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Barack and Michelle Obama roil Washington's social elites with their own eliteness

November 1, 2010 |  7:08 am

Democrats Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at a White house reception in October

While many Americans have been paying attention to all this election silliness and prognostications about which political philosophy will control which house of the country's Congress for the next two years, it seems major turmoil is building within Washington's self-proclaimed social elite crowd.

The elites are the elites because they give money to cultural and political things which, as everyone knows by now, buys them access to the powerful, who deny this.

In this case, the access is to the White House and its reputedly elegant social affairs, which is a....

...big deal among those unelected but rich permanent residents of the Capitol area. Many presidents have rewarded these well-dressed people with receptions and dinners and, most importantly, an executive residence receiving line.

These are called "grip and grins" because the donor grips the president's hand, they both smile and a White House photographer snaps a photo, which is often then signed by an autographing machine so it can hang in an office or den as framed testimony to eliteness -- and access.

Bill Clinton is a master of this phony protocol, providing brief spoken exchanges that send supporters away absolutely convinced he remembers and appreciates each of them. On the campaign trail, such photos with Obama could cost upwards of $20,000 at a fundraising dinner.Democrats Barack and Michelle Obamas make a grand entrance to a White House reception

But here's the deal: The White House's rookie rubes from Illinois don't understand how Washington works. Or they do understand, but they don't care.

Now that they're in the White House, the Obamas don't like the lines. And they don't like the press of ordinary people around them during mingles. So, as Women's Wear Daily explained so exquisitely recently here, they've ordered changes. No more tedious-for-them-exciting-for-others reception lines.

And in the actual affair's rooms, new barriers have been erected to keep some distance between the first couple and those who would approach them. No more mingling. Handshakes and quick chatter only for those up front right by the red rope or chain. Sometimes, only one Obama attends.

Needless to say, this has outraged many accustomed to preferred treatment but who don't want their names published because they still want to be invited. Others, however, are less reticent, still donate but don't bother going anymore.

“It just doesn’t seem very hospitable to me," observes Maureen Malek, a recent D.C. ball chairwoman. “It’s their way, and each president has his own way of greeting people. For some people, it doesn’t matter. They just love being in the White House. I like it the other way.”

The instinct of defensive presidential aides is always to blame security concerns and the Secret Service, which can't shoot back despite all its rapid-fire weapons.

But, of course, the reality of the White House security system is that, unless your name is Salahi, you've had to be OKd by the political folks, advance-cleared via Social Security number and background check, pre-cleared at the gate and metal-screened there too.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press; Pete Souza / White House.