It’s a cold evening in the nation's capital, but the guests at a local cocktail party hardly feel the winter chill. Amid the low symphony of glasses clinking and a dull hum of chatter, men and women mill about, likely dining on the finest finger foods that catering has to offer.
It’s Wednesday night at the White House, and the era of the cocktail party has returned.
Only eight weeks into the Obama administration, the president and first lady have already hosted their fair share of social events. Indeed, White House social secretary Desiree Rogers has announced that the Obama administration plans to make Wednesday night social events a tradition.
“It’s not so much a cocktail party necessarily,” Katie McCormick Lelyveld, press secretary to first lady Michelle Obama, told FOXNews.com. “It’s a gathering that takes on the shape of the week’s agenda. The driving force is to reserve time Wednesday evenings to have at hand to use for whatever is at the top of the list of priorities that week.”
The announcement seemed to be a departure from the past several years, as the parties had all but fallen out of fashion since the Reagan era. President George W. Bush was rumored to dislike cocktail parties, and had given up drinking years before he was sworn in. As former press secretary Dee Dee Myers told Politico.com, the Clintons did not have a wide circle of friends in Washington and were "not as social" as the Obamas have shown themselves to be. The Reagans reportedly cultivated relationships with Washington society and Hollywood alike, while Carter instead enjoyed a more quiet social life.
But the Obamas, known to be active in their community, have already hosted several events that have taken on different forms: from a bipartisan meeting of Democrats and Republicans before voting on the stimulus bill, to a concert in honor of Obama’s favorite musician, Stevie Wonder, to a Super Bowl party (on a Sunday, of course), to a black history event hosted by the first lady.
But not everyone is lifting a glass to toast the host and hostess.
The political watchdog group Freedom Watch has sought information from the federal government as to how much taxpayer money is being used for the events, according to a report in World Net Daily.
Others have pointed out that the extra socializing isn’t necessarily doing all that much for negotiation purposes.
As Letitia Baldrige, former social secretary to first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson, told FOXNews.com, “no real, substantial conversation takes place” at White House cocktail parties.
“We had them, we didn’t like them, but they are a necessary evil," Baldrige said. "The best thing is to be invited to dinner, really, then lunch, then a morning breakfast meeting. These are sit-down, conversation-friendly events.
"But cocktail parties need a herd mentality. You go with the herd mentality and talk about what the herd is talking about. It’s nothing more, really, than going there to see and be seen.”
The party's main function, Baldrige said, is simply to take care of people who feel left out or hurt.
“It’s a way of taking care of social obligations," she said. "It’s just a way of making people feel good.”
In fact, Baldrige says it is an unspoken rule not to argue or protest at a cocktail party. “It would be grossly inappropriate to do so,” she said.
But to some social-event experts, the relaxed atmosphere provides the extra push needed to seal certain political or business deals.
David Tutera, a celebrity party planner and host of WE TV’s “My Fair Wedding,” argues that “a good cocktail party can accomplish certain business deals that might take longer in a boardroom or office.”
RELATED: Click here to learn how to throw your own version of a White House cocktail party.
It is also a great place to strike up a conversation with someone you want to do business with but otherwise may not have had the opportunity to meet,” Tutera said. “A cocktail party is an occasion where shorter conversations are acceptable, which allows them to meet more people in less time.”
And with the tremendous pressure on budgets, Baldrige said many of the Obamas’ parties will likely be short and to the point.
“Lots of groups probably won’t get to eat or drink at all. They can chat in the room and will then be ushered out. That saves on food prices, as well as the big deal of a food cleanup. That saves a great deal of money, especially when the memories of the night are priceless.”
Still, in spite of accusations of lavish spending or charges that the parties are not necessary, they will likely remain in place, much as they have for most of the history of the American presidency.
"These types of social events never went away," Baldrige said. "It's just the press lost interest in them for a while."