Is Obama done with Washington?

Is President Obama done with Washington?

The 44th president has never been the capital’s biggest fan, but his frustration with life in D.C. is bubbling to the surface in ways both casual and substantive.

The president twice went for unscheduled walkabouts last week, taking a trip to a Starbucks near the White House with his chief of staff Denis McDonough on Monday and, the next day, turning up at a burger joint in Alexandria, Va. 

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“The bear is loose!” is the president’s favorite phrase at such moments, and he deployed it again last week. Even the metaphor suggests a man straining at the leash after more than five years in the White House.

Yet there seems to be more to Obama’s frustration than cabin fever.

Last Tuesday, Obama was asked about gun control during a question-and-answer session hosted by the social networking website Tumblr. He didn’t try to assert that progress on legislation was realistically possible, instead launching into a personal broadside, permeated with a sense of resignation, against “this town.”

Referring back to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, and the abortive push for new gun control regulations that followed, Obama said:

“I have been in Washington for a while now and most things don’t surprise me. The fact that 20 six-year-olds were gunned down in the most violent fashion possible and this town couldn’t do anything about it was stunning to me.”

Obama also declared that “most members of Congress — and I have to say to some degree this is bipartisan — are terrified of the NRA,” adding that, “right now, it’s not even possible to get even the mildest restrictions through Congress. And we should be ashamed of that.”

“He’s at a point in his presidency where he’s not running for anything ever again and feels very free to speak his mind,” said Tommy Vietor, who served as a spokesman in the Obama White House and has been with the president since his Senate days.

“He seems to care less and less whether he breaks a little china and I think that’s great.”

“He’s never really made it a secret that he’s not a fan of this place,” concurred Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist. “I think he finds the pettiness of this place annoying. People are focused on tactics not results, and he sees himself as a more results-oriented guy. He’s more willing to do things with a longer lens of history.”

Obama’s distaste for Washington has always had a political element, of course. Way back during his first run for the White House, he often invoked Washington as a symbol of business-as-usual ineffectiveness and stasis. It was also a place to which, not coincidentally, he could tie his chief opponent for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton.

In late 2007, he told a crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, “The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result. And that’s a risk we can’t take.”

Nowadays, some observers wonder if even the most apparently superficial examples of his straining-against-the-leash, such as his downtown walkabouts, also serve a political purpose.

Breaking out of the confines of the White House, "reminds people of what they originally saw in him,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “I think they’re doing this because it reminds people what they like about him: his connection with folks on the campaign trail. … Before he became president, he was an ordinary guy paying off his student loans who came out of nowhere.”

But Obama also seems to savor interactions with “civilians”, people whom he sees as being part of the real world rather than the rarefied Washington sphere. He has been indulging tat impulse a little more lately, wishing people a happy father’s day and working a rope line on Friday before departing for a weekend in California.

During the weekend, he is doing some fundraising events, but will also be spending some downtime with the First Lady. 

The Obamas have gone on numerous restaurant dates in DC, but they also seem to relish escaping the Beltway. In April, for example, they took in a Broadway performance of “A Raisin in the Sun” with family friend and advisor Valerie Jarrett. 

The couple have also never sold their family home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, a fact that prompts speculation they will return there after his White House tenure ends.

“Every president professes to miss the anonymity, and I think he really does,” said Vietor.

One former senior administration official, who has worked with Obama since the 2008 campaign, says that the president seems to be feeling some kind of liberation at the moment.

“It’s not exactly a full Bulworth moment, but it’s freeing,” the former official said. “It’s frustrating being in the bubble constantly, particularly for six or seven years.” The official added that it was important to “make sure he doesn’t go stir-crazy,” adding wryly, “I would be.”

But a different former senior administration official cautioned against reading too much into Obama’s activities. The official, though, did not bother to argue that Obama enjoys the ways of Washington.

“I think he has always liked getting outside the bubble,” the source said. Obama’s frustration with DC, he added, has “been pretty steady.”