WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama, who turns 60 on Wednesday, is scratching his Saturday outdoor birthday party for “hundreds” on Martha’s Vineyard, deciding to scale back the gala because of Delta variant concerns.
Guests coming to the Massachusetts island, where Obama owns a mansion, were expected to include boldface celebrity names, family, former staff and friends, including a good number from Chicago.
Invitations went out months ago — when COVID-19 vaccines were diminishing the spread of the coronavirus and before the Delta variant surged. Guests were asked to be fully vaccinated and needed to be tested and cleared by a “COVID coordinator” in order to attend.
Now, the party is “significantly” scaled back.
“This outdoor event was planned months ago in accordance with all public health guidelines and with COVID safeguards in place,” Hannah Hankins, a spokeswoman for Obama, said Wednesday in a statement.
“Due to the new spread of the Delta variant over the past week, the President and Mrs. Obama have decided to significantly scale back the event to include only family and close friends. President Obama is appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar and looks forward to seeing people soon,” Hankins said.
The invitees originally numbered in the “hundreds,” I was told.
The party as first conceived was a potential tempting target for anti-maskers, vaccine opponents and GOP critics, taking place as the Biden White House is battling COVID and vaccine misinformation — and with new mask guidelines in different jurisdictions creating confusion.
Obama and his team did not seem to factor in, earlier on, how his party would be or could be politically perceived, despite taking health safeguards.
The extravaganza also threw a spotlight on the elite and wealthy world Obama inhabits — at a time when some community activists worry whether the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park will price them out of their South Side homes.
Construction starts on Aug. 16, when the Obama Presidential Foundation takes possession of 19.3 acres in the park, unless a long-shot federal court case creates another delay. A formal groundbreaking is supposed to take place in the fall, with the size and scope of the event subject, in part, to how the battle against the Delta variant is doing.
While the public and elected officials are willing to take some risks despite the Delta variant — as Mayor Lori Lightfoot did with Lollapalooza — the giant music festival in Grant Park was an economic boost to the city’s pandemic-battered hotel and restaurant industry.
Obama’s big party also did not do any favors for the Biden White House. Press secretary Jen Psaki was forced on the defensive at the Monday briefing when asked about it. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden was pleading with GOP governors in Florida and Texas to do more to fight the pandemic rampaging through their states.
“Look, we need leadership from everyone. And if some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it,” Biden said Tuesday. “I say to these governors, ‘Please, help.’ But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”
Psaki, when asked about the potential of the Obama bash becoming a super spreader event, said, “Well, we certainly advise everyone to follow public health guidelines, which I know the former president, who is a huge advocate of getting vaccinated, of following the guidance of public health experts, would certainly advocate for himself as well.”
Meanwhile, the Obama Presidential Foundation is using Obama’s birthday as a small-dollar fundraising tool. “Here are a few ways you can join us in celebrating my dear friend’s birthday,” Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett said in an e-mail appeal. “Support our work to inspire, empower, and connect the next generation of leaders. Donate now!”
Jarrett, a longtime confidant of Barack and Michelle Obama, and a senior adviser during Obama’s two terms, summered on Martha’s Vineyard as a youth and hosted them in her rented home in 2004 and 2007. Obama went on to vacation there during his presidency, renting homes. The Obamas purchased their estate on the island in 2019.