Special Report: The Obama Paradox - POLITICO.com Print View
Special Report: The Obama Paradox
By: Carrie Budoff Brown and Jennifer Epstein
June 1, 2014 08:45 PM EDT
The ritual started in earnest last fall in the midst of the biggest humiliation of Barack Obama's presidency, the failure of the health care website. Anytime he heard a sliver of good news, the president reacted the same way: He knocked on the polished cherry wood table in the Roosevelt Room.
It's a small thing, almost a nervous tic, but Obama's habit of knocking on wood during Obamacare meetings had become notable, something that close advisers talked and even joked about among themselves.
Obama had always projected the aura of a deeply confident man, someone who on the basis of past experience was justified in assuming that good luck just naturally happened to him. But in the second term, confronted by recurring setbacks and regular reminders of the limits of his power, he began to convey a sense that even hopeful news might be ephemeral, a mirage.
When Obamacare fixer Jeffrey Zients told the president for the first time that the website would finally hold up under a rush of visitors, Obama joined his senior aides in a round of knocking. When the insurance marketplace finally functioned as it should, they knocked. When enrollment numbers picked up in March, they knocked.
In interviews with more than 60 people who have had close dealings with Obama — his aides, lawmakers, friends, historians, critics and outside advisers — the portrait emerges of a president shadowed by a deepening awareness that his time and power are finite, and that two-thirds of his presidency is already in the past tense.
The interviews, which illuminate Obama's thinking, outlook and choices as he navigates his second term, suggest a paradox. Often stymied at home and abroad, Obama recognizes that he is less in control of the Washington agenda than ever in his presidency — a reality that has left him deeply frustrated at times. Last week was a case study, with the Veterans Affairs scandal and resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki eclipsing Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan and major foreign policy speech at West Point.
Yet his newfound realism has also given him a palpable sense of liberation.
The president, finally, is much freer to talk about things that matter to him. He discusses issues of race in a far more personal way, more frequently, than he ever did in his first term. He is more prone to speak his mind on contentious social issues, to the point of volunteering that, in his younger days, "I got high'' — an unusually blunt take on his past that aides say they would have prevented before his reelection, fearful of how his critics would use the sound bite.
Obama still hasn't accepted the extraordinary isolation of being president. But he's become more deliberate in finding ways to break out, particularly as he suffers the early onset of empty nest syndrome. With his daughters around less, the Obamas are taking fuller advantage of the perquisites of the office, such as squeezing "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway into a recent Manhattan fundraising trip.
In a departure from a long practice of keeping his personal circle strikingly tight and rarely lingering at official events, Obama has been hosting star-studded dinners that sometimes go on well past midnight and inviting a few newcomers such as former NBA star Alonzo Mourning into his social sphere. He's playing golf more than any other year, replacing basketball as his go-to sport, partly because of concerns about getting injured.
Obama is giving more thought to his post-presidency than his aides like to suggest. He has spoken privately of his intention to establish a foundation with the reach and influence of the Clinton Global Initiative, the international fundraising juggernaut started by former President Bill Clinton. And despite his deep connections to Chicago, he has told friends he would like to live in New York City.
The president's political world is more and more beyond his command. Instead, it is driven by Republicans in Congress, potentially power-shifting Senate races in states where Obama isn't welcomed to campaign, and to speculation centered on Hillary Clinton's agenda — not his own. Obama tells anxious Democrats that there is only so much he can do beyond fundraising and better implementing the health care law. But he also has told allies that losing the Senate to Republicans would make his last two years in office unbearable.
This sense of diminished possibilities has infused his governing strategy.
Obama is most animated by the enormous challenge of closing the income gap between the rich and poor, but he's had to rely on only small-ball initiatives. He and his aides have charted out a schedule of executive actions through early next year, giving the West Wing a renewed focus even if the ambition pales in comparison to the early days.
