This week, Barack Obama will ring in his seventh decade in style. On Thursday, the 44th President of the United States will be celebrating his 60th birthday with a dazzlingly star-studded guest-list rumoured to include Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Spielberg, George Clooney and an array of other A-listers at his $11.75 million home on Martha’s Vineyard.
Of the planned festivities at the 7,000 sq ft, seven-bedroom home with a private beach and 30 acres of gardens, one source reports: “It’s going to be a big one.”
The ritzy Massachusetts holiday destination is abuzz with speculation about the bash. Nearly 500 guests are expected to attend with a staff of 200 topping up drinks and dishing out canapés (expect Obama’s favourite, fried chicken, and the local speciality, lobster rolls). The entertainment will include Seattle grungers Pearl Jam and a local hairdresser has been put on standby to style them before their performance.
Obama is known for sharing his playlists and this year’s is a mix of classics like Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill and Holding Back the Years by Simply Red (feeling his age?) and newer songs by Londoners Jessie Ware and Little Simz. To mark the occasion, HBO will release the first in a three-part documentary special, Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union, in the US today with a UK release date to be announced soon.
The Obamas are paying for the party from their personal funds (their net worth is about $135 million) and instead of bringing presents, guests are being asked to consider giving to programs that work to support boys and young men of colour and their families in the US, empower girls around the world and equip the next generation of community leaders including the Obama Foundation’s Global Leadership programs.
In an effort to ensure the super-networking doesn’t mean super-spreading, only those who have been vaccinated are invited (Michelle Obama has been active in the drive to get Americans vaccinated). The party will also be held outdoors and a dedicated Covid co-ordinator will apparently try to make sure due deference is paid to pandemic procedures. However, the former president has been criticised for having a big party when the Delta variant is on the rise.
As president, Obama held similarly star-studded affairs for his 50th and 55th birthdays. Of course, presidential showbiz hobnobbing is nothing new, but the Obamas took it to new heights. A decade ago, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock performed at the White House while guests enjoyed a BBQ in the Rose Garden. When he turned 55, the then-president rubbed shoulders with everyone from Jay Z and Beyoncé to Samuel L Jackson and George Lucas. The Obamas also hosted Hillary Clinton, Michael Jordan, Paul McCartney and Janelle Monáe at the former first lady’s 50th in 2014.
The Obama daughters are also expected to attend. Malia, 23, graduated from Harvard earlier this summer. Sasha, 20, is an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. One name not on the guest-list is Joe Biden. Obama’s one-time right-hand man is too busy running the country. According to a White House statement, “While President Biden is unable to attend… he looks forward to catching up with former President Obama soon and properly welcoming him into the over-sixty club.”
Another is Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who shares a birthday with Obama. She turns 40 on August 4 and has hired Oprah’s party planner Colin Cowie to organise her “low-key celebrations” at her and Harry’s £11 million mansion in Santa Barbara, California.
As Meghan and Obama both know, a party is an opportunity to show your place in the world and the Martha’s Vineyard rager is the latest reminder of Obama’s journey from outsider presidential long-shot who won the White House with a promise to shake up the establishment, to the quintessential insider with a taste for the high life.
Since he left office in 2016, Barack and Michelle have earned more than enough to keep up with their A-list friends. In the last four years, the Obamas have proved themselves to be content juggernauts. Whether it is books, podcasts or shows, everything they touch seems to turn to gold. For eight years in Washington he oozed cool in a way unmatched by any president since JFK. Today, the Obamas are reaping the rewards.
Political interventions, meanwhile, have been few and far between. These days, a public pronouncement from Obama is as likely to be a list of the best books he has read this year as it is an earnest warning about the dangers of Donald Trump. For David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and the author of Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, the Obamas’ penchant for celebrity is something of a mystery. “No one who knew him prior to 2004 [when he became a national political figure] and absolutely no one who knew her would ever have expected or predicted this seeming need to befriend so many global celebrities,” he says.
Obama set the tone of his post-presidential life early. Within weeks of his departure from the White House, pictures were published of the ex-president kite-surfing in Necker Island with Richard Branson. Out was the Obama visibly burdened by the stresses of the hardest job in the world. In was a new, rested-looking Obama living his best life. And from cruising Lake Como with Clooney to palling around with Oprah, the world-class hobnobbing hasn’t stopped.
But Obama’s approach to life after the White House is at odds with his earlier self. The younger Obama demonstrated an unusual amount of introspection for an aspiring politician. In the early years of his presidency, he was more detached and self-critical than most other commanders in chief, admitting when he had “screwed up”. Over the years, however, the thoughtful outsider aged into someone more confident, perhaps a coping mechanism to deal with the never-ending barrage of criticism directed at the Oval Office.
The election of Trump was a dumbfounding repudiation of a lot of what Obama had stood for and done in office. For four years, Obama had to watch much of his legacy being dismantled. Is it any surprise he was looking for distractions? To make matters worse, Joe Biden — once seen as a lightweight Robin to Obama’s Batman — could end up being a more consequential president than Obama. “That can’t be an enjoyable prospect for him to contemplate,” says Garrow.
And so the Obamas are unlikely to stop living the high life any time soon. Michelle Obama has repeatedly been asked whether she would one day run for political office. The answer has always been ‘no’. And the reason has always been the same: she isn’t that interested in politics. And these days, her husband is also too busy spreading his wings to have time for wranglings in the White House.