WASHINGTON — Finally unburdened by worries about running for another election, President Obama is acting different these days.
Second-term Obama is noticeably quicker to speak his mind and get personal on subjects he once avoided. His schedule at times ignores concerns about “optics,” Washington-speak for what voters might perceive.
On Friday, for example, the president delivered an unexpectedly personal, and at times off-the-cuff, speech in Chicago about the root causes of urban violence. The famously reserved president spoke bluntly about the Kenyan-born father whom he barely knew, and his wayward high school days in Hawaii.
“I wish I had had a father who was around and involved,” he said.
In the past, Obama typically wove the uplifting version of his personal narrative — raised by a single mother, loved by doting grandparents — into his campaign message. He rarely admitted to having “issues,” as he did in Chicago.
Then, over the Presidents Day weekend, Obama headed to Florida for a golf outing with the guys. The president stayed in an exclusive resort near West Palm Beach, Fla., and hit the course with several friends and high-power donors, plus Tiger Woods. The president’s wife and two daughters, meanwhile, jetted west to ski in Aspen, Colo.
Obama’s vacations have been rare, brief and regularly interrupted by crises at home and overseas. Most recently, he suspended his Christmas holiday in Hawaii to rush back to Washington for a few days to deal with congressional negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff.
The White House stressed that the president took his work to the Floridian Yacht and Golf Club.
“The president traveled to Florida for the weekend to spend some time with friends on the golf course, but the military aides, White House staffers and Secret Service agents who traveled with him are a reminder that he’s never far from the responsibilities of his job,” said spokesman Josh Earnest.
Still, it is hard to imagine Obama taking that sort of getaway before the election, particularly after a week when he delivered his State of the Union speech and unveiled an economic plan aimed at fighting poverty and providing relief for the middle class. It’s harder still to imagine him golfing with Woods — who saw his marriage, endorsement contracts and career tank in 2009 amid disclosures of sexual infidelities — while trying to woo female voters.
Obama’s Valentine’s Day date with First Lady Michelle Obama almost certainly would have become campaign fodder a few months ago. The first couple went to minibar, a Washington restaurant so avant-garde it doesn’t use capital letters, where the nightly prix fixe dinner for two runs $450, not including drinks, taxes and tips, according to its website. That’s more than a week’s pay at the $9-per-hour minimum wage Obama is advocating (and which is unlikely to go anywhere in Congress).
Presidential historians typically focus on the so-called second-term curse, the seemingly inevitable and usually self-created calamity that befalls many a president after reelection. But historian Gil Troy says a less-discussed phenomenon is the “second-term blessing.”
“In a lot of presidential biographies and memoirs, they talk about the night before the second reelection campaign ends. There’s always a touch of nostalgia, but far more than nostalgia, there’s a tremendous sense of relief when you get a sense that you don’t have to justify yourself anymore in that way and you’re not under that kind of scrutiny,” said Troy, a presidential historian at McGill University. “And that’s the basis of the second-term blessing.”
Troy says presidents tend to ease up, stop living by the polls and start thinking about their legacy.
There’s no doubt Obama has loosened up. He shed tears at his final campaign rally, a show of emotion that was rare in his first term but has happened several times since.
Long a stickler for adhering to his prepared remarks, Obama now sometimes goes off-script. As he announced his new public preschool program last week, he cracked himself up with an ad-libbed joke at Congress’ expense.
“That whole playing well with others, by the way, is a trait we could use more in Washington,” Obama said. “So maybe we need to bring the teachers up every once in a while, have some quiet time. Time out.”
“He definitely appears to be a lot more relaxed in his comments and seems more freewheeling in the way he addresses issues,” said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman during President George W. Bush’s second term. “I feel like that has been a change we’ve seen since election day. There’s no question about that.”
Obama may be buoyed by his polls, which show his public approval rating has inched up since his reelection, his battles with House Republicans over taxes, and his efforts to reduce gun violence since the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Still, historians say overconfidence can quickly turn the second-term blessing into the presidential curse.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failed attempt to pack the Supreme Court with extra justices in 1936 is the most often cited example, along with Bill Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998.
“Sometimes it has led to hubris and overreach,” Troy said.