But a presidency built on finding ways to elude Congress is a remarkable descent for a leader whose second inaugural address was an audacious call to arms for a liberal resurgence. These days his actions reflect a conclusion that his best option is to navigate shrewdly within narrow limits rather than soar above them with transformative politics.
At the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner, Obama was sufficiently at peace to deliver joke after joke about "my stellar 2013.''
"I admit it, last year was rough,'' he said. "Sheesh. At one point, things got so bad, the 47 percent called Mitt Romney to apologize."
THE LOST YEAR AND REVIVING A PRESIDENCY
The goal late last year could not have been more ambitious: save the presidency.
For White House officials, that realization crystallized during meetings like the one that Obama, humbled and remorseful, hosted in November with a dozen Democratic senators. They were gathered around that table in the Roosevelt Room. But there was nothing reassuring to knock wood about.
The senators, all facing reelection in 2014, were furious because they had seen their approval numbers nose dive almost overnight, largely because the most tech-savvy administration in history couldn't develop a health care website that worked.
At one point, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska thrust at the president "reams of stuff" to make his case. "I had print screenshots of computer pages," he said. "I said, 'This is all screwed up. Why aren't we fixing this?'" Speaking of Obama, Begich added, "What he understood was what they had done, election candidate or not, it had hurt everybody."
According to several participants, Begich and his colleagues demanded to know how committed Obama was to fighting for the Senate majority. Obama was known as a fierce competitor when his name was on the ballot, not so much when it was not.
"I don't really care to be president without the Senate,'' Obama said, according to attendees, signaling that he knew the health care debacle created resentment among Democrats and that he wanted to make amends.
That was a devastating comedown from only a year earlier.
After Obama won a convincing reelection, White House officials were certain Republicans would feel pressure to work with them on issues ranging from immigration, to deficit reduction, to gun control. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel crowed to White House aides that pushing an immigration bill through Congress would be like "falling off of a log.'' At his annual dinner with historians, days before the second inaugural, attendees said in interviews that it had been years since they'd seen Obama so buoyant.
Yet the depiction of a president who had gotten his comeuppance in 2013 overlooks a more complex reality. In phone calls and private asides, it fell to the president to take on the role of internal motivator, reminding Cabinet secretaries and senior aides, discouraged after a year that produced no major achievements, that the presidency is "the most powerful force on the planet," and it was time that they get back to treating it that way.
It was classic Obama, who is usually at his sharpest while trying to claw out of a major hole. As Denis McDonough, Obama's chief of staff, said in an interview, "Hungry tiger fights best right now, and he is one hungry dude. You feel it, and you can't help but kind of get into that even if you are going through the pretty grim days of October and November.''
For all the discomfort around the table at the November meeting in the Roosevelt Room, White House aides said a series of meetings like that one were an important internal prod as they began plotting ways to halt Obama's slide. Aides feared a descent like that of former President George W. Bush, who never recovered from the botched response in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina. The strategy they devised was a concession that many events were out of their control, but that they should maximize opportunities in which Obama could have impact.
Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote a three-page memo, concluding that the White House had failed to manage expectations on guns and immigration, deferred too much to Congress and lost its disciplined focus on the economy. He boiled down the directive to seven principles: No. 3, for example, is, "President not Prime Minister," meaning Obama should use his executive authority to sidestep Congress. He hung the list on his office wall, slipped a copy into his binder and printed copies for his colleagues.
The notoriously insular West Wing sought advice from outsiders, including Clinton alumni, lawmakers, congressional staff, Democratic strategists and academics.
Between October and the end of January, White House records show, the president and senior aides hosted at least 10 meetings with allies. Less than a week after the end of the government shutdown, a group of trusted strategists including David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and pollster Joel Benenson gathered in the Roosevelt Room for a 7:30 p.m. meeting with the president. A similar group — without Gibbs but with a few others from Benenson's firm — met with Dan Pfeiffer on the afternoon of Dec. 6. On Dec. 19, Pfeiffer hosted communications experts, including former White House communications director Anita Dunn, former Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt and former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller.
The outreach was also internal. McDonough convened a rare Sunday session in December with the Cabinet and called them back again on a Saturday in January. Over Dunkin' Donuts and seltzer in McDonough's corner West Wing suite, they spent hours talking about their missteps and ideas for rebuilding. Spurred by these sessions and senior staff meetings, the White House developed a calendar of go-it-alone actions that the president could unveil, a mix of executive orders, public-private partnerships, summits and presidential memoranda to show that Congress hadn't rendered him irrelevant.
"This is what we'll be doing for the next three years," said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director, who participates in weekly meetings convened by Pfeiffer to keep the schedule on track. "You can't do that when you are tied to Congress."
That sense of control has lightened the mood in the West Wing. Seeking to make 2013 a distant memory, the White House released a 28-page report last month that highlights what Obama has dubbed a "year of action." The document features two dozen announcements so far this year, from new manufacturing institutes to new fuel efficiency standards. Aides said they were especially proud of a national movement spurred by the president's renewed call in this year's State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage.
And on Monday, the administration will release sweeping new regulations to curb carbon emissions that represent Obama's most ambitious effort yet to tackle climate change without help from Capitol Hill.
Obama and his aides are aware that some of the initiatives, such as strengthening teacher preparation programs and launching a Made in Rural America initiative, aren't the stuff of a groundbreaking presidency. But the alternative — waiting for Congress — had been so dispiriting that the West Wing is relieved to not be dependent on others. At the very least, Obama and his aides needed to make the White House a less disheartening workplace, and in the process, move the ball on cherished issues, even if it is only a few yards at a time.
"The executive actions have been freeing for the president. He can go around the country and show he is making progress," said Jon Favreau, his former chief speechwriter. "They've been very important to his mind-set."
For all the policy and PR initiatives, aides said another reason the White House didn't veer further off course was because of McDonough's regimented style as chief of staff. McDonough's obsession to detail, metrics and outcomes has spawned a new language in the West Wing, where aides talk of "dashboard'' presentations and "due-outs." There are more meetings each weekday, and more 3 a.m. emails because McDonough checks his BlackBerry when he wakes up in the middle of the night, often to find a stray, late-night thought from the president in his inbox.
It's an unmistakeable shift from the chaotic, creative destruction of the Rahm Emanuel era and the insularity and disorder of Bill Daley's tenure. But McDonough's approach has its critics, who complain that, despite his efforts at inclusion, he and the president make critical decisions in isolation.
Indeed, a notable change in the president's routine is his nightly wrap-up meeting with McDonough. Obama would spend only a few minutes with his previous chiefs of staff before heading to the residence for dinner with his family. But Obama and McDonough can talk for up to an hour every weeknight, engaging in philosophical discussions about the presidency as well as plotting how to head off troubles awaiting them the next morning.
"This has been a big and consequential presidency," said Plouffe, the architect of the 2012 campaign who still advises Obama. "He hasn't been able to accomplish everything he wanted to accomplish. But he will go down to the wire fighting.''
For every White House aide who insists that the president is "energized,'' there seems to be an ally inside or outside the administration who invokes the word "frustrated."
"This was a president who rode in on a tremendous wave of optimism, so it's got to be terribly frustrating,'' said Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, a Democrat. "You can hear it in the tone of his voice. He wants to get things moving on comprehensive immigration reform, on jobs, on infrastructure. I feel for him. What a missed opportunity.''
BEYOND THE WHITE HOUSE BUBBLE
Obama's plans for a late night in Rome were shrouded in secrecy.
While American and Italian reporters chronicled his audience with Pope Francis and his tour of the Colosseum that day in late March, they did not know about the dinner, nor did most of his official entourage.
