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.