Obamas still a power couple on the Washington scene
Casual cocktail parties, SoulCycle classes and late-night drinks with Branson. The Obamas might have left the White House but they are still making waves on the DC social scene. Denver Nicks gets the inside scoop
On a recent Saturday night in north-east Washington DC, fashionably dressed guests whispered amid the quiet clatter of cutlery in the dining room of Masseria, an intimate, elegant Italian restaurant and one of the US capital's hottest culinary offerings. At wooden tables surrounded by walls of exposed rock and brick, those present kept their phones in pockets and handbags - there were no photos allowed that night - and did their best to let two of the most famous people on earth split a bottle of wine and a romantic late-night meal in peace. Barack and Michelle Obama are repeat customers at Masseria, and knew they could entrust their menu selections to the chef, which they did, enjoying a large serving of pasta, plus dry-aged steak with red wine sauce.
Masseria is in a part of Washington that had a decidedly rougher edge a decade ago and was not the sort of place you'd expect to find a former President and First Lady at a Michelin-star restaurant. But then Barack and Michelle Obama are not a normal former President and First Lady. As presidencies go, the Obama administration was the embodiment of urbane cool, representing a fresh, young and cosmopolitan shift in American political life. Since they arrived, the city has transformed. Long derided as a stodgy refuge for bureaucrats and pencil-pushers - 'Hollywood for ugly people,' as they say - DC today is a youthful city with theatre, music and gastronomic scenes to rival New York, boasting vibrant gay and immigrant communities, and one of the most highly educated and wealthiest populations in America.
It's also one of the country's most liberal cities; same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010 and marijuana decriminalised. Washington voted 93% in favour of Hillary Clinton in the last election and the city has vowed to defy the Trump administration by upholding the Paris climate agreement.
Fitting, then, that rather than immediately return home to Chicago the Obamas have opted to continue making Washington their home - a first for any former President in nearly a century. Their predecessors, George W and Laura Bush, moved to Dallas where that former President wrote his memoir and took up painting, while Bill and Hillary Clinton made New York their home. Indeed, the last American President to stay in town after leaving office was Woodrow Wilson. "He enjoys DC. He loves DC," says Obama's spokesman, Kevin Lewis. "Chicago is their home, but they've made DC their home, too."
Instead of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, these days they reside in a newly redecorated nine-bedroom, four-storey brick mansion in Kalorama, a chi-chi neighbourhood of stately homes and embassies on leafy streets tucked into a bend in Rock Creek, a stream that cuts a forested gorge through north-west Washington. Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, lives nearby and the Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, recently turned a former museum in the area into his DC digs, now the largest house in town. President Trump's daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, meanwhile, live just around the corner.
Whether or not the former first couple have seen the young Trumps isn't known, but they have certainly been making the most of what DC's social scene has to offer - as well as doing the odd bit of entertaining in their new home. Following their trip to Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island in April, Branson bailed on a high-society White House Correspondents' Dinner party in Washington and walked the few blocks to the Obamas' new home for a late-night drink. And the fact that they've left office has done nothing to dent Mr Obama's famous friendship with his former VP, Joe Biden, with whom he's been out golfing. As Lewis puts it: "The bromance continues."
Although throughout their years in the White House the Obamas sometimes ventured out from the cloistered residence into the District of Columbia, such excursions had to be planned far in advance and the President's large security detail made their movements about as subtle as those of a 1980s hair metal band. But outside the White House bubble, with a smaller, lower-impact security team and the ability to head out at the drop of a hat, the Obamas have been able to live a far more "normal" existence. "They're both, ultimately, fairly normal, low-key people who don't necessarily like being the centre of attention," says a person close to the Obama entourage. "This is the first time they've really been able to be a couple in DC."
As well as Masseria, they've been seen at high-concept Mexican restaurant Oyamel (the Obamas are big fans - and friends - of its Spanish-American celebrity chef, José Andrés). Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Mrs Obama's health and fitness preoccupation, they're repeat customers at Nora, a Dupont Circle purveyor of fine, organic local cuisine. Always keen to try the newest hotspot, they recently dined with friend and former NBA player Alonzo Mourning at Mirabelle, a new French restaurant getting buzz in DC.
Meanwhile, museum-goers at the National Gallery of Art were recently delighted when they encountered the Obamas, along with friends Anita Blanchard, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at The University of Chicago, and Marty Nesbitt, an entrepreneur, taking in a new exhibition by Chicago artist Theaster Gates. In it, the artist repurposes materials from buildings in African-American communities with a special emphasis on Chicago's South Side, the Obamas' home turf. Michelle has also been seen dropping in for public classes at SoulCycle, near 14th and U Street, where a gaggle of paparazzi has taken to waiting. It's a newly gentrified part of town with a central place in the city's rich African-American history, near what locals call Malcolm X Park. A Secret Service agent is always there taking the class with her.
There has also been a series of lavish vacations in Tuscany and French Polynesia, where they were spotted on a yacht with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen. On a visit to the UK they visited Prince Harry at Kensington Palace as well as David Cameron, and hung out with George and Amal Clooney at their Oxfordshire home.
Which is not to say it has been all play and no work. Both in their mid-50s, neither Barack nor Michelle Obama is ready to retire. For the moment, Mr Obama is keeping a low political profile, working in the background on issues he cares about, such as making America's congressional districts more favourable to Democrats (they're redrawn every 10 years and currently heavily favour Republicans), and he's occasionally thrown his public support behind a candidate (France's Emmanuel Macron, for one).
Inspired by the groundswell of youthful supporters during his unlikely presidential run a decade ago, Mr Obama is laying the groundwork for the Obama Foundation, which will promote civic engagement among young people, and recently discussed the subject over dinner with Justin Trudeau in Montreal.
In February, Mr Obama hosted a cocktail party at his new, minimalist office where the atmosphere, according to a Washington Post report, was notably informal, complete with mismatched wine, self-service food and a tie-less former President. As well as Biden, former chief of staff Denis McDonough and junior ex-staffers could be seen among the assembled crowd.
Mrs Obama is still involved in the initiatives she spearheaded as First Lady, promoting nutrition and exercise in schools, and girls' education. While in the White House, she sometimes stopped in for a surprise visit at public schools around Washington and she has kept the habit now that she's a private citizen. The couple, who famously only paid off their student debts the year Barack became a US senator, are also both writing memoirs about their White House years under a joint book deal reportedly worth at least $65m (£50m).
The Obamas say they're staying in Washington so that their youngest daughter, Sasha, can finish high school (Malia, the eldest, is on a gap year before heading to Harvard in the autumn, and is reported to be interning with film producer Harvey Weinstein in New York City). However, the announcement late last month that they purchased the house that they were renting (from former Clinton administration press secretary Joe Lockhart and his consultant wife, Gray Lockhart) for a cool $8.1m (£6.3m) has raised speculation that they might stay beyond Sasha's graduation. Certainly, the crowd dining alongside the former first couple at Masseria on that recent Saturday night seem to hope so. As the Obamas finished their meal and rose from the table to leave, they shook hands and made small talk with people at the tables around them. The room became even more quiet, then erupted in a standing ovation. The Obamas may have left the White House - but in Washington, DC, they are still everyone's favourite first family.