The setting was the U.S. ambassador's residence — a 15th-century house known as Villa Taverna. For nearly four hours, Obama and seven others dined on assorted pasta dishes and sipped red wine from Tuscany and a white wine from northeast Italy. The guests — Obama had asked his hosts to put together a dinner of "interesting Italians'' — included renowned architect Renzo Piano, particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, Fiat heir John Elkann and his sister, Ginevra.
"He wanted to spend one evening talking about what is quite interesting in this country to talk about — art, science, community, architecture, cities and all that," Piano said in an interview. "It was a very calm evening, a quite long dinner."
There was a time in the first term when aides fretted over elaborate state dinners and how a glitzy Halloween party for the children of military service members, featuring actor Johnny Depp and movie director Tim Burton, would play with jobless Americans. Now, settled into the second term, the Obamas are less concerned about the optics of mingling with boldfaced names, and seem to want to take advantage of the presidential perch.
The presidential dinners, inside the White House and beyond, are more and more frequent. At one dinner, not previously disclosed, the Obamas hosted U2's Bono, Gen. Colin Powell, Apple CEO Tim Cook, investor Warren Buffett and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Another drew actors Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, along with journalist Gayle King. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, attended a dinner with fashion industry insiders.
The guests don't appear on the public visitor logs because they are considered "purely personal" visits. Multiple White House aides claimed not to know about them. Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser and longtime confidant of the Obamas who organizes the dinners, appears to be the only regular from the West Wing.
The late-night dinners don't have an agenda. The protocol is that Obama has to leave first, participants say, but he seems to never want them to end. The bull sessions satisfy the president's intellectual curiosity as he indulges in nuanced conversations about life, ideas and art.
At the dinner in Rome, Obama, once an aspiring architect, showed himself to be quite familiar with Piano's work in San Francisco, Chicago and Paris. In the interview, Piano said he talked about the design process, comparing how he sketches buildings with how Obama writes drafts of speeches.
"It took a certain time to end. It wasn't like, 'I have to go,'" Piano said. "We kept going, talking, talking, talking. … You don't stand up. You stay at the table. Keep going because the conversation is smooth."
It was such an escape for Obama that the next morning he joked to aides that he was not so pleased to wake up to the reality of more mundane matters. The aides were briefing him for a "60 Minutes'' interview about Ukraine and health care. One aide paraphrased Obama's response: "Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we're back to the minuscule things on politics.''
If anything, Obama is less interested in spending time in the confines of Washington. The president has traveled more during the first half of 2014 than he has at any other time of his presidency, except when he faced reelection in 2012, according to a review of his schedule. He's left town at least once a week since the State of the Union address.
As the crisis in Ukraine escalated in early March, White House aides turned to a less consequential matter: Should Obama travel to Florida for a planned weekend golf getaway?
Earlier in the presidency, current and former aides said, they probably would have canceled the trip. Obama, and his image protectors, had always been mindful about doing anything that could be turned into a Republican attack line.
This time, Obama saw no need to stay back in Washington, in part because the situation in Ukraine had cooled by that Friday. He told an aide that he'd be making the same calls to foreign leaders whether he was in the Situation Room or sunny Key Largo.
At a leisurely dinner with friends on that Saturday night, Obama expressed no regrets about the mini-vacation at the lush Ocean Reef Club resort or the publicity surrounding the trip, which reportedly required planes, five helicopters, more than 50 Secret Service agents and airspace restrictions over South Florida. After a difficult few weeks dealing with an international crisis, he relished the break, which included two rounds of golf.
"I needed this," Obama told guests at his dinner party, including Mourning. "I needed the golf. I needed to laugh. I needed to spend time with friends.''
Obama spent 46 days on the golf course in 2013, up from about 30 rounds during each of his first three years in office and 19 in 2012, according to a review of his schedule. There's rarely a warm weekend when he hasn't played this year, including blocking out his long Presidents' Day weekend for the second year in a row to golf with his high school friends.
