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Will Debt Crisis Ruin Obama’s Birthday?

Can the president really party—and raise money—two days after the default deadline and with no deal in hand? Michelle Cottle on how Obama’s big 50th bash could turn into a bummer.

07.28.11 5:02 AM ET

For my 40th birthday, I planned a family weekend in New York, complete with a Mary Poppins matinee at the New Amsterdam Theater. The night before our departure, my 4-year-old spiked a 104-degree fever. I spent that birthday holed up in a back bedroom, quarantined from my son and husband, spoon-feeding my daughter ice chips and swabbing her down with wet washcloths. I lost count of how many times we watched the same Scooby-Doo DVD.

So let me just say that I know a little something about crappy birthdays.

But even I am struck by the unfortunate timing of President Obama’s 50th.

Obama turns the big 5-0 on Thursday, Aug. 4—two days after the deadline for raising the nation’s debt ceiling. As some of you may have noticed, the president’s negotiations with Congress on this issue haven’t been going so smoothly. Each day brings forth a fresh barrage of finger-pointing, name-calling, and high-pitched warnings regarding default, economic apocalypse, and the end of civilization as we know it.

With all that magic in the air, it must be hard for Obama to get into a partying frame of mind.

“This may be one of those years where birthdays don’t matter, even if it is a milestone like 50,” says Kiki McLean, a veteran Democratic consultant. “Of course, like the kid who wants two front teeth for Christmas, I suspect the president wants a deal for his birthday.”

Indeed, Obama told NPR last week that a deal is precisely what he wants. In fact, if a deal is not struck by the deadline (and assuming that the globe does not immediately erupt in flames), Obama will cancel his scheduled Chicago trip and spend his birthday trying to find something—anything—the two congressional teams can agree on.

One can only imagine the sort of festive party games that could spring up under such conditions. Pin the tail on the House majority leader? Laser tag with real lasers? Word of caution for Speaker John Boehner: If someone suggests that it is time to play smack the piñata, run.

Obama strategists push back against the notion that Obama will be having a grand time in Chicago. “It’s not a celebration, and it’s not a birthday bash. It’s a fundraising event, just like all of the other ones we’ve done,” an Obama campaign official says.

The gravity of the debt debate aside, this has got to be a bummer for Obama. It was bad enough when Michelle and Sasha left him at home for his 49th last year while they toodled off to Spain. Now this? Come on! Presidential birthdays are supposed to be a big fricking deal. Forget balloon bouquets and ice-cream cake—the leader of the free world typically gets thrown one hell of a bash.

Anyone remember Bill Clinton’s 50th in 1996? With less than three months left in Bill’s race against Sen. Bob Dole, the DNC put together a four-alarm fundraising blowout at Radio City Music Hall, emceed by Whoopi Goldberg (I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time) and featuring the likes of Tony Bennett, Jon Bon Jovi, Smokey Robinson, Shania Twain, Carly Simon, Kenny Rogers, and Aretha Franklin. Ticket prices ranged from $100 to $15,000 per head, and the spectacle was beamed via satellite to 100 cities.

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Appalled that Clinton was whooping it up even as he prepared to sign welfare reform into law, many on the left criticized the extravaganza. They included Britain’s  Guardian newspaper, which declared it “the most tasteless event since Nixon designed Ruritanian-style uniforms for the White House guards.” Undeterred, Bill and Hillary followed up the Radio City show with a slightly more intimate dinner at the Waldorf. Minimum entry fee: $10K. Today, you can go on eBay and buy one of the coveted golden tickets from the event. So very Wonka-esque.

“The key thing about birthday parties when you’re up for reelection is that they tend to be about the campaign and not about the party,” says communications consultant Mike McCurry, who was White House press secretary at the time of Clinton’s shindig. But that doesn’t mean it has to be all work. In addition to the New York money grub, recalls McCurry, the Clintons hosted a more staff-focused White House party, featuring a private concert by Jimmy Buffett. “It was truly fun,” says McCurry. “We were literally dancing on the South Lawn.”  

Even George W. Bush, who turned 60 while presiding over two unpopular wars, got to cut loose a little. On July 4, 2006, two days before his special day, Bush invited 150 friends over to the White House for fried chicken and biscuits. The dress was casual (43 sported a super-fun Hawaiian shirt), the cake was chocolate, and afterward everyone retired to the Truman balcony to watch fireworks.  

Of course, nobody’s had as much fun as JFK on his 45th birthday, when he was famously serenaded by Marilyn Monroe at Madison Square Garden.

Before this whole debt squabble got out of hand, Obama too was set to kick up his heels. Taking a page from the Clinton playbook, his campaign team has organized the grand fundraiser/party to be held next Thursday at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. Between 1,000 and 1,200 guests are expected, with each couple shelling out somewhere between $50 and $35,800, depending on just how close they want to get to the birthday boy. Jennifer Hudson is on the program, as are Herbie Hancock and the group OKGO. (The Chicago natives’ hit, “This Too Shall Pass,” must resonate big time for Obama these days.)

But wait, there’s more! In addition to the Chicago concert, Team Obama has been helping supporters across the nation organize satellite parties to honor the president’s big day—and, of course, to sign up fresh ground troops for his reelection effort. The campaign helpfully put together a few Web pages featuring party-planning tips on everything from assembling guest lists to getting the fun rolling. (Suggested start time is between 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. ET.) The original plan was for Obama, at some point, to take a break from all the hometown revelry and address these gatherings online. 

But now, who the heck knows where POTUS will be or what he’ll be doing that night? “If he’s still in the middle of a crisis, he has to stay put at the White House,” says McCurry. As for the fundraiser, he adds, “They can beam him in long distance if they need to—unless he’s in the middle of heavy breathing with John Boehner.”

Now, there’s a depressing thought. Arguably the only thing worse than spending your 50th bickering with leaders of Congress is spending it bickering with leaders of Congress while the rest of the country parties down without you.

Not that the situation is hopeless. Frothing and foaming aside, the widespread assumption is that a last-minute deal will emerge, albeit weak and pathetic (but nonetheless may contain painful spending cuts). In which case, Obama can brush off the past few weeks, lace up his dancing shoes, and head on over to Chicago as planned. God knows the man deserves a night out.

But just in case things don’t get fixed in time, I’ve got a pretty good Scooby-Doo video he’s welcome to borrow.