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Off the campaign trail, a milestone meal for Obama and Biden

September 20, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
  • President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden head to the Oval Office Private Dining Room for lunch on May 4, 2011.
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden head to the Oval Office Private… (Pete Souza / White House )

WASHINGTON -- It was the rare day Wednesday when both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were together at the White House, considering the stepped-up pace of the presidential campaign that now has at least one if not both principals on the road during the week.

As such, their shared schedule was tight: the presidential daily briefing in the morning, a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and ultimately a one-on-one lunch -- their 100th since taking office, according to a review of the public schedules for both men.

It’s often said that the most precious commodity a president has is his time, and thus gaining a block of it on his schedule is no small feat. Those regular lunches, then, are a measure of the partnership that has developed between the two during their 3 1/2 years in office.

“They do them religiously,” said Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager and a former White House deputy chief of staff.

Obama and Biden are not the first White House team to take up the practice. But where in previous administrations such a meeting might have been one of the few instances in which president and vice president were together each week, the hour scheduled lunch is often just one of several that they’ll spend together on a typical day. According to the vice president’s office, the two men have held more than 800 in-person meetings.

But only the lunches are reserved for them privately.

“I think in the two years I was there, I may have interrupted it maybe once or twice,” former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said. “And I’m telling you, it would have to be good. It was not for scores in some baseball game.”

Their first lunch came just two days into the administration, after Obama’s first meeting with members of the National Security Council and another with the congressional leadership. It was held in the president’s private dining room adjacent to the Oval Office, as have most of those that followed. One exception: when the two left the White House grounds entirely for burgers at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Va.

A photo of that and just one other lunch taken by a White House photographer have been released publicly. The second photo, captured on Nov. 5, 2009, in the president’s dining room, shows Obama seated and Biden about to take his place facing him, beneath George P.A. Healy’s painting of Abraham Lincoln strategizing with his generals in 1865. Both place settings have chips, salsa and guacamole on the side; before the president is a bowl of soup.

Emanuel and others surmised that the lunches may be dominated by talk of their families or musings about sports or politics, just as often as they center on business of the day.

“They’re frequent enough that it’s not like either of them come in with a list of things they’ve got to get done,” said Jay Carney, who served as Biden’s communications director for two years before shifting to the role of White House press secretary.

A review of each man’s schedule on the days of the lunches offers a window into how they could often be about more than just building the personal relationship, but valuable planning or review sessions on key administration priorities.

Seven lunches came on days when either the president or both held key meetings with congressional leaders on issues like healthcare, the budget or Supreme Court vacancies.

Nine of their lunches came immediately before or more often after meetings of the national security team to review the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another followed a similar session on Iraq early in the term, and four more lunches came after Iraq review sessions that Biden alone presided over as the administration’s point person on winding down the conflict.

The time speaks to the role Obama and Biden had sketched out in 2008 when joining forces as the Democratic ticket, in which Biden would take on some discrete tasks with a “sell-by date,” but more important, be a senior counselor and the “last guy in the room” if he chose to be as the president made a final policy decision.

It’s a bond that was emphasized at the Democratic National Convention, when the two spoke on the same night, rather than in succeeding nights as in recent party gatherings. Biden repeatedly spoke in his address of the time he’s spent at Obama’s side, with a “ringside seat” to the tough decisions he has confronted.

“Barack and I, we’ve been through a lot together in these four years.  And we learned … a lot about one another. And one of the things I learned about Barack is the [enormous size]of his heart, and I think he learned about me the depth of my loyalty to him,” he said.

Obama, speaking shortly after Biden, in turn thanked him for being “the very best vice president I could have ever hoped for, and being a strong and loyal friend.”

“I love Joe,” the president told CBS late night host David Letterman Tuesday.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

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