WASHINGTON — The party plans had been months in the making and many invitees had already arrived on Martha’s Vineyard when former President Barack Obama belatedly announced he was canceling his huge 60th birthday bash scheduled for Saturday.
“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 Wednesday morning. “He’s appreciative of others sending their birthday wishes from afar and looks forward to seeing people soon.”
Hundreds of former Obama administration officials, celebrities and Democratic donors had been planning to attend the party at Mr. Obama’s island mansion, with many of them renting houses on the island. Many guests were already in transit and others were scheduling the required coronavirus tests whose results they had to submit to a medical “coronavirus coordinator” to gain entry to the Obama compound when they were informed Tuesday night that they were no longer invited. The New York Post had reported that George Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey were all expected to attend.
“They’ve been concerned about the virus from the beginning, asking invited guests if they had been vaccinated, requesting that they get a test proximate to the event,” said David Axelrod, a former top Obama adviser. “But when this was planned, the situation was quite different. So they responded to the changing circumstances.”
Mr. Axelrod said he was no longer attending. Rahm Emanuel, who served as Mr. Obama’s first chief of staff, had also planned to attend the bash. But he said he got a call Tuesday night telling him that if he was not already on the island, he should not come.
Mr. Emanuel said he joked to Marty Nesbitt, the former president’s close friend and the chairman of the Obama Foundation, that the revoked invitation was an exercise in character building. “I told him that we literally got voted off the island,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Mr. Obama’s change of plans came days after President Biden effectively conceded that the pandemic had come roaring back, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an internal document that the Delta variant was much more contagious and more likely to break through vaccine protections than all other known versions of the virus.
Mr. Obama, however, had at first appeared eager to carry on with his plans, displaying what some Democrats supportive of Mr. Obama said they viewed as a casual disregard for the optics of his birthday bash. Even as cities like Washington reimposed mask mandates indoors, a source involved in the planning of Mr. Obama’s birthday party said the event would go on as planned, underscoring that it would be outdoors and all guests would be following C.D.C. public health protocols.
Some of Mr. Obama’s former aides also defended his decision to carry on.
“Guys…buy a map,” Tommy Vietor, a former Obama spokesman, wrote on Twitter in response to a news article about the party proceeding amid growing concerns about the coronavirus after an outbreak in the vaccinated community of Provincetown, Mass. “Martha’s Vineyard is an island. It’s not close to Provincetown.”
Some supporters on the island were also quick to jump to his defense. “I’m thrilled he’s celebrating his birthday out here,” said Caroline Hunter, an activist and resident of the Oak Bluffs neighborhood. “I think we should be much more concerned about unvaccinated people.”
But other invitees had already decided it was best not to attend. Ronald A. Klain, the White House chief of staff, for instance, had changed his mind and opted not to attend. (White House colleagues clarified that Mr. Klain made the decision before last week to celebrate his own 60th birthday party at home in Washington, instead.)
Alan Dershowitz, a controversial Martha’s Vineyard denizen who served on former President Donald J. Trump’s defense team in his first impeachment trial, said the community in Chilmark was critical of the glitzy bash and said it was wise for Mr. Obama to cancel or postpone it rather than create a distraction for Mr. Biden’s messaging on the pandemic.
“Everyone is talking about it and no one is talking about it positively,” Mr. Dershowitz said in an interview on Tuesday. “Some people are making excuses for it. No one is saying it’s a good idea.”
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