Obama significantly scales back birthday bash

Former president makes change to plans after backlash over COVID concerns.

In this file photo from 2015, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive on Martha's Vineyard by helicopter. Obama had planned a big birthday bash this weekend, but has canceled those plans. — Michael Cummo

Former President Barack Obama, who turns 60 today, canceled plans for a celebrity-filled birthday bash at his sprawling Edgartown summer home Saturday amid growing cases of COVID-19 on the Island and across the country.

“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,” Hannah Hankins, a spokeswoman for the former president, said in a statement released to The Times Wednesday morning. “He’s appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar and looks forward to seeing people soon.”

Earlier this week, Axios reported the party would host 475 confirmed guests, including celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney, and 200-plus staff to work the event. While the website initially indicated Pearl Jam was performing at the party, that was quickly retracted.

The Axios report said Obama had hired a COVID coordinator, that all guests would be required to be COVID tested, that the party would be held outdoors, and guests would be asked to be vaccinated, there were individuals — including some longtime supporters — criticizing the plans given the recent uptick, as well as the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Controls.

West Tisbury resident Barbara Kassel told The Times she was an Obama supporter, but was shocked to hear of the gathering. Kassel said she and her husband are both vaccinated and have been particularly careful during the pandemic. “We are absolutely appalled that he would go ahead and have something like this on an Island,” Kassel said. “I don’t wish him anything other than the best for his birthday but I think this is very ill conceived …This is not political, it has to do with science and health and risk.”

Jed Devine, Kassel’s husband, told The Times he didn’t understand how Obama, who has been a vocal advocate for getting vaccinated and following Centers for Disease Control guidelines could have such a large event. “I believe in this situation a true leader cancels his party, makes a short speech that given the time and what president Biden is asking for, will cover all the expenses for all the vendors and for all the disjointed guests,” Devine said. “I just think it’s outrageous.”

Speaking to reporters in Revere Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker said while he didn’t get an invite to Obama’s birthday party, he would have declined the invitation. “I think 700 people at an event like that is not a good idea,” Baker said. 

Baker lifted all gathering limits and other COVID-19 restrictions in May. He said the party was a judgment call. “That’s the beauty of judgment calls,” Baker told reporters. “We can all make our own decision about what we think is most appropriate to us. If I were to have a large family gathering outside at my house, that family gathering would involve at least one person who’s over the age of 90. That would be my father. When I visited this weekend, I wore a mask the entire time I was with him.”

The Axios report and the controversy surrounding the party had Martha’s Vineyard trending on Twitter for most of Monday and the Island buzzing for days since.

Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins and a part-time Chilmark resident, told The Times the party is a perfect storm of attention “in ways that nobody else could capture in all its dimensions” and that Obama is a polarizing figure to his opponents in a way Joe Biden isn’t.

Now, in a post-Donald Trump presidency world and with his former running mate in office to boot, Schlozman said Obama, who was largely careful during his first four years out of office, can have events like his birthday party. “With Biden in the White House, Obama can enjoy a bold-faced post-presidency that he couldn’t have in the four years after he left.”

But even with a new president, Obama’s opponents critique his moves. “Still in conservative media if you want to get a rise out of viewers you talk about Barack Obama,” Schlozman said. 

When asked about the gathering and guidelines around large gatherings, boards of health spokesperson and Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said the boards of health have only issued an advisory for indoor mask use.

A person familiar with the event told Axios that “guests are being asked to consider giving to programs that work to support boys and young men of color and their families here at home in the United States, empower adolescent girls around the world, and equip the next generation of emerging community leaders.”

The Times spoke to several visitors and residents on the Island to gauge their reactions to the upcoming party. Some were supportive despite the uptick in cases.

“I think it’s exciting that he’s spending his birthday here,” Lisette Williams said. “I would like to be on the guest list.” She also mentioned she hoped Obama would get to see the paintings from the Disrupt Death Row: Arts and Justice fundraising event that was held this past Saturday.

“I hope it’s safe and everybody is masked and vaccinated,” Addie Amon told The Times prior to the party being scaled back.

Headline updated to better reflect Obama’s statement. Interns Eunki Seonwoo and Nicolas Ruderman contributed to this story.



  1. Smart choice. I hope in the near future we won’t have to consider these factors and they can reschedule.

  2. I hope he takes care of the staff but considering how wealthy liberals disdain the working class he probably won’t.

  3. While I was looking forward to filing a noise complaint against my neighbors I am happy he made this responsible decision. Nice to see him finally think of the masses and not just his circle of 1%ers. Good Job Mr Obama

  4. Its a shame he is cancelling and scaling back the size. He was going to have a superspreader in a climate endangered piece of property to show people what not to do.

    • Superspreader? Really?? You mean like a Trump rally with tens of thousands in an indoor arena flaunting all precautions?
      Or an outdoor event where everyone was going to be covid-tested previously and encouraged to get vaccinated, although knowing those damn liberal elites they already had been!
      Not too many of us are sharing your faux glee, Andrew. Maybe time to find another hobby.

    • To be clear, the super spreaders are the unvaccinated and unmasked. They are now biohazards. It is because of them that we have variants that are resistant to the vaccines that all medically eligible, responsible, good citizens have received.

      • “To be clear” sounds as though you know of peer-reviewed scientific evidence of your statement.

        Please share with the rest of us via a link to such a paper.

        • To be clear, anti-vaxers, those who refuse the vaccine but are medically eligible, are driving the pandemic and causing the vaccine-resistant mutations and avoidable deaths. We’d all be protected, even young children, if the stubbornly stupid and selfish would get vaccinated.

      • It’s not because of ‘them’. That’s what viruses do. Dogs bark, fish swim, viruses mutate. By the way, even some irresponsible, not-so-good folks got vaccinated and wear masks. It’s not – the “superspreaders vs. the eligible, responsible, good citizens”. But if you need to divide people even more, and give yourself a pat on the back, GOOD JOB!

        • Viruses don’t mutate when vaccines stop them. No virus, no spread, no mutating. The vaccine covered the original alpha covid but is not as effective against the delta variant. We can thank the unvaccinated for this. Newer variants will come up unless more people get vaccinated. The only people dividing us are the unvaccinated refuseniks. They wanted all vulnerable people to stay home— remember? Now smart cites and places are telling the refuseniks they won’t be allowed in public because they’re selfish fools who are spreading and mutating covid. Get vaccinated or be quiet and stay home. There are some who can’t take the vaccine at all, so they’re suffering isolation and constant testing because of the medically fit but selfish unvaccinated. Good job!

  5. He could have held it and been well within his rights, given it was not indoors and there were numerous COVID precautions being taken. That said, it was a wise move to scale it back given the tighty GOP righties don’t need any more political “gimmes” from Dems, despite their total hypocrisy when it comes to Trump’s complete failure on protecting not just the country but his entire White House from the virus. I imagine 44 can just go a birthday “week,” and hang with his invitees on a staggered basis.

  6. Last night I went to hear Kate Taylor with 800 people, two weeks earlier Beach Road concert with over 1000, and no one objected?

  7. It seems as though people pick and choose what to “get up in arms about”, Kate Taylor (love her) but I would not attend a venue with that many people in this delta variant environment, same goes for Beach Road.

    Obama is a private citizen and can do what he wants…big party or small party….

    For the regular Trump loving folks who hate everything that isn’t Trump approved and love to complain and make statements (without facts)…find a hobby other than making ridiculous comments.

  8. I wonder what the Vineyard will be like this weekend. Had some of the guests already arrived for an extended weekend? Will some come anyway since they have reservations?. Will there be celebrities moseying around town looking for a dinner reservation at L’Etoile? Will it suddenly be easy to get hotel reservations on the island? Perhaps the food already purchased for this event could be donated to shelters both on and off island.
    Canceling an event at the last minute can be almost as much work as putting it on. I would like to of been a fly on the wall when the family went through the invitation list and decided who to keep and who to jettison.

  9. President Obama is a class act. I’m sad he was pressured to cancel his milestone 60th birthday party which was to have taken place outside with all the necessary precautions. And yet no one objected to Kate Taylor’s concert with 800 people at the Tabernacle.( And I love her). But talk about a biting double standard.
    Being the gracious people they are, The Obamas made what was I’m sure for them, a very hard and disappointing decision in an effort to do the right thing.
    President Obama will find a way to have a blast anyway. That’s what champions do.
    Happy Birthday, Mr President! I celebrate you and I sing you!

  10. Happy Birthday, President Barack Obama! Grateful for you and to you, and wishing you a future of happiness, health, peace, and prosperity. May your days going forward be filled with love and joy.

    A gift for you (in case anyone missed this earlier): A panel of 91 American presidential scholars determined that President Barack Obama was the 12th best president in the history of the United States (www.politico.com/story/2017/02/all-time-best-president-united-states-rankings-235149). A truly remarkable eight year achievement for you, particularly under extraordinarily daunting domestic and global challenges. Well done, Sir!

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