He never ‘went Washington’

Former aides reflect on the Obama they knew before and during his presidency.


CHICAGO – Barack Obama, who made “change” part of his campaign slogan in 2008, is himself transformed after nearly eight years in the Oval Office.

Then president-elect Barack Obama, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, center, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden talk with students and teachers at the Dodge Renaissance Academy on Dec. 16, 2008, in Chicago. The three gathered with the students after Obama announced that Duncan was his choice for education secretary.

That his hair is grayer is a small manifestation of how the job has affected him, according to the Chicagoans who know him best.

What emerges in interviews with people from the Chicago area who served his administration is a portrait of a battle-tested leader who achieved big things but who, with some regularity, tasted defeat.

They portrayed him as a public servant who never “went Washington”; a pragmatist, not an ideologue; calm in a crisis; and a well-mannered and loyal boss who, despite the weight of the world, never lost his sense of humor.

Values remained intact
The ex-aides, it must be said, remain loyalists and defenders and were loath to find fault with a man they hold in the highest esteem.

“Does he delegate more? Yes. Does he move stuff fast? Yes. But for me more striking is what hasn’t changed than what has,” said Arne Duncan, who was Obama’s education secretary.

At core, Barack and Michelle Obama are the people they always were, he said. Their values remain intact: family, friends and trust are paramount.

Still, Duncan said, “the presidency can’t not change you. Being the first family can’t not change you.”

Obama’s trajectory to the White House was lightning-fast. Four years after leaving the Illinois statehouse, the man who was a U.S. senator, briefly, became leader of the free world.

‘Billion-dollar startup’
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker was a Chicago business executive when he approached her about running for the presidency. The billionaire Hyatt heiress became the national finance chair for the 2008 run, but not before he answered her question:

“How are you going to convince the American people you have the capacity to manage this big, complex organization, as he calls it, ‘the largest organization in the world, and the most influential organization in the world?’”

A week later he came back with the campaign’s organizational chart and his vision for leading it, she said.

That campaign, she said, was a “billion-dollar startup.”

“Now you fast-forward 10 years later, he’s grown a lot,” she said. “He’s become a really strong manager.”

Lack of cooperation
Managing an executive branch is not the same as persuading Congress to enact your agenda or cutting a deal with legislators. In dealings with GOP lawmakers, Obama often hit a brick wall.

Former campaign strategist David Axelrod and others blame a “strategic decision” by Republicans to refuse to cooperate with the Democratic president.

Ben LaBolt, a former assistant press secretary, said once GOP lawmakers dug in their heels, “all the drinks and dinners in the world wouldn’t have solved it.”

“He tried it. He took a run at it,” LaBolt said.

Similarly, Obama’s pledge to change the tone of politics “proved to be a lot more difficult than any of us imagined,” Axelrod said.

Inhuman demands
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his first chief of staff, recalled what he used to tell his first White House boss, President Bill Clinton: “If we knew in the first year of the first term what we knew by the first year of the second term, we’d all be geniuses.”

Axelrod had one word for the demands of the presidency: inhuman.

“To do it well requires so much emotional strength and psychic energy and stamina,” he said.

Failure, successes
Amid successes, including taking steps to end the recession and signing the Affordable Care Act, what remained elusive — and wrenching — was Obama’s failure to cajole Congress into passing gun control, Axelrod said.

It weighed most heavily on him “the number of times he’s had to step before the cameras or speak at memorial services for the victims of gun crimes, particularly these horrendous mass shootings,” Axelrod said.

Ex-aides highlighted international achievements, such as the Iran nuclear deal and restored relations with Cuba.

William Daley, Obama’s second chief of staff, was on board for a major success: the 2011 capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.

Daley acknowledged that foreign policy challenges persist but puts the onus on George W. Bush.

“Foreign policy has been a mess since 2003,” the year the U.S. invaded Iraq, Daley said.

For the Chicagoans who served him, it’s a bittersweet time.

“I’m sad because I loved him as a president,” Axelrod said, “but I also care for him as a friend, so I’m happy for him that he gets his life back.”

He envisions Obama active in his foundation and presidential center, which will be built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.

He expects Obama to write, give speeches and try to enjoy his life — something Axelrod said the president “has earned.”


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