Obama 50th birthday: More Clinton than TR

Washington Bureau

President Obama turns 50 Thursday, unquestionably older, grayer and less popular than when he took office.

His nearly three years on the job haven’t been easy; the White House would be the first to tell you that. He inherited a spiraling-down economy and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since becoming president, he’s seen unemployment stay flat despite his administration’s efforts, a fractious debate over healthcare that’s still playing out, Middle East unrest, the GOP seizing the House and making formerly routine matters a battle -- and, oh yes, that oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Whether he can secure a second term remains anybody’s guess at this point. But that’s for next year. With the debt-ceiling debate now in the rear-view mirror and with it, the threat of default, Obama may actually be able to enjoy his birthday. To that end, he’s going home to Chicago.

Obama hasn’t spent as much time in the Windy City as was initially expected at the outset of his term, but he’ll make up for some of that Wednesday evening at a fundraiser packed with local glitterati. The event, which will feature the band OK Go, singer Jennifer Hudson and musician Herbie Hancock, will be held at the storied Aragon ballroom. Wealthy donors will attend a dinner along with the concert at a cost of $35,800 per person, with the money split between the president’s reelection fund and the Democratic National Committee.


His campaign will also host more than 1,000 house parties across the country Wednesday evening, with Obama expected to deliver pre-recorded remarks.

Obama is just the third president since the dawn of the 20th century to turn 50 while in the Oval Office. And his party Wednesday stands to be similar to how the last president who turned 50 on the job, Bill Clinton, spent his milestone in August 1996. Maybe it was the fact that times were better, or maybe it was simply a reflection of Clinton’s more outsized personality, but the Big Dog celebrated on an even grander scale, with a two-hour affair before 20,000 people at New York’s Radio City Music Hall that brought in more than $10 million for his campaign.

(The other man who turned 50 while president? Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, which was a much more low-key affair, according to Time magazine. The article also notes that all presidential birthday celebrations likely pale in comparison to the present Marilyn Monroe gave John Kennedy for his 45th in 1962.)

According to a Los Angeles Times account of the evening, Clinton watched scenes of his life played out a video screen, listened to testimonials and watched performances -- and here is your ‘90s time capsule -- from the likes of singers Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers, Jennifer Holliday, Carly Simon and Jon Bon Jovi; comedians Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell and Leslie Nielsen; and Olympians Carl Lewis and Kerri Strug. (What, no Pearl Jam?)

Clinton was in the midst of his reelection fight against Republican Bob Dole, then 73. Actor Nathan Lane joked that Dole’s 50th birthday had been held at Stonehenge, right after it was built. (All right, so you had to be there.)

And like Obama last month, Clinton made jokes about getting his AARP card. He would, of course, soundly defeat Dole and go on to a second term marked by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, somehow emerging more popular than ever.

A robust economy will do that for a president. If Obama has one birthday wish on his 50th, it very well could be for that.

The president won’t be spending his actual birthday at home, however. The White House said he’s expected to return to Washington after the party. His real break will come later this month, when he and his family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard.

By the way, if you, like your correspondent, who is drawing ever nearer to 50, have no idea who OK Go are (the band is from Chicago), check them out here: