Obama displays a more emotional side to sell public on second-term agenda

President Obama is displaying a more emotional side of his personality as he works to sell his second-term agenda to the public.

The Spock-like Obama criticized for being aloof has been ditched in favor of a president who tells personal anecdotes about his life, shares locked-away thoughts from his past and on several occasions has wiped away a tear or two in public.

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While Obama has more flexibility to be himself now because he doesn’t face reelection, the personal touches are also in tune with a White House effort to enact an agenda that includes gun control, immigration reform and anti-poverty programs by connecting directly with the public and pressuring Congress from the outside.

Speaking about gun violence last week at an academy a short walk from his Chicago home, Obama discussed the hardships of being raised by a single mother and how he wished he had a more "involved" father.

In comments directed to at-risk youth in the predominantly African-American neighborhood, he talked about his time as a “community organizer,” telling the crowd of teenagers, “I got so discouraged, I thought about giving up.”

A day earlier, in a more upbeat speech meant to highlight education as part of his State of the Union agenda, he revealed another page from inside the White House, sharing the news — or at least strongly alluding to it – that his daughters are dating.

And then there are the tears.


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Obama cried in public on at least two recent occasions: When he addressed the news of the Connecticut elementary school shooting in December and then again last week when he honored the educators who died that day while protecting their students.

In the more political realm, there was the time, a day after winning reelection, when Obama got emotional while thanking his campaign staff and volunteers. The image of Obama choking up and wiping away tears was released by the campaign and quickly became a YouTube sensation.

“What interests me is that President Obama began feeling comfortable enough to show his softer side only – but immediately — after his reelection,” said Ryan Biava, a lecturer in the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We’re used to reelected presidents feeling emboldened to pursue policies that might have gotten them in electoral trouble during their first terms. But what we have here is something else: a president who apparently feels buoyed not only politically but also emotionally.”

Obama has acknowledged regrets about his first-term messaging efforts, lending credence to the idea the president has decided to show a more emotional side.

“And in my first two years, I think the notion was, ‘Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?’ And I think that was a legitimate criticism,” Obama told Charlie Rose last year.

One former senior administration official said the president’s responses seem “genuine” and that he’s reacting to situations “not as a president but as a human being.”

Still, the official added, “Nothing in Washington is coincidental. There’s a reason for everything.”

One thing is clear, observers say: The Obama of 2013 is far different from the Obama of 2008, when he rarely lost his composure throughout the exhausting primary and general election.

That persona arguably helped Obama in a 2008 campaign fought as the country dealt with the worse financial crisis in generations.

But the stone-cold resolve became a weakness to Obama during his first term when he went from the perceived political superstar to an aloof professor who couldn’t quite connect with the public in the way that former President Clinton or even Vice President Biden could.

The softer-side approach has coincided with a jump for Obama in the polls.

Obama’s approval rating in recent days reached a three-year high, according to a new Bloomberg National Poll. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said they approved of the president’s job performance, his highest level of support since September 2009. The same poll indicated that only 35 percent approved of the performance of Republican lawmakers, their lowest level since 2009.

The Bloomberg poll also indicated that Obama had a majority of public support on issues such as immigration.

“The reason his job approval ratings are at three-year highs is just that the public is seeing him in this more relaxed way,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “He and his people think that being more relaxed and letting people see more of him is good politics.”

The new approach, Jillson added, “allows him to think of his own political priorities and exhale and probably think about people in a different way.”

Biava said voters expect their leaders to share their emotional responses to national tragedies.

“I tend to think it’s more earnest than instrumental, but if the bottom line is that the president wants to connect with the American people to move his agenda forward, perhaps both motivations are present to some degree,” he said.