IT has been only two months since the Obamas moved into the White House, but here in the nation’s capital, some people are already asking: Have you bumped into your president and first lady yet?
This is no idle question. During the Bush years, Washington got used to a homebody president who preferred bringing friends into the Executive Mansion to venturing outside it. But these days, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, are popping up all over this city.
Like basketball? There was Mr. Obama sitting courtside recently alongside astonished fans at the Verizon Center as he cheered on the Chicago Bulls in a losing battle against the Washington Wizards.
Enjoy the performing arts? The Obamas have been to the Kennedy Center twice, once to see the Alvin Ailey dance troupe — with daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 — and once for a musical tribute to Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
How about a tasty meal? The Obamas have enjoyed white-tablecloth dining at Equinox, Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, B. Smith’s and Georgia Brown’s, and street-corner casual at Ben’s Chili Bowl and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
They have gone to parent-teacher conferences, school sporting events and visited working-class and gentrifying communities that have rarely served as stomping grounds for American presidents and first ladies — speaking to students at a charter school in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and worshiping in a black church, among other activities. (The president and friends also tossed a basketball around at a city-run recreation center.)
“Everywhere you go, you’re wondering whether or not you’ll run into them,” said Washington’s mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, who has lunched with the president and first lady.
Political observers are still debating whether this out-and-about style simply reflects the personal inclinations of the Obamas or some political calculus (or both). But one thing is clear: No other modern president has reached out so widely to so many corners of the city, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian.
That is no surprise to friends of the first family. The Obamas, after all, are city people, former community organizers who have long felt at home in the urban landscape. Mr. Obama is the first president since Richard M. Nixon to be elected while living in a city neighborhood, in his case, Chicago’s racially and economically diverse Hyde Park. And the Obamas are now eager to explore the city beyond the White House walls.
“They want their lives not to be confined solely to the White House but rather to become a part of the urban, vibrant fabric of D.C.,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president and a close family friend, said in an interview.
Of course, the social schedule of the president and first lady is also a powerful political tool, a way to nurture political alliances and to cultivate political narratives. The Obamas can enjoy their time out on the town while, at the same time, reaping potential dividends by reinforcing their promise to bring change to Washington and honing an image of openness and accessibility, some Washington watchers say.
“Let’s face it: It’s very good for getting re-elected,” Letitia Baldrige, the White House social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy, said of the Obamas’ socializing. “It’s a great bank of good will in which they’re making deposits every day.”
Political analysts say that the images of Mr. Obama hooting and hollering during a basketball game, eating a hot dog at Ben’s Chili Bowl and watching the ballet with his wife and daughters — pastimes routinely broadcast to a national audience — may humanize a politician who is sometimes viewed as too cerebral and distant.
Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary for President Clinton, said the outings allow Mr. Obama to project “an accessible glamour” and to convey a message of hope during bleak economic times. (She said that even the gregarious Clintons never got out this much.)
“It’s very humanizing and very encouraging to people,” Ms. Myers said. “And it’s valuable for him politically.”
Some warn, however, that such a schedule can also carry political risks, particularly if it undermines the mystique of the presidency, the image of power and command that a president needs to enact an ambitious agenda. Americans love the idea of the common man in a position of political power. (Think Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”) But they can also lose some respect if a politician seems too familiar. (Think Jimmy Carter in his cardigan.)
“Every once in a while it’s great, but there’s a chance of overexposing yourself socially,” said Bradley A. Blakeman, a former aide to President George W. Bush. “People scratch their heads and say, “Doesn’t the president have other things to do, especially in a crisis?’ ”
It is certainly a shift from historical precedent. In the 19th century, Washington was mostly viewed as a humid, uninviting town that presidents escaped from when they could.
In modern times, said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, the notion of presidential engagement with Washington has typically meant “going to parties in Georgetown or making friends on Capitol Hill, in other words, engaging with the permanent political establishment here.”
“This is really different,” said Mr. Beschloss of the Obamas forays into casual restaurants and working-class neighborhoods.
The Obamas know that it’s different. As the first African-American couple in the White House, they want to reach beyond the prosperous, predominantly white corridors of Washington.
“We were taught you have to get to know the community you’re in, and you have to be a part of that community,” Mrs. Obama said during a visit to Mary’s Center, a health clinic that serves a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. “D.C. is our community now, and it’s our home.”
THE president says he hopes to serve as a bridge in a town long divided between the haves and have-nots. “I want to see if we can bring those two Washingtons together,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on the ABC program “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
For ordinary people, the unexpected encounters with the new president and first lady are astonishing.
Joe Clark, a corporate lawyer who sat near the president at the basketball game, described the experience as “surreal.”
“I couldn’t believe that he was so accessible that I could literally shake his hand and heckle him about needing to suit up because his team was losing,” Mr. Clark said.
That is not to say that the Obamas can live anything close to a normal life here.
“There really is no going out in public and blending in anymore,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to Mr. Bush, describing the challenges facing any president. “That really is one of the burdens of the job. You go into the restaurant and everyone stands up and applauds. You always have to shake hands.”
“But when you’re sitting at the table, either out of fear of the Secret Service, respect for the office or old-fashioned decency, people usually leave you alone,” Mr. Fleischer said. “You still can have a nice meal with your friends.”
The Obamas are clearly scoping out varied restaurants and places to visit.
Mr. Fenty said it was the president who suggested lunching at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a well-known black-owned restaurant. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s delegate to Congress, said Mrs. Obama suggested lunch at B. Smith’s, also black-owned, a Southern-style restaurant near the Capitol.
Mrs. Obama and her staff also visited Miriam’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen, where the first lady bumped into Bill Richardson, a 46-year-old homeless man. Mr. Richardson was so stunned that he could barely stammer thank you as Mrs. Obama scooped a helping of mushroom risotto onto his plate this month.
“I was expecting some lunch, but this is the president’s wife; this is her right here,” said Mr. Richardson, who said he planned to get to a phone as soon as he could. “I’m going to be like, ‘Mom, you’re never going to guess who I’ve seen.’ ”