By contrast, he hasn't left the White House since November to play basketball, a game central to his routine in the early days. Obama used to play off-campus at least once a month. Although he'll still shoot hoops on the grounds, he doesn't do it as often as he once did, the casualty of one too many aches and injuries.
"He doesn't really play ball anymore," Mourning said. "He expressed his concern about possibly getting hurt. He didn't want to do the State of the Union speech on crutches or with a broken nose."
Getting the president on the road and building in more unannounced stops that allow him to interact with people outside the presidential bubble is an old — and successful — play for Obama aides. They recall how psyched he got about walking two blocks from the White House to Taylor Gourmet, a Pennsylvania Avenue sandwich shop, during the government shutdown — the farthest he had journeyed by foot outside the complex in five years.
In Manhattan to raise money in February, he bounded from his armored limousine and made a beeline for The Gap, his first visit to a clothing store in years, remarking along the way to Jarrett that he missed being on the New York City streets. He picked up sweat shirts for his daughters and was still talking about it weeks later.
"What he cherishes and misses is the serendipity — you don't know who you're going to bump into or what they're going to say," Jarrett said. "He hungers for that. It's on us to make sure he has more of those moments."
After he wandered beyond the White House and chatted with tourists recently, Obama remarked, "I'm sort of like the circus bear that breaks the chain and everyone starts whispering, 'the bear is loose.'"
For all his efforts at travel and reaching out to dinner and golf companions, Obama does not easily let go of past relationships, particularly charter members of his inner circle. The Obama White House is like the Hotel California — aides never really leave it, or him, per order of the president himself. Time and again, Obama has implored his closest aides to delay their departures from the White House. Those who do get out often depart with assignments.
"The president thinks even if you don't work for him anymore, you still work for him," said Favreau, who is assisting with the presidential library and still gets called on to review Obama's major speeches.
Alyssa Mastromonaco, who joined his Senate staff in 2005 and belongs to the tight circle that debated whether he should even run for president, officially left the West Wing in April. (At an engagement party for her at the White House last year, Obama said, according to an attendee, "I couldn't imagine life without her.'')
But Mastromonaco is still helping out on the library, as is former communications director Anita Dunn and former social secretary Julianna Smoot. Gene Sperling, the chief economic adviser until March, said before he left that he'll continue to dabble in the public-private partnerships he spearheaded. Obama announced the resignation Friday of press secretary Jay Carney, but added that he would still be called on for advice. The president talks often with Pete Rouse, Axelrod and Plouffe, who is viewed as a likely successor to McDonough if he decides to leave in the last two years.
"Unlike the rest of us, [Plouffe] has really expressed an interest in going back, or at least he has shown enthusiasm for the idea that he could," one former adviser said. "For a lot of us, for most people you talk to in every administration, it's the greatest experience, but would you go back? Never. Because it is so debilitating."
DEMOCRATS STILL CRAVE SOME LOVE
The freewheeling conversations that make Obama a cherished dinner companion for athletes and celebrities don't always apply to his fellow Democrats. Donors who have encountered Obama at recent fundraisers say he's been quick to steer conversations away from policy and toward sports, particularly the NBA playoffs, which he follows obsessively.
And his recent attempts at social engagement still don't extend to the one constituency that could be most helpful to his agenda: Congress.
When Democratic lawmakers gather in private, their complaints about Obama's perennial lack of outreach to them are frequent and sustained. They give him credit for elevating aides like McDonough and Katie Fallon, the new chief legislative liaison. Both are seen as working assiduously to improve White House relations with Capitol Hill. But lawmakers also offer puzzling accounts of a presidential refusal to pose for photographs, of Obama's hustling members' relatives down receiving lines without a pause for greeting, of his failure to plot political and legislative strategy — or just keep in touch.
Allies have suggested that Obama convene a weekly breakfast meeting with congressional leaders and invite a small group of members to go to Camp David about once a month. That hasn't happened.
