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The politics of Obama's chair challenge -- where to seat David Paterson, Mark Sanford, Charlie Crist and Tim Pawlenty?

February 22, 2010 |  7:45 am

President Obama raises a toast as First Lady Michelle Obama and Minnesota's Gov. Tim Pawlenty look on at the Governors Ball Feb. 21, 2010

The last time the Obamas held a formal dinner at the White House, a couple of gate crashers kind of spoiled the party. You may remember the Salahis, those wannabe VIPs who talked their way past security to pose for pictures with Washington's most tightly guarded officials.

Sunday night, as the nation's governors gathered for a black-tie dinner ahead of Monday's annual meeting, there were no security breaches, as far as we know. But there were plenty of protocol dilemmas.

New York's Gov. David Paterson posed one sticky problem. The White House, led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, made it known last year that it was hoping the unpopular Paterson would not seek for reelection. But Paterson pushed back, announcing his reelection bid to tepid reviews, and Sunday he showed up for dinner. Where to put him? Why at Emanuel's table, of course. 

Then there's Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Running (for his life) against 'tea party' favorite Marco Rubio in the GOP primary for a Senate seat, Crist is the Republican, and virtually the only one, who a year ago embraced President Obama and his $787-billion economic stimulus plan. Rubio has gotten a lot of traction out of the photo of Crist embracing Obama, so Sunday night the White House put the governor far from the president. As the pool report put it, Crist was "well beyond hugging range."

The question for South Carolina's Mark Sanford wasn't so much where to sit as who to bring. After acknowledging he'd sneaked off to Buenos Aires to be with his Argentine mistress last summer while he was supposed to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail, the governor watched as his marriage and credibility fell apart. The photo of the governor arriving at an earlier White House dinner with First Lady Jenny Sanford was a staple of the crushing coverage. On Sunday, he brought his son Landon.

In one strategic piece of seating protocol, the White House put California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, who presides over a cash-strapped state, at a table with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The better to ask for money?

Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, considered one of the serious prospects for the Republicans' 2012 presidential challenge, was seated next to First Lady Michelle Obama. An attempt to charm him out of mud-slinging campaign attacks? A confab over combating childhood obesity? Hard to know, but the menu featured French onion soup, rib eye roast, shrimp scampi, roasted potatoes, carrots and mushrooms, a seven-layer salad and baked Alaska.

Speaking of Alaska, it's too bad that state's former governor, Sarah Palin, resigned from office before the dinner. Given her star power among Republicans, she might have been seated with the president.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: President Obama raises a toast as Gov. Tim Pawlenty and First Lady Michelle Obama look on. Credit: Associated Press

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