Politics & Government

The Obama I Know

Next week, Barack Obama will wrap up eight years as the country’s chief executive, a job that, among other things, made Obama one of the most visible and easily recognized people in the world.

Everyone knows him from TV, but what is he like one-on-one? The State talked to people who have met and worked alongside the president to discuss what he’s like in real life.

In this July 25, 2014 photo, President Barack Obama has departure photos taken with Fran Person, personal aide to Vice President Joe Biden, and family in the Oval Office. Pete Souza Official White House Photo
Fran Person

Former aide to Vice President Joe Biden

I worked alongside him (Obama) for six years. My office was 50 steps from the Oval Office ... I literally saw him every day. I would see him in the hallway and talk about sports. Then when my wife had our first baby and then our second baby, he called my wife and talked to her, then he talked to me about what to expect as a new father. Then when I came back, he and Michelle had a special gift, a dress with my daughter’s name, birth date, and the presidential seal, and even their signature lines sewn into it.

The first time I met him, I was waiting to drive then-Senator Biden to the train station, and he came out talking on the phone and got into the back of the car, and then he looks at me and says, “Oh, sorry, wrong car.”

He’s a very cool guy. In almost every situation, he stays steady. He doesn’t get too up or down. He’s very smart, very analytical. The only time I saw him get emotional was when he was told the details of Sandy Hook (Elementary School shooting), and then had to go out and brief the country. That was incredibly graphic, especially for a father to hear. You think about your own kids in that situation.

I respect him on every level – as a father, as the ultimate family man, as a good friend and a good president.

Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com
Jim Clyburn

U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader

Having grown up with an interest in history, Barack Obama’s presidency has been as close to the ideal that people want. Now that we are within two weeks of the end of his presidency, I’d ask someone to show me an administration as free of scandal as this one. This man has been an ideal American president, and history will be kind to him, in spite of what is being written today.

So much of what has been done to discredit this president shows that to a significant number in this country, he is a threat to a narrative that has been built since the country was founded. I’ve heard from people, even people who support the president, who say things without realizing what they are saying. Their judgment is based on the fact that he’s an African-American.

I found that Obama is totally different (from previous presidents). George W. Bush was a backslapper. So was Clinton. Obama is the opposite. He will shake hands, even embrace, but it’s not natural to him. And I’ve never had a problem with it. My father was the same way. I had to train to be a backslapper. On some things, I think he could have gotten more done if he had been more of a socializer.

I told someone earlier today, if you start out on your own 20-yard line, and advance to your opponent’s 1-yard line, then get knocked back to the 15 or 20, that doesn’t mean you didn’t advance the ball. And if you don’t get a touchdown, you can kick a field goal.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges Gerry Melendez File photo/The State
Jim Hodges

Former Democratic S.C. governor

He’s not dramatically different (in person) from what you see on TV. He’s a very dignified person, and knows it’s important to hold up the dignity of the office. He knew he had to meet certain standards, and he met and exceeded them. This administration had very few personal and political scandals, and that reflects on the character of Barack Obama.

What I think people don’t realize (is) the depth of problems we had in 2009. We had the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we had several foreign policy crises in the Middle East and Afghanistan. They don’t appreciate where we are now versus where we were then.

I went to the Super Bowl party in 2010 and spent time with him there. It was a fun event, but there’s not a whole lot of business done there. He’s a big sports fan, so once it got started he was not very sociable. He just wanted to watch the game.

He was sitting at a table with Jennifer Lopez and (ESPN analyst) Michael Wilbon, so his White House had a mix of old politics with Hollywood and sports. Hollywood star power gravitated toward him because of the historic nature of his presidency. Trump will probably have a different group around him, probably finance and real estate.

The first time I met him was the night he gave his big speech at the Democratic National Convention (in 2004). He was the toast of the party. ... Every Democratic politician believed he was a future presidential candidate, but then he developed very quickly and in 2008, he just caught lightning in a bottle.

Dick Harpootlian

Former SC Democratic Party chairman

I went walking door to door for Bill Clinton in New Hampshire in 1992, so I assumed in 2008 I would be for Hillary Clinton. Then (former Hodges staffer) Rick Wade called me about this senator from Illinois, and would I meet him. I said I would, but I told him, “I’m going to be with the Clintons.”

I talked with him for an hour, had a cup of coffee, and I endorsed him the next day ... (because) this guy had the internal guts and courage to make it happen.

After the 2012 election, I was at the White House for a screening of the movie “Lincoln,” and he invited the director and the cast. As he came in, he greeted, you know, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, and then he saw me in the corner and he came over and gave me a bear hug and said, “We kicked some ass, didn’t we?”

I hear he’s gotten grayer, but it hasn’t worn him out. He operates under a huge weight, but he can put that aside and enjoy his family, enjoy life. He looks older, but he’s in great shape ... Most people under stress don’t exercise or sleep well.

On TV, he is extremely serious, professorial, Spock-like ... but he’s a guy’s guy. He’s much more fun to hang around with. He doesn’t mince words, but he knows his public words matter.

Edith Childs

Greenwood County Council member, early Obama supporter

I met him on June 7, 2007, when he came to Greenwood for a rally. He had people come so he could introduce himself to the Greenwood community. I just wanted to hear what he had to say, and we were pleased. ... I wasn’t involved in the campaign then, but I was after that point.

After that, he used my slogan, and I was excited when he did. When we were in that small group, someone had me say the “Fired up, ready to go” chant for him, and he really liked it. Before he used it they called and asked if he could. I knew it came out of the NAACP, but they hadn’t used it in years, so it became Edith Childs’ “Fired up, ready to go.”

Since then I’ve been to two inaugurations, I’ve been to the White House four times, and I met him in Columbia when he was at Benedict College. He’s still one of the most humble people, most down to earth. Some people get into office, and they become uppity. The look down on people. He and his wife have stayed the same calm, responsible people. ... They’re just like normal people.

My husband met him in March of 2015 and he was surprised by how down to earth he was, asking ‘how’s your family?’ where someone else might be “what do you need” or “what can you do for them.” That’s how I want every president to be.