Fineman: Inside the White House Christmas Party

President Barack Obama is struggling in the job-approval polls, and more and more voters are wondering whether his health-care reform bill is really "reform." But at least in one respect his crusade for change is very much alive here in the capital.

I am speaking, of course, of White House Christmas parties.

You can't judge a president by his parties. But Washington is nothing more or less than high school writ large: a city of socially awkward, judgmental nerds who interpret (overinterpret) the significance of whatever they see. Having been to four presidencies' worth of press parties, I am a pretty good example of the breed. So here goes:

The first thing to mention about the Obama's media party earlier this week: Jazz! Now, the Bushes (father and son) and Bill Clinton had nothing against jazz, so far as I know, but they didn't feature any at holiday parties. I seem to remember a lot of gigs by the Marine Band in dress reds in the foyer, with brass music stands and Christmas carols by Muzak.

The Obamas are jazz buffs. So when guests walked into the East Room on Monday evening—a very crowded room, by the way—they entered what felt a little bit like a large and loud jazz club. It seemed to me the lights had been dimmed ever so slightly, and there was a jazz quintet at work on a raised stage at one end of the room. They were playing cool and mellow stuff, sophisticated but not raucous, and their music wove its way through the hubbub of the place. It felt more like New York or Chicago.

I noticed that the bass player in the group was a Caucasian female. I'm sorry to deal in stereotypes (but what the heck, that is also what we do in Washington), but I think jazz fans will confirm that there aren't many prominent Caucasian female bassists around. "Change you can believe in," Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told me with a laugh.

The food had changed, too. In the old days—pre-Obama—the party food laid out on big tables in the middle of the room tended toward towering mounds of shrimp and arrayed slices of roast beef. This menu was more worldly. There was a very busy sushi bar along one wall (I could be wrong but I don't think there have been chopsticks on offer at a White House Christmas party before) and a big spread of potato pancakes and smoked salmon—a popular cocktail party dish that could double, if you chose to see it that way, as a nod to Hanukkah. There were more bars in more places, upstairs and down, with more people ordering cosmopolitans and martinis.

Critics of the "mainstream" media's supposed fondness for Obama will not be surprised to learn that the mood among the guests in the room, and elsewhere throughout the grand house, felt more comfortable and loose than I remember it in earlier presidencies. No one feels quite "at home" in the White House—not even a president—and certainly not during a mass event like a press party. But I did get the sense that many of the folks there that night were relaxing in a way they would not have during, say, the late Clinton or Bush Two Years.

The night at the Obamas was worlds away from the first such event my wife and I attended, in 1986, at then–Vice President George H.W. Bush's official residence at the Naval Observatory. He is, and was, a genial guy, and an enthusiastic, almost manic host. But his wife, Barbara, loathed the press. The veep's political adviser at the time, the late Lee Atwater, had convinced his boss to host a press party. Barbara consented, on the condition that it last for no longer than one hour. They had the Army Barbershop Quartet, which sang "spirituals" in a starchy way that only guys with burr haircuts could. Mrs. Bush seemed relieved by the musical interlude; it saved her from having to talk to us. She snapped her fingers and tapped her foot as they sang. Then, the moment they finished, she checked her watch and saw that the hour was up. "Out!" she said with a cheery blast. We were meant to think that she was making fun of her own legendary bluntness.

By contrast, Michelle Obama did a pretty good job of seeming genuinely concerned about the mood of the crowd. She was downstairs with her husband, posing for ceremonial photos with an endless stream of journalists—a laborious ritual that goes back to at least the Clinton days. "Is everybody upstairs having a good time?" she asked me. As far as I could tell, I said, they were.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.