ATHERTON -- President Barack Obama on Thursday made a fundraising swing through one of the nation's richest ZIP codes as he continued to push for immigration reform, gun control and efforts to address climate change. But he made the most headlines for complimenting California Attorney General Kamala Harris on her looks.
Guests who paid up to $32,400 each for a brunch or a lunch at two picturesque Atherton homes got to hear a private speech from Obama, with the proceeds going to help Democrats get elected in Congress. Hundreds of others took to the streets to raise protest signs, hold a thumb up as the presidential motorcade zipped through quiet residential streets or simply to capture the spectacle on their cellphone cameras.
Obama, who attended two similar fundraisers in San Francisco on Wednesday night and slept in the city overnight, left the Bay Area on Air Force One, taking off from San Francisco International Airport about 1:20 p.m. with $3.25 million in Democratic campaign donations secured.
At the private fundraisers, Obama called California a "spectacular place" and highlighted Silicon Valley as "the epicenter of innovation in the nation."
On a critical issue for the president, taxing the wealthy to help balance the federal budget, he joked at the first fundraiser that just about everyone there and, "frankly, in this whole town probably," could afford to pay higher taxes. The median household income in Atherton, a town of 7,000, is a quarter-million dollars, and the average home value is $1 million.
Obama also praised Attorney General Harris, a rising star in the Democratic Party who was at the second fundraiser, for her "dedication and brilliance" -- and then said "she also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."
After laughs, he said: "It's true! Come on!"
The comment, however, drew criticism on blogs and the Twitterverse and was featured prominently on the websites of several major media outlets.
He also joked about the short height of another attendee he couldn't find in the audience, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell. He's "not like a real tall guy, but he's a great guy," Obama said.
Honda's newly announced Democratic opponent in the 2014 election, former Obama administraion official Ro Khanna, whose campaign team includes many former Obama advisers, was not present.
Obama flew in the Marine One helicopter from San Francisco to the Menlo Circus Club, landing in a giant wet field at the ritzy country club about 10 a.m. With police officers and firefighters and country club members snapping pictures, the motorcade took off and blew past about 100 protesters holding signs against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline -- and others who came out to show their support for Obama.
Katherine Forest, of Ladera, organized the protest and said she wanted the president to know that not just San Francisco activists are against the pipeline -- but also suburbanites.
"Otherwise they'll just say it's about a bunch of kooks," Forest said.
Inside the first event, at a brunch in the spectacular home of Medley Partners Managing Director Mark Heising and his wife, Liz Simons, atop the Atherton hills, Obama spoke to 30 people in a dining room with three tables. Within the intimate setting, Obama stood in a black suit, white shirt and silver tie and spoke to guests and reporters -- all within 20 feet -- for about 10 minutes before a private chat with the guests, who each paid $32,400 for a luxurious brunch that included salmon, quail eggs and a yogurt parfait with mint caviar.
He hit on a variety of topics.
"I want to make sure we've got the best education system in the world," he said. "I want to make sure that we're rebuilding this country. ... I believe we've got to get ahead on our energy policy."
Obama said he was confident Congress would pass comprehensive immigration reform in the next few months, though passing gun control laws would be tougher.
Next, the president took another five-minute ride to the Atherton home of Levi-Strauss heir John Goldman and his wife, Marcia, where tickets cost $1,000 to $20,000. About 250 people attended the outdoor lunch, as Obama spoke in front of a giant American flag and hit on many of the same topics, pushing those in attendance to fight for change by donating to help get Democrats elected.
"The reason I'm here is that the country still needs you," Obama told supporters. "You're going to have to push; you can't just wait for things to happen."
Susan Walker, who lives on Walsh Road two doors down from the brunch event, stood outside her home in the light rain, under an umbrella, hoping to see the president.
"I voted for him. I love him. I want to see if I can see his face. It's exciting," Walker said. Later, she and about 20 other people in the area waved as the motorcade went by, but didn't get to see the president.
In the group was Dennis McCourt of Redwood City. He didn't vote for Obama and was hoping that he'd get close enough, standing across the street from the party, to say a few words to the president -- and tell him why he opposes gay marriage.
"I'm disappointed in the president and the direction he's leading the country," McCourt said.
Deborah Levoy, of San Jose, attended an anti-Keystone protest Wednesday night in San Francisco. On Thursday, she held a cardboard sign that her husband had painted with flowers and trees on it. The sign said, "Tax carbon, not our children's future."
"I'm a mother," Levoy said. "I care deeply about my daughter's future and the future of all the children of the world."
After the luncheon at the Goldman home, the president took Marine One north to SFO, arriving shortly after 1 p.m. behind several military helicopters.
As snipers stood watch from atop nearby buildings on the northeastern side of the airfield, Obama strode about 50 yards to Air Force One and jogged up the steps, waving goodbye to news cameras before stepping inside. The plane began to taxi about 1:15 p.m. and took off five minutes later, headed back to Washington, D.C.