Friday, January 06, 2012

President Obama Takes "Dinner with Barack" Contest Winners To Lunch At Scion Restaurant

White House doesn't explain how much-hyped evening meal with President turns into lunch ...but Campaign has history of changing its own contest rules...
UPDATE, Jan. 11: Winner Kathie Toigo dishes on her "dunch" with the President
Since last summer, Obama for America has held three different contests for "Dinner with Barack," offering what was dubbed the "rare" opportunity to dine with President Obama as a heady enticement for supporters to fill campaign coffers with donations. On Friday, the donor winners for the second contest, officially called "Dinner with Barack II," got a bit less than the President promised. The firefighter, teacher, Army Reserves vet, and US Postal worker who had traveled from the four corners of the US had a mid-day lunch with Mr. Obama at Scion restaurant in Washington, DC. (Top: The President beside winner Val Grossman and across from the other winners at Scion, with video equipment to film the event. Inset is one of many graphic logos created for the contest)

There was no word from the White House or from OFA aides about how or why what has been the much-hyped centerpiece of fundraising had magically transformed from a Presidential dinner into lunch. The DuPont Circle neighborhood restaurant was closed to regular customers so Campaign staff could videotape the proceedings, according to co-owner Joanne Liu.

Liu also said the White House commanded her not to reveal the selections the President chose from the Asian-influenced American menu, instructing her to refer queries to the White House Press Office. White House aides also declined to reveal the menu. The event lasted a little more than an hour. (Above: Another graphic for the contest)

The President actually ate dinner with the winners of the first "Dinner with Barack" contest in October, held at The Liberty Tavern in Arlington, VA. This was videotaped for use as promotional materials for the subsequent "Dinner with Barack" contests. Friday's lunch fulfilled--sort of--the President's dinner commitment for the contest from the fundraising quarter that ended Sept. 30, 2011.

Members of the media were let in to Scion for a brief photo op before any food was served. The President, his shirt sleeves rolled up, sat with his arms crossed over a striped place mat in the restaurant's only dining room, and asked his guests about their backgrounds. All come from battleground states, and are what the Campaign calls "Everyday Americans." They were Kathie Toigo, 64, of Yerington, Nevada, an early-childhood special needs teacher; Bill Blackwelder, 31, of North Carolina, a US Army Reserves veteran of the war in Afghanistan and horticulture student; Val Grossmann, 54, of Westminister, Colorado, a US Postal Service worker; and Scott Zoebisch, 34, of Atlanta, Georgia, a firefighter.

The President's group of winners for the first "Dinner with Barack" included two teachers and a US Postal Service worker, and one was also a senior citizen. Campaign aides declined to say how many people had donated as little as $3 to be entered in each of the three dinner sweepstakes.

As the guests made small talk about their families, one said his six-year-old daughter was very excited that her father was meeting the President, and had given him questions to ask.

"I'm very big with that demographic," President Obama said, chuckling.

“They think I look like a cartoon character with the big ears and everything. And they like saying my name.”

Media was ushered out rapidly. The rest of the conversation will be in the OFA-produced videos.

Changing "the menu" for the contests...
OFA spent months touting the exclusivity of DINNER with the President, which included e-mails from the President, First Lady Obama, and staff discussing how rare the opportunity was as they asked for donations. (Above: The entry/donation form for the dinner on OFA's website)

OFA heavily promoted the dinner on Facebook and Twitter, with the hashtag #DinnerWithBarack. "What would you talk about at #DinnerWithBarack?" was a much-Tweeted question from the @BarackObama account.

"These dinners also set our campaign apart," the President e-mailed in September. "No matter what our opponents do over the next 14 months, dinners like these are how we will continue to put people at the heart of this campaign."

There's no mistaking that the contest meals were supposed to be evening dinners.

"At the end of a long day, Barack and I cherish the same things most American families cherish: togetherness, warm conversation, and the simple pleasure of one another's company," Mrs. Obama e-mailed to donors. "That's what this upcoming dinner is going to be all about. "

"I've worked for President Obama for almost five years -- but I've never actually sat down for dinner with him," Deputy Campaign Manager Julianna Smoot e-mailed to donors. "That's why I'm excited about (and maybe a little jealous of) the opportunity you have to join the President for dinner."

The promise of dinner was crucial to OFA's fundraising strategy for much of 2011.

"#DinnerWithBarack isn’t just a contest—it determines whether or not we have the resources to win across the board," Tweeted @OFA_NM as the third dinner contest deadline approached.

Deputy Campaign Press Secretary Katie Hogan told Obama Foodorama in an interview last September that the "Dinner with Barack" events would NOT be filmed to be used as campaign tools, but 6 different campaign videos were produced from the President's first dinner at The Liberty Tavern. The President's lunch guests at Scion all had to sign releases agreeing to be used in Campaign promotional materials in order to receive the "dinner" prize.

But turning a dinner into a lunch is not the first "menu change" from the Campaign for the "Dinner with Barack" fundraising project.

Vice President Joe Biden was supposed to be at the first "Dinner with Barack," which was re-named after it was launched as "Dinner with Barack and Joe." But the Vice President did not attend the dinner, though Campaign staff spent much time touting his addition to the line-up. The Campaign also violated its own rules for the first dinner, failing to announce the names of winners on the website, as stated in the Official Rules. The rules for the second and third dinners were changed. (Above: The OFA graphic for "Dinner with Barack and Joe")

The President ordered from the regular lunch menu...
Scion co-owner Liu was adamant about not revealing the menu. (Above: The President at lunch)

"They asked us to refer everyone to the press office at the White House for all details," Scion said. "At least until Monday or Tuesday."

But Lui said the President and his group ordered off the regular lunch menu [PDF], which includes loaded burgers, crab cakes, and a lobster Reuben sandwich, with prices for entrees ranging between $9.95 and $18.95. Scion is known for a wide selection of craft beers.

"It was an honor to have the President here," Liu said. "It was very exciting."

The President autographed menus before his departure, and Liu posted a photo of these on Scion's Facebook page. The President arrived at 12:26 PM, and left the restaurant at 1:39 PM from a side door, avoiding a small crowd that had gathered out front. He was back at the White House at 1:43 PM. (Above: The autographed menus)

The prize package is taxable...
The contest winners received air fare and a one-night hotel stay as part of their prize package, which is taxable for the assigned retail value of $1,150. The first dinner had a lower pricetag, with an assigned retail value of $1075. The third "Dinner with Barack" contest includes dinner--or lunch--with Mrs. Obama, barring any unannounced changes to the contest, and is officially called "Dinner with Barack and Michelle." Entries closed on Dec. 31, 2011, and that dinner has an assigned retail value of $1,600. (Above: The graphic for the dinner)

The Campaign has not yet announced if the President will be raffling himself off as a dining companion for a fourth time, though one of his e-mails in September promised that dinners with supporters are going to be "a regular thing."

A video of the photo-op during the lunch:

Information: Scion is at 2100 P Street NW, Washington, DC, 20037. Phone: 202.833.8899.

*Photos by AP/pool, except for menu photo, courtesy of Scion. AP video.