"The one thing I've learned about his lack of Washington experience is, in as many ways that I think it was an asset, it's also a liability," said a Democratic official who is close to Obama. "He doesn't fully grasp the power that those types of things can have in moving your agenda."
Asked to respond to the lingering resentment, the White House sought to counter this portrayal by disclosing for the first time details of an outreach effort Obama quietly launched in January. Aides had suggested he do more to engage with Congress, and he agreed, they said.
Before Obama's reelection, the West Wing cared most about protecting his political interests and his time. Bending those rules for, say, a Democratic lawmaker requesting to bring his family onto an airport tarmac to meet Obama was never a priority. Dealing with these seemingly minor requests requires bureaucratic wrangling and coordination between advance staff, congressional aides, White House legislative affairs staff, Secret Service and sometimes the lawmakers themselves. For years, the White House's attitude was: Who needs it?
Now, the operating assumption, aides insist, is that they need to get to "yes."
The most notable shift was toward accommodating the personal requests of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, who tend to dwell on the perks such as rides on Air Force One, invites to bill signings and White House tours. It's an acknowledgment that for years the White House put too little stock in the value of meeting these requests, which often hold outsize importance to lawmakers.
For the first time, aides said, Obama is trying to respond to almost every letter from an individual lawmaker with a handwritten note. He is doing more public bill signings at the request of members, as he did May 23, when Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) got an Oval Office ceremony for two minor pieces of legislation establishing new congressional gold medals. Almost 40 lawmakers have received invites to travel on Air Force One this year, an increase from 28 at this time last year. He's directed staff to organize another round of cocktail hours with House and Senate Democrats at the White House.
Also this year, Obama began setting aside 45 minutes in his schedule every week to call a handful of Republican and Democratic lawmakers — more than 70 so far — to discuss issues, from ambitious initiatives like immigration to lower-profile bills such as patent reform. Obama had a dedicated "call time" early in his first term before it dropped off during the reelection campaign, although he has made calls outside this window, as well. The White House also has worked with lawmakers ahead of major announcements.
"The coordination between the White House and the Congress has never been better," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Senate leader who has served as the main point of contact with the White House.
While these gestures are welcomed on Capitol Hill, some Democrats who have felt thoroughly neglected for more than five years see it as too little too late. This is an age-old tension between most White Houses and allies on the Hill. Still, Democratic lawmakers said, Obama's lack of engagement over the years has created a void that leaves him without an army of defenders when something goes wrong. Several Democrats lamented that if Obama had been more attentive to Congress, he would have more in his arsenal than executive actions.
The dissatisfaction goes beyond interpersonal relations. Obama's rhetoric has struck some Democrats as passive and uninspiring. His remark in late April that "you hit singles," "you hit doubles" in foreign policy rankled congressional allies, who don't like hearing him articulate lowered ambitions so far out from the end of his term.
To historians who have talked with Obama about history and the presidency, it is as if he has already moved past his time in the job.
"He's kind of thinking about his own place in history and that means thinking about where is America in our own history," said Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor who penned two policy memos last year at Obama's request. "He's not trying to change the agenda for the next six months; he's trying to change it for the next six or 12 years."
FINALLY, THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN PRESIDENT
The man who broke barriers as the first African-American president is tackling race — a subject he once shooed aside as a polarizing distraction — in a far more personal and public way than ever.
Obama was selective about when he waded into the issue during his first term, after the controversy ignited by his off-the-cuff comment on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, an African-American who was suspected of burglary, by a white police officer.
Instead, Obama emphasized broad economic equality as the best way to deal with lingering racial injustice and disparities, a message that blurred the lines between black and white in the same way his candidacy aimed to do. That approach — an electoral necessity in the view of Obama's brain trust — disappointed African-Americans, who saw it as a lost opportunity for Obama to exert his voice.
Obama no longer feels so constrained, especially as he seeks ways besides legislation to have an impact.
