Barack and Michelle Obama have spent more than a thousand days on display before the nation's eyes, but the personal changes they have undergone can be hard to detect.
Up close, though, those who know the Obamas say they can see an accumulation of small shifts in the president and the first lady since they walked the inaugural parade route four years ago. The man who wanted to change the nature of Washington now warns job candidates that it is hard to get anything done there. Not so long ago, he told others that he did not need a presidential library, a tribute to himself costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Now a former aide, Susan Sher, is quietly eyeing possibilities for him in Chicago.
The first lady who wanted to forge connections with her new city found that even viewing the cherry blossoms required a hat, sunglasses and wheedling the Secret Service. In a demonstration of how difficult it can be for any president or first lady to sustain relationships, Michelle Obama stopped taking on girls in a mentorship program she founded because of concerns that other teenagers would envy the lucky advisees, according to an aide.
When the president returned from consoling families of teachers and children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre - he wept as they handed him photos and told him stories of victim after victim - aides could see in his face the toll of absorbing the nation's traumas. "This is what I do," he told them.
"This position has perhaps cost him more on a personal, and even energic level, than most of his predecessors, because he was most entirely an outsider," observed the playwright Tony Kushner, a supporter who recently dined with the president to discuss the film "Lincoln," for which Kushner wrote the screenplay.
The Obamas have gained and lost in their four years in the White House, becoming seasoned professionals instead of newcomers, more conventional, with a contracted sense of possibility. They are steady characters, not given to serial self-reinvention, yet in interviews, current and former White House and campaign aides, donors and friends from Chicago said they could see how the president and the first lady had been affected by their roles.
Describing them, they used phrases like: more confident but more scarred. More isolated. Less hesitant about directing staff members, whether the butlers or the highest-level advisers. Gratified by re-election, which the Obamas view as sweet vindication, and bloodier-minded when it comes to beating Republicans. And Obama has learned that his presidency will be shaped by unanticipated events - "locusts," one former aide called them, for the way they swarm without warning.
Barack Obama never wanted to be an ordinary politician - there was a time when Michelle Obama could barely use that noun to describe her husband - and his advisers resist the idea that he has succumbed to standard Washington practice. Some donors and aides give an "if only" laugh at the idea that the couple now follows political ritual more closely: This is a president who still has not had Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton to dinner but holds lunches to discuss moral philosophy with the fellow Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
"He thinks about destiny in human terms," Wiesel said in an interview.
Still, others say the Obamas have become more relaxed schmoozers, more at ease with the porous line between the political and social, more willing to reveal themselves. They have recently begun inviting more outsiders into their private living quarters, including Kushner, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis at the "Lincoln" dinner. At a dinner in late November to thank top campaign fundraisers, the first couple was like a bride and groom, bantering and traveling from table to table to accept congratulations and good wishes for the years ahead, making sly jokes that guests would not repeat for publication.
Even the president's speech has changed a bit, close observers say. Though he still disdains Washington, he often sounds less like a disapproving outsider and more like a participant. One former aide was startled to hear Obama use "impact" as a verb, a particular tendency in the capital. Another longtime adviser said he was struck during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations when Obama grew offended that House Speaker John A. Boehner did not return his multiple phone calls. The old Barack Obama would have thought the who-calls-whom protocol was stupid, the adviser said, but "the world that he inhabits now is the world of inside-the-Beltway maneuvering."In video footage of Obama as president, the contrasts can be subtle but amusing. At his first Thanksgiving
turkey pardoning ceremony in 2009, the president played along, but then paused to distance himself from what he was doing and hint that he found the tradition ridiculous. "There are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office," he said. "And then there are moments like this - where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland." Cut to the same ceremony, three years later, and cue Obama promoting a contest over which bird to pardon and giggling just a little. "You can't maintain your day-to-day cynicism about that stuff," said Arun Chaudhary, the former White House videographer, because many Americans cherish White House rituals.
What the president wants to achieve this term is pretty clear: a fiscal deal and overhauls of gun and immigration laws, steps to address climate change and less restrictive voter identification laws. But what the first lady wants is more of a mystery. In almost every appearance, she sounds warm, unpretentious notes; on Friday, she continued her Twitter banter with Ellen DeGeneres over who can do more pushups.
That informal tone can mask how disciplined she is. Though many surrounding the Obamas say she has changed far more than her husband, mastering a role she initially found uncomfortable, she still treats the job of first lady like a dangerous country through which she must navigate safe passage. The woman who never wanted to live in the bubble now uses it to protect herself, according to friends and former aides, preparing her public activities in six- and 12-month strategic plans, rarely saying anything unscripted. First ladies are often figures of comfort, but she did not address the Newtown tragedy, beyond two brief letters she published, even though some of her fans were clamoring for the self-described "mom in chief" to do more.
In recent weeks, Michelle Obama and her advisers have been discussing whether to expand her work beyond childhood obesity and military families and how to capitalize on her popularity. On Friday, she threw herself into her husband's new effort to organize supporters, introducing the group, Organizing for Action, in an announcement video. (The ambitious effort did not seem to garner as much attention as her new hairstyle, which set off headlines like "Michelle Obama's Bangs Are a Total Shock to the System.")
The first lady cannot wait too long to set out on a new course: The Obamas will soon have more time behind them in the White House than in front of them. The rituals they introduced are now matters of tradition instead of innovation. At the Obamas' White House Seder, the small group of mostly African-American and Jewish attendees reads the Emancipation Proclamation right before welcoming Elijah, just as the year before. The president played basketball on Election Day 2012, as he did on most of the voting days in 2008. But this time it felt different: the men older, the action slower, a reunion game with everyone talking about the old days, said John Rogers Jr., a longtime friend who joined in.
Barack Obama's entire career has been about getting to the next stage: If he could only become a lawyer, and then a public official, and then a U.S. senator, and then president, he could create real change. But soon there will be no higher job to reach for, and, aides say, there is an all-business quality to the Obamas now, a contrast with the sense of possibility that hung over the first inauguration. Early in his presidency, Obama would sometimes spend hours polishing ceremonial speeches, like one for Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial; now, the president has a more finely honed sense of how to use his precious time, said Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter. When Obama walked off the stage on election night, he did not pause to exult; instead, he wanted to talk about the impact of outside spending in that night's congressional races, said Patrick Gaspard, the director of the Democratic National Committee.
But Obama also knows now that he is not fully in control of his fate, that the presidency will continue to bring tasks that no one could ever anticipate. The Obamas were supposed to spend the evening of Dec. 16 enjoying their daughter Sasha's "Nutcracker" recital. Instead, the president was making condolence calls in cordoned-off rooms at Newtown High School.
"Words don't exist" to describe the grief on his face as he approached the families, said Sarah D'Avino, whose sister Rachel died protecting her students. The president asked each family to describe the relative who died, paying special attention to the victims' mothers. Mourning parents handed him pictures to carry back to the White House, and he told them that the children were beautiful, that the teachers were national heroes.
Moments later, he was smiling, on cue. One of his photographers was on hand, as always, and despite everything, the bereaved wanted pictures with the president.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service