WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over the years, when asked whether he had done enough to build relationships with his Republican adversaries, President Barack Obama typically replied with stock answers and dry political analysis.
But on Monday, in his final news conference of his first term, a different Obama came up with a different answer. In 700 off-the-cuff words, he showed a little snarky defensiveness about his social aptitude. Yes, he said, he socializes. Of course, he continued, he “likes a good party.” He even joked that House Republicans might want to come over because he was “kind of lonely in this big house” and might be “looking for somebody to play cards with.”
Most surprisingly, he appeared to say what he really thought: Social relationships don’t seem to matter as much in today’s politics. “When we went out and played golf, we had a great time,” Obama said of his round on the links with House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. “But that didn’t get a deal done in 2011.”
The moment was notable for its impolitic candor. It’s one of several such moments in the weeks since Obama won what he gleefully proclaimed would be his last election.
After four turbulent years, the famously no-drama Obama seems to be loosening up. He has cried in public four times since November. He unexpectedly paused last week to reflect on the shortcomings in the war in Afghanistan — “this is a human enterprise” — rather than launching into its defense.
He has made Cabinet choices that reflect his comfort level with the nominees rather than his desire to send symbolic messages.
And on Monday, he indulged reporters in a rare discussion about his personality.
“There was an ease about that press conference that you might not have seen four years ago,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser and longtime friend who said she thought Obama had “grown in office.”
If Obama is feeling a little more relaxed, it isn’t hard to see why. For the first time in almost two decades, he has no campaign on the horizon. He has been freed from the nagging worry that an awkward moment or inappropriate phrase could become a campaign ad that haunts him.
Some politicians are political addicts. Obama is a competitor but not a junkie.
One close friend and longtime adviser, David Axelrod, said there was no doubt that, for Obama, the focus on policy rather than the next campaign was an “exhilarating thing.”
“Plainly, having the election behind him is a huge burden lifted,” he said.
Historians note that most presidents get something of a postelection rush.
It’s the “comfort blanket” period, said Thomas Whalen, a presidential historian and professor at Boston University.
“They’ve been around, people are used to them…. They’ve just gotten through their last campaign and they feel a little more relaxed.”
Sometimes harsh reality sets in. President Richard Nixon’s second term brought impeachment hearings. President Ronald Reagan suffered the Iran-Contra scandal. President Bill Clinton had to answer for his behavior with “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
But as they take that second oath of office, as Obama will do in a public celebration Monday, re-elected presidents are often focused on the tantalizing opportunity to solidify and polish their legacy. “It’s about trying to maintain what you’ve accomplished,” Whalen said, before too much time passes “and you’re just a place holder.”
As harsh a judge as history may be, it’s generally less interested than Twitter in shirtless photos, mom jeans and frat-guy humor. That brings a certain freedom Obama has seemed to relish. As he left a goodbye party for departing Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner the other day, he mock-complained to reporters, “They didn’t serve any alcohol.”
Despite the lighter moments, Obama’s recent displays of somber emotion may be the most noticeable change.
Although friends described the president as occasionally getting choked up behind the scenes in the earliest years of the presidency, he was studiously composed in public. Even when speaking at the memorial service in 2011 for victims of the mass shooting in Tucson, he came only to the brink of tears.
But he cried tears of nostalgia at a night rally in Des Moines on the eve of Election Day. And when he stopped by campaign headquarters in Chicago to thank staffers after he won, Obama’s face was wet with tears as he spoke. Whether his re-election freed him or simply moved him, friends say they aren’t sure.
There’s no doubt he was affected by the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., a day he declared was the worst of his presidency. Shortly after learning about the shooting, Obama spoke to reporters in the White House briefing room, and had to stop to collect himself, dabbing at his eyes as he did.
“He feels things deeply. Those who know him well have seen this,” said Jarrett, who like most in Obama’s inner circle has always disputed, as Obama himself did Monday, that he is “aloof.”
Obama advisers, however, haven’t hesitated to use such personal moments to the president’s advantage. The White House released a video of Obama’s tearful thank-you to campaign staff.
Jarrett posited that the president may feel buoyed that the American people chose him again.
That confidence could be translating into how he has approached some recent weighty decisions. Absent is the effort to make grand gestures demonstrating his erstwhile promise of a new political order.
In picking his Cabinet so far, Obama has not talked of assembling a “team of rivals” in the spirit of his idol Abraham Lincoln, and has not chosen nominees who reflect the demographics of the country. His first four choices have been white men who were early supporters and trusted advisers.
But Obama was in no hurry at his news conference to supply answers.
Everybody should “kind of wait,” he said, “before they rush to judgment.”