When Obama launched My Brother's Keeper in February, an effort to improve the lives of young minority men, he spoke about his own experiences.
"I got high," Obama said in the East Room of the White House, "without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn't always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short."
White House aides said those remarks, while sounding off the cuff, were planned. Yet there wasn't any internal hand-wringing over the language, aides said, because he's written and spoken extensively in the past about his drug use.
Obama told The New Yorker earlier this year that marijuana is a "bad habit and a vice," but not very different than the cigarettes he smoked and no worse than alcohol. What really bothered him, he explained, was the disproportionate drug arrest rate of poor African-Americans and Latinos. In April, Obama took action: He announced a major clemency push for nonviolent drug offenders, loosening his restrained use of the power in the first term.
In a speech that month to the National Action Network, Obama surprised black leaders who had for years called on him to attack Republican attempts to make it harder to vote.
"I had not heard him so directly address voter suppression and voter ID and a number of things like that in the past,'' said former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, now head of the National Urban League. When Obama last addressed the group in 2011, he had spoken generally about his agenda, not about voting rights in such explicitly racial terms.
It's not just the president. First lady Michelle Obama had long been cautious in talking about race, wary of a repeat of the 2008 campaign, when Clintonites and Republicans seized on even the smallest asides that could be interpreted as hostile to white voters. But like her husband, she's more outspoken. Speaking in Topeka, Kansas, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the first lady warned last month of the resurgence of segregation, not just in schools but "in how we live our lives."
Attorney General Eric Holder used a commencement address to deliver his most explicit remarks on race since 2009, when he angered Obama's top aides for describing America as "essentially a nation of cowards," fearful of a candid discussion. In the speech last month at Morgan State University, which the White House vetted, Holder warned that headline-grabbing cases of bigotry were a sideshow to the "more hidden, and more troubling, reality" of systemic discrimination.
Aides described the focus on race as a natural progression of the Obama presidency. He spent the first two years managing the financial crisis and muscling major pieces of legislation through Congress. The second two years were about minimizing Obama's involvement in controversial issues ahead of the 2012 election. Last year, the president stumbled through a series of crises that left time for little else.
But in the second year of his second term, Obama hears the clock ticking. He wants to use the time he has left to speak out and shape the national conversation, if not the legislative agenda, on a range of social issues, from issues of race and gay rights to climate change and the minimum wage.
As a senator, Obama would often get asked whether he considers himself the leader of black America, said former press secretary Gibbs. Of course not, Obama would respond, not when there are dozens of leaders across sports, politics, entertainment and civil rights.
"Even if he doesn't publicly answer the question differently, he understands his true impact is much, much greater, and it is important for him to use that," Gibbs said. "Now he can be, and has been, a more vocal example for African-Americans."
AFTER THE WHITE HOUSE, BROADWAY?
Between salads sourced from the White House garden and dry-aged rib-eye beef with blue cheese and mushrooms, the guests sitting closest to Obama at the State Dinner for French President François Hollande earlier this year pushed him on what comes next.
"So, Mr. President, what are you thinking?" was how one guest at the table recalled the conversation starting.
Obama seemed to think out loud, describing his ambitions to reach out to kids and young adults, to create programs that "would give them more of an opportunity to become engaged — both furthering their careers and pursuing their duties as citizens," the guest recalled.
The foundation could resemble Clinton's post-White House work, the president mused, relying on commitments from corporations and nongovernmental organizations. Obama conveyed a vision of "what the Clinton initiative is except that this is more focused on young kids," both at home and abroad, the guest said.
His state dinner admission, along with other new details, suggests that Obama is giving more thought to his post-presidency than the White House would acknowledge.
Obama, who will be only 55 when he leaves office, has been struck by his ability to motivate young African-American men, simply by telling them of how he grew up without a father, dabbled with drugs and lost his way before finding direction in life. He realized the power of his story during a February 2013 meeting with a dozen teenage boys from Chicago's South Side. From there, Obama started developing My Brother's Keeper, which associates say is a prime example of the work he will pursue after the White House.
