President Barack Obama first lady Michelle walk along a trail with their daughters Sasha (2nd R) and Malia on Cadillac Mountain in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 2010. (Jim Young/REUTERS)
It was September 2012, and President Barack Obama’s inner circle was stressed. Obama’s aides thought his Sept. 6 speech to the Democratic National Convention had gone well — but media accounts panned it and focused instead on Bill Clinton’s address the day before.
“We all thought his speech had gone really well, but all you a———s said it was horrible and that Bill Clinton was amazing and blah blah blah,” a senior aide recalled, pointedly referring to the political news media.
Aboard Air Force One, chief speechwriter Jon Favreau was in the middle of doing a derisive, dramatic reading of some of the more annoying reviews, when the president stopped him.
“Hey, man, how do you think I feel?” the aide recalled Obama telling Favreau. “I wake up every day knowing that at least half the country thinks I’m bad at my job.”
“You can and should listen to and learn from criticism, but you can’t let it paralyze you,” the president went on. “You have to just make the best decisions you can and keep moving forward.”
Presidents pay a personal price for moving forward in what can at times be a lonely position, and is at all times one of the most high-pressure, high-stress jobs in the country. That price is obvious to the rest of the world: The evidence leaps out from of photos snapped of Obama between 2009 and 2014, just as it did in photos of President George W. Bush at the end of his presidency. The men have grayer hair; their faces are more lined. They look more worn than you might have expected from the mere passage of time, with a look that can suggest some engrossing top-secret worry.
Obama, 53, is well aware of the shift, often making jokes about the physical changes he’s undergone since making the move from a junior U.S. senator to running the executive branch of the U.S government in an era of multiple wars, which he has tried — with mixed results — to wind down.
HAWAII - 2011: U.S. President Barack Obama walks in the Honolulu Zoo with family and friends in Hawaii January 3, 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)
“I’ve got so many friends, so many people that have supported me for so long … As I look back, I realize some of you have pictures of me with no gray hair,” Obama quipped at a July fundraiser in California. “You’re chronicling the slow deterioration of Barack Obama.”
The job comes with unique perks: Air Force One, a fully staffed mansion in downtown Washington, drivers, all-expenses-paid travel to exotic locales and unquestioned A-list celebrity status.
But the stresses are unique as well, including bearing the final responsibility for high-risk operations like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, high-stakes campaigns like the war on the so-called Islamic State, and high-profile failures, like the botched roll-out of the Obamacare web site.
Adding to the stress is the fact that every time the president takes a vacation, it turns into a political controversy, or even — thanks to the intrusion of world events — no kind of vacation at all. Obama’s August 2014 sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard, to take just one example, was interrupted by the crisis in Ukraine and the murder of U.S. journalist James Foley by Islamic State fighters. He looked even more careworn by the time he returned to Washington than when he’d left it. Aides can call it quits when they get exhausted trying to have it all, averaging tours of duty in the White House of two to three years.
But the president, once elected, is there until he is replaced by his elected successor.
How, then, given the relentless demands of the job, can a president ever relax and renew his energy?
As Obama prepared to leave on his annual holiday pilgrimage to his native state of Hawaii, where he will stay until early January, current and former Obama aides spoke with Yahoo News about how the 44th president manages his life in order to handle the strain of holding down the top job at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — and how one of his main stress-relievers is turning into a new source of worry.
Family time … while he still can
Every source reached by Yahoo News to discuss the topic of how the president relaxes pointed to Obama’s focus on family time — and especially the priority he has given to having nightly dinners with the first lady, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, in the private dining room of the White House residence. Aides tell of scheduling meetings around that ritual, and of the president cutting off nonessential meetings at the stroke of 6:28 p.m.
Where Clinton described the White House as possibly “the crown jewel of the prison system,” Obama happily described it as “this nice home office” during a 2009 interview with the BBC.
