Newsmakers 2012: Obama rules

A humbled President pledges to be in ‘a constant conversation’ with the people during his second term

Larry Downing/Reuters

It was an unusually emotional Barack Obama who, two days after his hard-fought re-election, thanked his staffers and his young campaign volunteers.

“What you guys have done will go down in the annals of history and people will read about it,” said the President, wiping away a few tears.

It was such a rare glimpse behind the cool exterior that the video quickly went viral.

Obama had averted a potential Great Depression and auto-industry collapse, taken out Osama bin Laden and delivered the Democratic holy grail: health insurance for all Americans. Then, in a gruelling campaign, he beat back the Tea Party, Republican super PACs and rival Mitt Romney.

Four years after being elected as a symbol of hope, change and racial healing, he returned as a battle-hardened politician—wary, but re-energized and vindicated. “I don’t presume that because I won an election that everybody suddenly agrees with me on everything.  I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms. On the other hand, I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election,” Obama declared in his first press conference after a narrowly won election.

There was no time to bask. The ballots had been barely counted when Obama faced wrangling with Republicans in Congress over a budget deal and impending tax hikes and spending cuts that could plunge the U.S. into another recession. Latino voters who helped him win now want an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, and in the wake of hurricane Sandy, he faces louder calls for action on climate change. And suddenly he found himself in the market for a new director of the CIA.

In some ways, Obama is the same man. He still plays golf and basketball in competitive games against former pros and old friends, where no one is allowed to take it easy on him or else they aren’t invited back.

But his daily life is highly regimented, by design. He gets up at 7:30 a.m. and works out at the White House gym for an hour, alternating days of weights and cardio. He showers and gets dressed. “You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits,” he told Vanity Fair magazine. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

After a first term marked by gridlock in Congress, public protests against some of his policies and approval ratings that sagged below 50 per cent, Obama is ready to make a few changes. Once hailed as the best orator of his generation, he said he needed to improve his communication with the American public. “The mistake of my first term was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important,” Obama told CBS News in July. “But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

And it wasn’t just voters. Members of Congress, friends and foes, also felt neglected by the President, who preferred dining at home with his family to schmoozing on the Washington scene. Even Bill Clinton, who would become a tireless and indispensable campaigner, felt left out. “People say the reason Obama wouldn’t call Clinton is because he doesn’t like him,” a former aide, Neera Tanden, told New York magazine. “The truth is, Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.” She later apologized, saying she meant to convey that he is a “private person.”

Obama keeps a close circle of friends, but seems more at ease speaking to enthusiastic crowds. In a sense, he’s come full circle to his days organizing unemployed factory workers on Chicago’s south side.

“I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done, [it] was because we mobilized the American people to speak out,” he said in a candidates’ forum in September.

Now his focus is “being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward.” Even America’s biggest insider still needs a little outside help.