Obama, battered by polls and health-care law troubles, turns introspective on the stump

Jae C. Hong/AP - President Obama pauses for a moment while speaking at the DreamWorks Animation studio on Tuesday in Glendale, Calif.

SAN FRANCISCO — Another city, another fundraiser. Again, “Hail to the Chief” played, and again, President Obama opened with his routine: “It’s good to be back in San Francisco! Love this place!” He recognized the outstanding mayor and outstanding members of Congress and outstanding attorney general in attendance.

Then the president grew introspective. “Sometimes people ask me, how do you keep up with everything involved in this job of yours, which is kind of a crazy job?” Obama said. “There’s a lot of stuff, and it’s all pretty complicated, and nobody is ever entirely happy with any decision that you make, and your hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.”

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The president said his days start with great promise, but by the time they end, he looks at his to-do list and feels overwhelmed: “Man, we’ve still got a long way to go.”

“Three years will go by like that,” the second-term president continued. “It will go by like that. And those of us who have kids know how fast it goes, because Malia and Sasha, they’re like weeds.”

At the nadir of his presidency, with his approval ratings at their lowest point and his prospects for meaningful legislation poor, Obama has been unusually contemplative. In recent public remarks, Obama has reflected on the difficulties of being president and waxed nostalgic for a time when his life was less burdensome.

In Seattle, for example, where he began a three-day, three-state trip to raise campaign cash for fellow Democrats, he said the spectacular sunset lighting Mount Rainier with a pink and orange glow evoked memories of his late mother. “I always feel the spirit of my mom here,” Obama said Sunday, noting that she graduated from nearby Mercer Island High School.

The next day, when Obama addressed more than 400 supporters at the SFJazz Center here in San Francisco, he mused about his grandfather serving in the Army under Gen. George S. Patton during World War II and his grandmother working her way up from bank secretary to vice president but then hitting a glass ceiling.

And Monday evening, when Obama visited Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s home in Beverly Hills, Calif., he told wealthy donors that he was loyal to the Philadelphia 76ers as a boy but came to admire Johnson’s career in basketball and beyond.

During the drive to Johnson’s manse, Obama said he talked with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, who followed the president on his West Coast trip. Obama said Remnick, who was a sports reporter earlier in his career, asked him, “So, what about Magic? What does this mean to you?”

“You watch this career unfold, and it’s a magical career,” Obama said. “For anybody who loves basketball as much as me, there’s nobody who is a bigger icon than Magic Johnson.”

More than his career on the court, Obama said he admires how Johnson handled his HIV diagnosis with grace and how he leveraged his fame and fortune to build institutions.

“It’s for those two reasons that I’m proud to call Magic Johnson a friend,” Obama said. “Also, keep in mind, the last time Magic played basketball was with me at my 49th birthday party — and I just want to tell you it wasn’t pretty.”

Between personal reflections, though, Obama kept up the partisan combat. In nearly every speech out West, Obama accused House Republicans — “one faction of one party,” as he called them — of rooting for failure of the troubled Affordable Care Act and of blocking progress on immigration and other issues.

Obama sounded defensive at times, trying to explain the litany of problems his administration has faced this year, including the botched launch of online health insurance exchanges. Even with the problems, he said Monday he was “as proud as I’ve ever been” of his administration’s work to pass the health-care law.

“I’m not a particularly ideological person,” Obama said Sunday night at a fundraiser in Medina, Wash. “There are some things, some values, I feel passionately about. . . . But I’m pretty pragmatic when it comes to, ‘How do we get there?’ ”

Last week at the White House, Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to more than a dozen recipients, including his friend Oprah Winfrey. He noted that early in the actress and media mogul’s career, her bosses told her that she should change her name to Susie.

“I have to pause here to say I got the same advice,” Obama said, laughing. “They didn’t say I should be named ‘Susie,’ but they suggested I should change my name. People can relate to Susie — that’s what they said. It turned out, surprisingly, that people could relate to Oprah just fine.”

Obama then spoke glowingly of another medal winner, the late U.S. senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who he said was a source of inspiration.

As a “kid with a funny name growing up in Hawaii,” Obama said, he looked to Inouye as someone “who didn’t look like everybody else” but still accomplished much.

“Maybe I had a chance to do something important, too,” Obama said.

 
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