From Obama, a more con­fi­dent tone

Pres­i­dent speaks more openly about so­cial is­sues as years of po­lit­i­cal grid­lock take toll on vot­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JULIET EILPERIN AND GREG JAFFE juliet.eilperin@wash­ greg.jaffe@wash­

Pres­i­dent Obama was sit­ting across from the first lady and se­nior ad­viser Va­lerie Jar­rett on Marine One, headed to An­drews Air Force Base and then Charleston, S.C., when he shared a thought.

“I may sing,” he said, as the White House and the mon­u­ments of of­fi­cial Washington re­ceded into the back­ground.

A few hours later he was stand­ing on a stage at the Col­lege of Charleston. Be­hind him were church el­ders in flow­ing pur­ple robes. He could hear the strains of elec­tric guitar and drums puls­ing in the back­ground and see the thou­sands of mourn­ers for the parish­ioners who had been slain nine days be­fore, urg­ing him on through­out his eu­logy.

Twice he spoke the open­ing words of the Chris­tian hymn “Amaz­ing Grace.” Then he paused for 13 sec­onds as the hushed crowd waited, un­sure what was hap­pen­ing.

“Amaz­ing Grace,” he sang softly in a rich bari­tone.

“Ha!” one of the pas­tors be­hind him called out.

“Sing it, Mr. Pres­i­dent,” another said.

Soon thou­sands in the au­di­to­rium were singing along with him.

For years, the pri­vate Obama has re­mained largely that. Now, the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate and public per­sona have merged more fully.

The mo­ment in Charleston came at the end of a long eu­logy in which Obama de­liv­ered an un­flinch­ing ac­count­ing of what he de­scribed as the coun­try’s “many un­healed wounds” on the is­sue of race. He spoke in the ca­dences of the black min­istry, de­cry­ing the fact that a young man named “Ja­mal” was less likely to get called back for a job than some­one named “Johnny.”

Ear­lier that day, Obama had de­scribed the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion to le­gal­ize same-sex mar­riage na­tion­wide — some­thing he had op­posed pub­licly un­til the spring of2012, even though he told aides pri­vately he en­dorsed the idea — “a vic­tory for Amer­ica.” Hours later the White House was bathed in rain­bow col­ors.

It is part of a shift that the pres­i­dent and his wife, Michelle, have un­der­gone in the past few months. They are talk­ing more openly about con­tro­ver­sial is­sues — race, first and fore­most— andin deeply per­sonal terms.

Jar­rett de­scribed it as “a call to ac­tion,” prompted by the coun­try’s cur­rent cir­cum­stances. “I don’t think those mes­sages, in iso­la­tion, would be as ef­fec­tive or lis­tened to as closely,” she said in an in­ter­view Satur­day. “The con­text gives peo­ple greater per­mis­sion to lis­ten, and act.”

It is un­clear how this ap­proach will trans­late into con­crete pol­icy mea­sures. Aides hold out hope that Congress will take up crim­i­nal jus­tice, which has bi­par­ti­san sup­port, but most other pro­pos­als Obama has of­fered to ad­dress racial dis­par­i­ties in the United States have met with re­sis­tance on Capi­tol Hill. “We don’t need more talk” on race, the pres­i­dent said in Charleston.

But he is still talk­ing, and a new tone is vis­i­ble in for­mal in­ter­views a well as off-the-cuff re­marks. In the past week and a half, the pres­i­dent told a pod­cast host in a Pasadena, Calif., garage that he was now “fear­less,” and he laugh­ingly chided a heck­ler at a White House re­cep­tion Wed­nes­day that she had no right to taunt him over immigration pol­icy “af­ter drink­ing my booze.”

The pres­i­dent’s grow­ing com­fort is driven in part, aides said, by his con­fi­dence af­ter so much time in of­fice and his de­sire to con­nect with an elec­torate that in many cases has stopped lis­ten­ing to the largely grid­locked po­lit­i­cal de­bate in Washington. No place has the shift been more clear in re­cent days than on gay mar­riage.

