Sunday, 27 January 2013

How The White House Has Changed The Obamas

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, Mrs. Obama stopped taking on girls in a mentorship programme she founded because of concerns that other teenagers would envy the lucky advisees, according to an aide.
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.
Mr. Obama never wanted to be an ordinary politician — there was a time when Mrs. 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.
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 Mr. Kushner, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis at the “Lincoln” dinner. At a dinner in late November to thank top campaign fund-raisers, 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.
What Mr. Obama 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 Mrs. Obama wants is more of a mystery. Mrs. Obama 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.
Mr. 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 United States 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 the presidency, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

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