Between his trip to Europe last week and his travels to Africa next week, President Obama is doing a lot of gift exchanges with foreign leaders.
In the past, he has gotten mixed reviews. Four years ago, he was panned for giving the queen of England an iPod. Other presents have gone over better. But the president does not personally select these gifts — a staffer does.
And there’s a well-kept secret at the White House: When Obama wants to choose a gift himself for someone in his inner circle, he sets a very high bar.
Last November, Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s closest friends and advisers, had a birthday. The president’s gift to her? Two historic documents that now hang in a large frame on the wall in her West Wing office — situated almost exactly above the Oval Office.
The documents reflect half a century of progress on women’s rights. “One is a petition for suffrage signed in 1866,” Jarrett says. The other is “a resolution by Congress adopting the 19th Amendment, which gives, of course, women the right to vote in 1919.”
As Jarrett notes, it took “over 50 years … from the time of the original petition to the time of the resolution.”
“I think the president’s message with me is that … sometimes change takes time, and that many of the people who signed the original petition may not have made it across the finish line, but that you just have to keep at it,” Jarrett says. “So I look at it every morning when I come in, and I remind myself about why we’re here.”
“What Makes You Tick”
People at the White House often see each other more than they see their families. It occasionally feels like a war zone. So co-workers forge tight bonds. And in some cases, those bonds extend all the way to the president.
“He really has a knack in giving a present that shows that he really knows who you are, what makes you tick,” says Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who used to be White House chief of staff.
Lew’s father was born in Poland and came to the United States through Ellis Island. That has always shaped Lew’s worldview.
“I’ve had a little statue of the Great Hall of Ellis Island on my desk for decades,” Lew says. “My son, when he was in elementary school, brought it back from a school trip.”
Last August, Lew walked into the Oval Office, and the president had a birthday gift for him: a Frisbee-size green metal disk, mounted on a wooden plaque. It now sits on Lew’s desk at Treasury.
“This is a copper ornamental rosette that originally hung in the Great Hall at Ellis Island,” Lew explains. “And when Ellis Island was renovated, apparently they couldn’t fit all of the rosettes back, and this became available, and it’s something the president gave to me as a birthday gift.”
To procure gifts like these takes research, money and, well, it doesn’t hurt to be the president of the United States, Jarrett says.
“I said, ‘Well, my goodness, how on earth did you get this?’ And he said, ‘Presidents have the ability to get things,’ ” she says. “So his gift-giving has improved with office.”
But some of his closest aides also describe gifts that require more thought than clout.
Jon Favreau, who was Obama’s head speechwriter, says “probably the most meaningful gift was when I left the White House, he framed the first page of three of the speeches we worked on together that the two of us really enjoyed the most.”
These were not his most high-profile speeches. They were moments only Favreau and Obama shared an appreciation for.
To Tie It All Together …
For people who aren’t as close to the president, there are standard fallback gifts. Several outgoing Cabinet members got a key to the White House Cabinet Room. Another standby is a candid photo of the departing staffer with the president.
Then there’s former press secretary Robert Gibbs, who received his departure gift on national television. Gibbs delivered his final press briefing on the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011.
“Obviously, Gibbs’ departure is not the biggest one today,” Obama said after walking into the White House briefing room unannounced.
He was holding a large picture frame. Inside the frame was a necktie.
To understand the significance of the tie, you need to rewind the clock to 2004.
“I don’t think I’m revealing a state secret,” Gibbs recalls. “We didn’t really think much of his taste in ties.”
Obama was about to give one of the most important speeches of his career — a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Adviser David Axelrod, no fashion icon himself, decided that Obama’s tie was hideous.
“And Axelrod grabs the tie that I was about to put on,” Gibbs recalls, “and says, ‘He can wear this one.’ And I said, ‘No, he can’t. I’m about to wear that one.’ And he says, ‘No, you’re not wearing this one — he’s wearing this one.’ “
Obama said he wanted to wear his own tie. The final decision went to Michelle Obama.
And when the future president gave his iconic speech, it was with Gibbs’ tie around his neck.
Gibbs never knew what happened to the tie — until that day in the White House briefing room, seven years later.
“He has not said anything about this tie all these years,” Obama said. “But I have to tell you that I know there’s a simmering resentment that he never got it back.”
The president handed Gibbs the tie, in a frame, with a photo of the 2004 DNC speech.
That’s right. Even the president of the United States sometimes falls back on that old cliche gift — a necktie.