“I go upstairs, and I can have dinner with my family just about every night. And they can travel with me when they’re able,” the president said. “I’m grateful that I’ve got such a wonderful wife and kids. That’s my main form of relaxation.”
Obama likes his Hawaii sojourns more than trips elsewhere because they feel like a homecoming, and the school holiday break means that he gets to spend more time with his daughters, several aides said.
FLORIDA - 2010: U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughter Sasha take a tour of St Andrews Bay aboard Bay Point Lady near Panama City Beach, Florida, August 15, 2010. (Jason Reed/REUTERS)
“He’s still president — we carry the usual complement of Secret Service, and there are always a few, or more than a few, senior staff types. But Hawaii is home, and it’s family time,” said one former senior aide.
The president’s job follows him around the globe, with national security briefings, international crises, natural disasters and other urgent matters nearly sure to intrude. But some vacations are more vacation-y than others.
“In Hawaii, they [the Obamas] have done anything from fires on the beach at night, volleyball, Jet Skis, body surfing, Hawaiian BBQ,” said a current senior official, who, like others, asked not to be identified by name.
But the daughters who were 10 and 7 when Obama spoke to the BBC are 16 and 13 now, and the demands of being a teenager — outings with friends, for example — are making evening dinners with dad a little less frequent than they once were. That’s taking a personal toll on Obama, according to three people in the president’s inner circle. Time with the girls was a respite for the president. But they increasingly have their own lives now.
Obama has been known to cut off conversations about Malia’s impending college applications, saying the subject is too sensitive. Now a high school junior, she could be in college during Obama’s last six months in office if she pursues a traditional path.
In a White House that jealously guards the daughters’ privacy, there’s no ban on discussing the subject with the president, but “You don’t want to be the guy who walks up to him and says, ‘So, how’s the college hunt going, future empty-nester?’” joked one former aide, who advises the administration from time to time.
Watching something other than political news
In an interview last week with ESPN radio, Obama declared himself an ESPN man from dawn to well past dusk.
“I get so much politics, I don’t, you know, want to be inundated with a bunch of chatter about politics during the day,” he said.
“’SportsCenter’ when I work out in the morning gives me a pretty good sense of what’s going on. I can’t sit down and watch an entire game — except maybe the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals, or the World Series,” the president said.
“There are times I will admit, at night, when I’ve got a really fat briefing book, where I might have the game on with the sound off,” he said.
MASSACHUSETTS - 2011: President Barack Obama, left, prepares to putt as businessman Vernon Jordan, right, watches while playing golf at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)
As of mid-October, Obama had played at least 200 rounds of golf since taking office. He doesn’t play basketball as much but, weather permitting, he rarely misses a weekend opportunity to hit the links.
“It’s the only time that, for six hours, I’m outside, and second of all, where you almost feel normal, in the sense that you’re not a bubble,” Obama told CBS News in a 2009 interview, explaining his affection for the game.
“There are a whole bunch of Secret Service guys, but they’re sort of in the woods. And when you’re up there in the tee box and you’re hacking away, and hitting some terrible shot and your friends are laughing at you, you know, it feels as if, you know, you’re — you’re out of the container,” he said.
The president came in for some sharp criticism for sticking with his golf routine during his summer stay in Martha’s Vineyard, when he ducked out for a round of golf immediately after delivering a somber statement on the beheading of James Foley.
A few months earlier, he took heat for a trip to the incredibly posh Ocean Reef Resort in Key Largo, Fla., for a couple of rounds of golf, right as the crisis over Ukraine escalated.
“What the president will be doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the president would be doing back at the White House,” Obama press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters about that jaunt. “It’s just that the weather will be a little warmer.”
There’s precedent for that sort of timing. Woodrow Wilson was golfing in Chevy Chase, Md., on May 7, 1915, when he learned that a German submarine had torpedoed the ship Lusitania, killing 115 Americans and ultimately bringing the United States into World War I.