The first lady, who's expanded her outreach to young people with Reach Higher, an initiative promoting college access and affordability, is expected to do similar work when she leaves the White House.
Obama has talked to Mourning about the landscape of nonprofits that deal with these issues, three people involved in the Mourning Family Foundation's work said, in hopes of getting a better sense of how his post-presidency initiatives would fit in. The Mourning Foundation, run by the former NBA star and his wife, reaches out to underprivileged kids and young adults in South Florida.
"He is trying to figure out the formula of success so that we can take more of a national approach to make a difference, so we can affect the masses from that perspective," Mourning said. "What is clear is that this is something that the president and the first lady just deeply care about and that they will continue to work on for years and years to come. This is an amazing transition. No other president has made it more of a priority to do just this."
That leaves the question of where they will settle down to start this next phase. Or is it really a question?
Obama associates expect that the presidential library will end up in Chicago, given their ties to the city and Emanuel's determination to secure it. The first lady grew up in Chicago, and the president made the city his home after growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
But in landing the Obamas themselves, New York has the edge. The president, who graduated from Columbia University, loves the city and the anonymity it can provide. It may be wishful thinking, but he and his wife crave a return to a life in which they can stroll into a CVS or down the street without fanfare. Other clues come from the remarks of the first lady, who once described her husband as "an urban guy,'' and from the president himself.
"I just desperately want to take a walk through Central Park again, and just remember what that feels like," Obama said at a Manhattan fundraiser in 2012.
Obama has mentioned Hawaii as another possibility, Mourning said, adding that he gently pressed the president to consider Florida.
"But the one thing that stood out more than anything else was New York," Mourning said.
THE LEGACY: FINDING A PLACE IN HISTORY
Six long months after the bungled Obamacare rollout, the president wanted to deliver the news himself, arriving unannounced in the White House briefing room to crow that enrollment, 8 million in all, had exceeded even the most optimistic projections.
Hours later, when he sat down for another dinner with historians, Obama was clearly relieved by the success. He was careful not to openly discuss his place in history. Still, after a three-hour discussion in the Family Dining Room, it was unmistakable to the group, which included Douglas Brinkley, Robert Caro, Michael Beschloss, Robert Dallek and Kenneth Mack, that Obama was thinking about his legacy.
Obama wanted to hear tales about how other presidents governed, and was particularly interested in Dwight D. Eisenhower's handling of foreign policy and Lyndon B. Johnson's domestic achievements, according to attendees. He also spoke favorably of George H.W. Bush's record on foreign affairs.
In fact, a story Obama told about Bush left the historians no doubt that for all his frustrations, Obama treasures the exclusive presidential club to which he belongs. A week earlier, Bush had surprised Obama at the Houston airport, his wheelchair positioned at the foot of the stairs to Air Force One, which had just touched down. "What a great, gentlemanly gesture," Brinkley said, describing Obama's response. "One of the kindest things he had experienced as president."
But even Obama's own reminders of "the most powerful force on the planet'' hardly make up for what officials say is disappointment for what might have been. One prominent Democrat who is in close touch with the White House and the president himself put it starkly: "He is fatigued. His staff is fatigued. I don't think they've got that same drive. I wouldn't be surprised if they looked at the next three years and think, 'Oh my God, how are we going to survive the next 36 long months of this bullshit?'"
As one way to cope, White House aides say, they have reassured themselves that Obama is better off than his counterparts in the second terms of the two previous administrations. Bill Clinton was impeached. Under George W. Bush, top aides like Karl Rove were threatened with criminal prosecution.
Noting that Obama's White House hasn't dealt with the same degree of challenges, legal or otherwise, Pfeiffer knocked on the wood desk in his West Wing office. Then he knocked again, and again. Feverishly.
Mike Allen contributed to this report.
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