Dur­ing his run for the pres­i­dency, Obama care­fully cal­i­brated and hid his views on the sub­ject in an ef­fort to ap­pease a di­vided elec­torate, ac­cord­ing to a book by his for­mer po­lit­i­cal strate­gist David Ax­el­rod. “I’m just not very good at bull­shit­ting,” Obama told Ax­el­rod, af­ter an event where he stated his op­po­si­tion to same-sex mar­riage, ac­cord­ing to the book.

On Fri­day in the Rose Gar­den, in his speech cel­e­brat­ing the Supreme Court’s de­ci­sion on gay mar­riage, Obama seemed to be search­ing for words that cap­tured his feel­ings about the his­toric de­ci­sion.

He capped his nine-minute state­ment by de­part­ing from his pre­pared re­marks and ad-lib­bing the end of his speech. “What an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment,” he con­cluded. “What a vin­di­ca­tion of the belief that or­di­nary peo­ple can do ex­tra­or­di­nary things. . . . Amer­ica should be very proud.”

There have been mo­ments, par­tic­u­larly in his bat­tles with a grid­locked Congress and on for­eign pol­icy, where the pres­i­dent has seemed smaller than his of­fice. “He dis­ap­peared into the ap­pa­ra­tus of the White House,” said a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. “Nowhe’s emerg­ing. He’s the same guy, just fur­ther down the road and a lit­tle wiser.”

While Obama said Fri­day that those cheer­ing the de­ci­sion must “rec­og­nize dif­fer­ent view­points” on the is­sue of gay mar­riage, he and his aides made it clear in dra­matic fash­ion that evening which view­point they saw as morally just.

Three weeks ago, Jar­rett’s aide Aditi Hardikar, the LGBT li­ai­son in the White House Of­fice of Public En­gage­ment, sug­gested they il­lu­mi­nate the White House with a rain­bow if the Supreme Court le­gal­ized same-sex mar­riage. Work­ing with the first lady’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, Jar­rett and her aides con­sulted with the Na­tional Park Ser­vice and U.S. Se­cret Ser­vice and got gay rights or­ga­ni­za­tions to un­der­write it so it did not cost the taxpayers money.

The pres­i­dent ac­cepted the idea mat­ter-of-factly when Jar­rett raised it. “It’s a great idea if you can get it to work,” she re­called him say­ing.

To con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists such as Steven Hotze, who is try­ing to block the is­suance of mar­riage li­censes to gay cou­ples in Texas, the move felt like a per­sonal as­sault.

“It was de­spi­ca­ble,” he said. “His ac­tions were just de­spi­ca­ble ac­tions.”

But those who gath­ered in front of the White House over the course of a long, balmy Washington evening Fri­day felt dif­fer­ently. Cur­rent and for­mer White House staff mem­bers who had worked on gay rights is­sues re­united on the North Lawn to watch the light show as the res­i­dence be­came the back­drop for thou­sands of cel­e­bra­tory self­ies. One same-sex cou­ple posed with a sign that read: “Not just gay, ec­static,” while the im­age flooded so­cial media with tens of mil­lions of Face­book, Twit­ter and Snapchat posts and video views.

But those im­ages had to vie with the videos of Obama belt­ing out “Amaz­ing Grace” and de­cry­ing the long shadow of slav­ery and Jim Crow on the Amer­i­can psy­che, a mo­ment that sur­prised many Amer­i­cans who had got­ten used to watch­ing their pres­i­dent.

As for Obama, the only thing that star­tled him was that it took only two words be­fore the whole crowd joined in. “He knew he would not get far be­fore he had com­pany,” Jar­rett said.


Pres­i­dent Obama sang dur­ing his eu­logy for the Rev. Cle­menta Pinck­ney in Charleston, S.C., on Fri­day.

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