Understanding Obama in the fourth quarter

WTF?

That’s exactly what the political world has been asking since President Barack Obama went to a garage in Los Angeles to record a podcast aptly named WTF and used a word rarely spoken in public by anyone, least of all a president.

But that moment is just one in a series over the past six months or so where the famously reserved Barack Obama has seemed more liberated, feistier, bolder and sometimes rawly emotional.

So what’s changed?

The answer, based on my eight years of working closely with President Obama, is both a lot and a little at the same time.

At his core, Barack Obama has not changed as a person. He is animated by the same values that led him to run for the presidency in the first place and he is still a very normal guy living a very abnormal life. On one of my last trips with the President, we variously talked about his family, Steph Curry’s handle and the Republican presidential race — and tried to convince Valerie Jarrett that “Game of Thrones” was one of the best shows on television (despite the dragons).

The distinction between the Obama of now and before is also somewhat overstated.

In the first term, the President took bold, risky political steps to pass health care, save the auto industry and endorse marriage equality in the midst of a close re-election campaign. He was often feisty, calling out Republicans and sparring with some in his party. And he was often emotional in private and in public as he helped the nation heal after tragedies at Newtown and Tucson.

But there is no question that something has felt different as the President has entered the twilight of his presidency, or as he calls it, the fourth quarter (One thing that stays consistent in the Obama era is sports metaphors).

The first factor is clearly experience. Presidents are human, they change and grow with experience like the rest of us.

Barack Obama has lived for six and a half years in a white hot crucible of pressure and scrutiny. Making life or death decisions at a moment’s notice and literally carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders affects a person in ways more profound that graying hair.

I saw the President grow and change with experience. Over time, he (and all of us who worked for him) worked to separate the signal from the noise, so that he could focus more on the things that matter where he could have an impact instead of the faux crisis du jour in Washington.

The second factor is fearlessness.

Most of the focus on the President’s recent interview was on his use of a racial slur to make a point, but he also gave the most frank and honest explanation about how he has changed during his years in the White House. He told interviewer Marc Maron that the experience has made him a better President.

He said “I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless. It’s all happened. I’ve been through this, I’ve screwed up, I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged, and I lived. And that’s such a liberating feeling.”

Near-death political experiences have been a staple of Barack Obama’s career. The campaign was almost over when we lost New Hampshire in 2008. His health care law was proclaimed dead a half dozen times before he signed it. And he suffered two brutal midterm electoral setbacks each of which could have effectively ended his presidency. Each of these made the President bolder — more fearless as he said — and therefore a better President.

The final factor that has driven this shift is the ticking clock.

The day after the 2014 midterm elections, he didn’t skulk into the office. He walked in with a determined look and a little bit of a swagger. He told us that he was going to maximize every second of every one of his remaining two years. He said we would never again in our lives have the opportunity to do as much good for as many people as we had right then, and he didn’t want to get on the plane back to Chicago in January of 2017 knowing that there was something he could have done to help people that he didn’t do because of politics.

Obama hasn’t changed so much as grown into a President who takes decisive action, uses all the tools at his disposal and says and does things without fear of failure or political repercussions.

For those of us who were there in the beginning, it’s a wonderful thing to see.

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