do when he starts talking about the economy–stopped taking notes and started IMing with a colleague at the office. Then I remembered that I was actually in the room with Obama and stopped.
He took some questions and handled them with the same “just among friends” casual but careful intimacy. Then came around the table and shook everyone’s hand.
He’s bigger than he looks on TV. He has a firm handshake. When shaking your hand, he strikes the perfect balance between appearing to actually be focused on you without going overboard and pretending that you’re more important than anyone else in the room.
I told him it was great to meet him, which it was.
He said “thank you.”
And then he was gone.
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