WASHINGTON — Even as he grows arugula in the White House vegetable garden, Barack Obama never again wants to be seen as the hoity-toity guy fretting over the price of arugula at Whole Foods.
That is why the president ends up sending mixed signals on food.
He clearly feels strongly about nutrition and fat. The child who looks a little chubby in that famous picture of himself with his long-lost father in Hawaii grew up to be extremely careful about eating and drinking in a healthy way.
The willowy commander in chief urges out-of-shape and overweight aides to go to his Chicago trainer who now works part-time at the White House — and even offers to treat especially recalcitrant cases.
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On a date night this spring with Michelle at the Georgetown restaurant Citronelle, the president showed how calorie-conscious he was when, over a three-hour meal, he managed the impossible feat of nibbling only one french fry. "He wants to stay skinny, you know?" chef Michel Richard mischievously told "Extra" afterward.
On the campaign, Obama seemed an organic proselytizer for healthier eating, telling black audiences to stop serving their kids cold Popeyes chicken and "give 'em some breakfast."
It was easy to imagine a scenario where the president and his body man, Reggie Love, would have their own early-morning TV show called "Downward Facing Dawn," coaxing a reluctant nation into a regimen of yoga and yogurt.
When he talked to the American Medical Association, the president again urged Americans to make their children "step away from the video games and spend more time playing outside" and cut "down on all the junk food that's fueling an epidemic of obesity."
He said he was trying to instill this lesson in his own daughters and at schools around the country. "As some of you know, we started a White House vegetable garden," he noted. "I say 'we' generously, because Michelle's done most of the work."
But often, when the cameras are rolling, Obama puts his organic tea aside and makes a show of heading for the nearest greasy spoon.
He boosted the business of Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., after he took Joe Biden there in a monster motorcade for lunch and ordered a cheeseburger with Dijon mustard (a spicy detail that amused Republicans).
When Brian Williams did his day-at-the-White House special two weeks ago, the president took the anchor to a Five Guys burger joint. He ordered himself a cheeseburger and fries and, in an extravagant attempt to prove his meaty regular guydom, brought back $80 worth of burgers and fries in a greasy bag for White House staffers. (After a tour of the Sphinx in Egypt, the president evoked his love of red meat again, saying "Five Guys was good.
This is better.") Michelle sometimes takes her staff on impromptu lunch trips to Five Guys or other burger and barbeque spots.
But recently, as schoolchildren were harvesting crops in the White House vegetable garden (though not the Thomas Jefferson lettuce, which had gone to seed), they were brushed back from fried food by Michelle and her associate chef, Sam Kass.
"This is a healthier version of fried chicken," the first lady, wearing orange jeans, said as the kids prepared their own baked chicken snack.
Kass added: "Breaded and baked is the new fried."
Michelle said she had wanted the organic garden as a way to underscore the need for better nutrition.
"Nearly a third of the children in this country are either overweight or obese, and a third will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lifetime," she said. "In Hispanic and African-American communities, those numbers climb even higher so that nearly half of the children in those communities will suffer the same fate."
She said America has become so unhealthy because too many kids "are not eating right and they're not moving their bodies at all."
When she was growing up, she recalled that desserts and fast food were rare: "It was a special treat. And we would beg to get it, and it was exciting if we drove into a fast-food place and got a hamburger. We were thrilled. It was like Christmas. ... If we got pizza on a Friday night, that was a treat."
Obama ostentatiously treats himself to fries and burgers to beef up his average-Joe image (even though he's anything but). Yet maybe when Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer come next week to broadcast a special on health care from inside the White House, the president should forgo the photo-op of the grease-stained bovine bag and take the TV stars out for what he really wants and America really needs: some steamed fish with a side of snap peas.
THE NEW YORK TIMES