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(President Barack Obama greets people inside of the Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Del., Thursday, July 17, 2014, before speaking about transportation and infrastructure. (AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer, Michael S. Wirtz, Pool) )
Obama uses food as populist prop while trying to connect with regular folks
First Published Jul 22 2014 07:05 pm • Last Updated Jul 23 2014 11:17 am

Washington • Has food — especially junk food — played as large a role in the messaging of any other presidential administration as it has in that of President Barack Obama?

Obama, who has long complained about feeling hemmed in by the presidency, has made a habit lately of escaping the White House by walking down the street or skipping town and meeting with regular Americans who have written him letters or have some connection to an issue he plans to discuss. The common thread in almost all of these excursions? Food or drink. And nothing fancy.

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The latest example came Thursday, when Obama had a burger and fries at the Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Delaware, with Tanei Benjamin, who wrote the president last year about her struggles as a single mother.

Why the Charcoal Pit? "Biden told me the burgers are pretty good," Obama said. Vice President Joe Biden is, of course, from Delaware.

Obama has said his excursions out of Washington are meant to connect him with regular Americans and their struggles. The cuisine and restaurants chosen by the president and the White House is yet another reflection of Obama’s intention to bolster his populist bona fides out on the road.

In recent weeks, Obama has strolled to Starbucks for tea, eaten pizza with small business owners and others in Denver, plunked down more than $300 for barbecue in Austin, Texas, sipped a beer while shooting pool during a big night out with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and brought working parents to Chipotle. Obama’s love of burgers runs deep, so of course he had a few out on the road. In Minneapolis, he brought a working mother to a place that stuffs the cheese inside its burgers, because laying it on top isn’t good enough; in the District of Columbia, he ferried four workers on a Washington construction project to a Shake Shack.

Biden joined Obama and the four workers at Shake Shack. Biden had a shake, but could he and Obama have shared it?

"Me and Joe, we share shakes all the time," Obama said, taking the meaning of a good working relationship to a new level.

The president also has used his first job as a reminder that he’s a regular guy. He mentioned to audiences recently that his first job was scooping ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins in Honolulu.

And he has said that he took first lady Michelle Obama to a Baskin-Robbins on their first date. "I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate," Obama told O, the Oprah Magazine.

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Despite all this, Obama apparently no longer likes ice cream because he ate too much while working at Baskin-Robbins.

Frederick Douglas Opie, a professor of history at Babson College in Massachusetts who studies food in politics and social movements, said food plays a powerful role for politicians, and Obama’s recent meals are a way to try to reconnect with regular people.

"Why not try to identify with the common man by going to where you eat, from draft beer to Chipotle? ‘I’m like you, I go to Chipotle,’ " Opie said.

It was clear that Obama had not been in a Chipotle in a long, long time. He called the chain "Chipotles" and committed the fast-food faux pas of reaching over the sneeze guard to point to what he wanted in his burrito bowl.

While food has always been central on the campaign trail (think candidates awkwardly eating state fair grub on a stick and obligatory stops for pie at New Hampshire diners), its presence in the White House was mostly confined to the president’s private quarters or lost in the pomp and circumstance of state dinners. Food was often a punch line or a fun fact - Bill Clinton’s penchant for McDonald’s hamburgers and his expanded waistline, Ronald Reagan’s affinity for jelly beans, Richard Nixon’s love of meatloaf, John F. Kennedy’s favorite fish chowder.

But in this age of celebrity chefs, seemingly endless choices in cooking shows, the craze for all things organic and the rise of social media, food has taken on an outsize role in Obama’s White House. And there is a public and private paradox in the treatment of food in the White House, especially of late.

While Obama is out on the road picking up brisket and knocking back microbrews, the president and the first lady have cultivated a culture of fitness and healthful eating inside the White House. Staff members have formed exercise teams, and the Obamas’ trainer offers his services to them. Fresh fruit is available for snacking. Obama has even said that his favorite food is broccoli.

Michelle Obama has famously championed the cause of healthful eating and exercise, launching the "Let’s Move" initiative to fight childhood obesity and planting the White House vegetable garden.

"The culture here has shifted pretty dramatically, in direct ways and indirect ways, based on their leadership," Sam Kass, executive director of the "Let’s Move" initiative and the White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy, told our colleague Juliet Eilperin in April. "I think we really live that. I think that’s been a transformation for the kitchen."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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