WASHINGTON — As he and his family flipped the switch to light the National Christmas Tree Thursday night, President Barack Obama said he hopes the tree lasts longer than its predecessor, which died after just a year.
"Our tree has been having a hard time recently. This is our third one in as many years," Obama said, noting that a tree that stood near the White House for more than three decades was lost in a storm early last year. Its replacement didn't take hold.
"It just goes to show, nobody's job is safe here in Washington," Obama joked.
One month after winning re-election, Obama said he is optimistic about the latest tree, a 28-foot blue spruce that was transplanted just days before Hurricane Sandy and made it through the storm seemingly unharmed.
Obama was joined at the 90th annual tree-lighting ceremony by first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and mother-in-law Marian Robinson.
The music-filled ceremony was hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris of CBS' "How I Met Your Mother," who bantered with the president and joked with actor Rico Rodriguez of ABC's "Modern Family" about joining the Obamas in Hawaii this Christmas.
Singers Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Ledisi, Jason Mraz, Colbie Caillat and James Taylor, along with the band The Fray, performed Christmas songs before a crowd of about 17,000 on the Ellipse, a park that sits between the White House and the National Mall.
Isaac Slade, lead singer of The Fray, injected a note of politics into the family-friendly event. As he sang "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," Slade said he wasn't sure if Obama had been naughty or nice. He urged the president to play golf with Republicans.
"Get out there and bridge the gap," Slade instructed Obama, referring to an ongoing dispute between the president and congressional leaders over talks to avert the looming fiscal cliff — expiring tax cuts and automatic spending cuts set to begin at the end of the year.
Obama did not appear to acknowledge Slade's comment.
Obama said in a brief speech he has been inspired by Americans' response to Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the Northeast in late October. He told a story of a street in Staten Island, N.Y., where houses and businesses were devastated by the storm.
"A great big Christmas tree shines out of the darkness," Obama said. A local nursery donated the tree, another business chipped in for lights and a star, and 70-year-old Tom Killeen and his friends planted it at the end of the street, overlooking the town beach, Obama said.
"As Tom says, the tree has one message: 'It's Christmas time, not disaster time,' " Obama said.
The National Christmas Tree ablaze with white lights and stars, Obama joined the singers on stage in a singalong version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" before heading home, a short motorcade ride away.