Obama doesn’t use the game much to talk shop, by all accounts. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, who shot a hole in one on a May 2013 outing with the president, recently told the Washington Post: “It was a good time. We were four guys playing golf.”
“We weren’t four guys talking politics for four hours,” the Georgia lawmaker said.
Obama’s an amateur compared to Dwight Eisenhower, who played more than 800 rounds during his two-term presidency. (And it was Eisenhower’s press secretary Jim Haggerty who tried to deflect criticism of presidential leisure time by coining the expression “working vacation.”)
It was Ike who first installed the putting green a few steps from the Oval Office. His former vice president, Richard Nixon, later took it out. Bill Clinton put it back.
According to one history, “Upon taking office, President John F. Kennedy was astonished to find many cleat marks in the floor of the Oval Office, leading from the desk to the double doors that opened to the putting green.”
In a retrospective account of the events leading up to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Obama’s golf attire plays a leading role. Obama was spotted hurrying to the Oval Office while still wearing his golf cleats — breaking his habit of changing out of them in the residence area of the White House and only then heading in to work.
HAWAII - 2013: President Barack Obama greets people as he visits Island Snow for shave ice in Kailua, Hawaii, during his holiday vacation, Thursday, Jan 3, 2013. (Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)
The White House doesn’t often name them, but Obama likes to spend time with friends — old friends, mostly, people he knew in Hawaii or in Chicago.
“There’s comfort in old friends who have nothing to do with the political world, have real-world perspective and deep history with the president,” one former adviser said. “They were friends before, they’re friends during, and they’ll be friends after.”
It doesn’t have to be in person.
“He’s a big fan of the Scrabble (or maybe it’s Words with Friends) app on his iPad. Whenever he’s taking a break, that’s usually his go-to,” said another aide.
For Michelle Obama’s birthday in 2010, the Obamas dined in the private upstairs room at Restaurant Nora in Washington with a collection of friends and confidants that included the president’s close aide Valerie Jarrett and Attorney General Eric Holder. The Chicago friend contingent was heavily represented, by Eric and Cheryl Whitaker, Marty Nesbitt and his wife, Anita Blanchard, Susan Sher and Cindy Moelis. Jarrett, Nesbitt, Blanchard and the Whitakers have vacationed with the Obamas in Hawaii, have traveled to Oslo to watch Obama receive the Nobel Peace Prize and attended a Nov. 24, 2009, state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“I’m trying to think of nervous tics but can’t come up with anything,” said a former senior aide. “Though I have seen the Nicorette gum make an appearance quite a few times during tense situations.”
Or less tense situations, like the D-Day commemoration ceremony this year.
The president’s doctors have repeatedly declared him “tobacco-free.” But, as his 2014 physician’s report noted, he does make “occasional use” of “nicotine gum.”
Obama was recently diagnosed with acid reflux — heartburn, the classic Type A health issue — and has in the past suffered from Vitamin D deficiency, which can result from getting insufficient exposure to the sun.
If, at times, Obama’s 2012 re-election strategy seemed anchored on buddying around with voters, a beer in hand, some aides say he prefers a martini, notably when out on the town for dinner with Michelle Obama.
“He also loves nachos — probably his vice, for a healthy guy,” said an aide who has traveled extensively with the president.
Also? It’s a little … boring. Family time, golf, good books, old friends, a couple of drinks, an online game. It all seems oddly normal for the most powerful — and potentially the most stressed — man in the world.
If Obama ever gets tired of such relatively mundane pastimes, he could take a cue from Teddy Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, the creative force behind the United States’ national parks, loved to trek into the wilds, sometimes to hunt. When a fierce financial panic struck the country in 1907, threatening the very existence of major banks, TR was deep in the Louisiana canebrakes. The treasury secretary was nominally leading the government’s response to the crisis, but it was financier J.P. Morgan who actually took charge and saved America’s banking system.
Why was Roosevelt not at the helm? He later explained his motives for the trip in a speech about that fateful Louisiana foray.