CHICAGO — Alone on his 49th birthday, President Barack Obama fled the empty White House mansion for a more intimate celebration with longtime friends in his Chicago hometown, including Oprah Winfrey.
Obama has been living a bachelor's life for the past few days with first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha visiting Spain and daughter Malia spending the month away at an undisclosed camp.
Before leaving Washington on Wednesday afternoon with the family dog, Bo, Obama got a couple of presents he didn't have to unwrap and which the White House described as being the highlight of his day: telephone calls from the women in his life.
Michelle Obama and Sasha phoned in their happy birthday wishes, followed by a lunchtime call from Malia.
"Needless to say ... both those calls were the highlights of his day," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters who traveled with Obama aboard Air Force One.
Obama's Secret Service detail got him a present, though Gibbs would describe it only as "heartfelt."
Neighbors line street
As the presidential motorcade pulled closer to his house in Hyde Park, neighbors lined the street to welcome him home with waves and signs, including "Happy 49th Birthday President Barack Obama" and "Happy Birthday Mr. President."
Neighbor Judy Harmon told the Chicago Tribune she was looking forward to Obama's visit, saying, "It's nice to have the president home," especially on his birthday.
Donning a dark suit and white dress shirt, Obama continued his birthday celebration over a leisurely dinner with friends, spending more than three hours at the graham elliot restaurant in Chicago's River North neighborhood. On its website, the eatery highlights its flair for "juxtaposing four-star cuisine with humor."
Outside the restaurant, a crowd of about 75 waited behind a tellow police tape barrier, cheering as the president walked out, NBC News reported.
His dinner companions included Winfrey and her friend, Gayle King, plus longtime Obama friends Eric Whitaker, Marty Nesbitt and Valerie Jarrett, also a senior White House adviser and fellow Chicagoan.
Other political news of note
Holder says drone strikes since 2009 have killed four U.S. citizens
On the eve of a major address by President Barack Obama on his counterterrorism policy, the Obama administration revealed Wednesday that drone strikes since 2009 had killed four Americans overseas – one of whom, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was targeted in Yemen because he’d planned and was planning terrorist attacks on the United States – principally the plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Eve 2009.
- Reid appears to back away from 'nuclear option' on filibusters
- Lawmakers grill officials for inaction on IRS, Lerner denies wrongdoing
- Republicans target Democrats in conservative districts
- Public relations gone bad for White House on IRS
- Holder says drone strikes since 2009 have killed four U.S. citizens
Obama spent the night at his own home as a large dispatch of Chicago police officers added to the security efforts in his neighborhood, Chicago's NBC 5 reported.
Obama's birthday — though a year short of the milestone 5-0 — also was viewed in this election year as a prime fundraising opportunity for Democrats, who fear losing their hold on both houses of Congress come November. E-mails, house parties and other forms of outreach sought to capitalize on Obama's big day.
Mrs. Obama even joined the act, asking supporters to sign an e-mail birthday card being distributed by Organizing for America, Obama's political organization. More than 1.2 million people had signed it as of Wednesday morning.
The Republican Party marked the occasion with a new website offering 11 different e-cards people can send to Obama, including ones mocking the ethics problems of Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California, and noting key Democratic election losses in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Obama planned to help out with the money-raising on Thursday by headlining separate events in Chicago for the Democratic Party and Alexi Giannoulias, the Democrat eyeing the Senate seat Obama gave up to become president.
The president spoke earlier Wednesday at an AFL-CIO meeting in Washington and joked about his disappointment at not getting a birthday cake from his "good friends" in the labor movement. A cake apparently had been planned, according to union president Richard Trumka, but the Secret Service nixed the idea, he said.
Obama said he'd have a talk with the agents then joked, "They're probably eating it right now."
NBC News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.