President Barack Obama's new license plates may read "District of Columbia" but his head, heart and body language shout "I'm not from around here."
Local leaders believed that Obama, the first African-American president and an avowed urbanist, would fulfill his promise to embrace a many-hued metropolis overshadowed by white marbled official Washington. A few even believed he would expend political capital, as Jimmy Carter did, to back voting rights or statehood on behalf of district residents.
The city's fraying, graying Georgetown townhouse aristocracy -- the ones who had dismissed Bill Clinton as a hick two decades earlier -- had modest but real hopes of revival, a jolt of glamour, a bit of Camelot for a post-Dick Cheney D.C.
Yet in the four years since he has taken up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Obama has left the lightest of footprints on the town he had promised to embrace and transform, adopting instead the role of a suburban dad. His preference for staying in the White House residence with family and friends -- as opposed to venturing out or inviting people inside -- mirrors his larger political decision to distance himself from a city whose very name is a synonym for dysfunction, corruption and disconnection from the mainstream of American life.
"I've been to events [at the White House] where they've said the president is upstairs having dinner with his daughters," says BET Networks CEO Debra Lee, an Obama friend and fundraiser, encapsulating Obama's attitude toward the pomp parts of his job.
After leaving Michelle, Sasha and Malia, Obama eventually makes it downstairs to schmooze, she says. "He's trying to strike a balance for his daughters, making sure their family life is as close to normal as it can be ... and being the politician he needs to be," Lee adds.
"Being president is an around-the-clock job, but he's chosen to have a second one as a father," said a former White House aide who saw the Obama family dynamic up close. "When he does have time, he wants to spend it with his kids, with the first lady."
Nor has he chosen to spend much of his downtime exploring Washington's neighborhoods, cultural life or burgeoning restaurant scene. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have gone to local restaurants 18 times since 2009 -- once every two or three months, according to a calculation culled from pool reports and press accounts, a fraction of the visits Obama has made to golf courses on the leafy outskirts of the district.
He waited until after his reelection to put the "Taxation without Representation" tags on his limo, in part, because embracing the ethics-challenged D.C. political elite means hugging somebody on Monday who might be slapped in cuffs on Friday, according to Democrats in his circle. "Can you blame him?" asked one former aide, referring to the recent rash of local corruption cases.
Washington Mayor Vince Gray -- whose relationship with Obama could be charitably described as frosty -- said "we don't have a standard" for how many times Obama hits Ben's Chili Bowl or the Kennedy Center to be a Washingtonian.
The president is "out and about in the city enough -- he comes to our schools, he uses the entertainment venues in the city," he says.
But Gray -- who is embroiled in an election scandal -- wants Obama to place D.C. voting rights at the top of his agenda, not next to his tailpipe.
"It is what it is," Gray said of the license plate decision. "Now what we hope it signals is that the president is going to step up and be an aggressive advocate for the other things, like the District of Columbia being able to control our own budget, like being able to approve our own laws, like our congresswoman having a vote in the House of Representatives... He could be out every night, but if it doesn't improve the citizenship condition of the people of this city, it doesn't have the value that it could."
Nothing irked D.C. leaders more than Obama's apparent willingness to use their autonomy as a bargaining chip in budget talks with Republicans in 2011 when he reportedly offered House Speaker John Boehner a ban on taxpayer-funded abortions in the District for other concessions.
"John, I will give you D.C. abortion," he reportedly said, sparking a protest outside the Capitol in which Gray was arrested.
Obama, a passionate advocate for public education, also rankled some local luminaries early in his term by opting to send his daughters to the exclusive Sidwell Friends School. But it didn't surprise people who know Obama. He wanted his kids to get the best and didn't care about the perception.
Michelle Obama has spent many of her days at events throughout the city and Obama has done his share of appearances, although many of them were linked to his reelection campaign. But as a family, they've ventured out tentatively -- the occasional art museum drop-by on a Sunday, dinner outings, visits to Nationals Park (to cheer on his White Sox, not D.C.'s home nine) and one very memorable visit to the Verizon Center where Obama and his wife watched the Team U.S.A. basketball team in the middle of the 2012 campaign.
The Obamas found themselves on the arena's Kiss Cam, and didn't know they were being called upon to smooch-- eliciting a cascade of boos. On the second pass, they kissed, and the crowd went crazy. The event was rare enough to elicit a tick-tock story in the Post. "A second attempt in the fourth quarter (egged on by daughter Malia) resulted in a solid lip lock," explained a West Wing staffer afterward.
To a striking extent, Obama's day-to-day home life does reflect elements of typical American suburban existence -- albeit inside a bubble. Since he has the ideal "home office," as he's described it to visitors, he makes sure he's home for dinner almost every night. He's been an assistant coach for daughter Sasha's basketball team and brags about never missing one of his girls' parent-teacher conferences.
Reporters who fly with the president often notice that Air Force One hits the tarmac at Andrews a touch earlier than scheduled. In 2011, one Obama flight from Richmond took all of 16 minutes. When one reporter, pinned to his seat by G-force, asked why the rush, a senior staffer shrugged and said, "Guess he wants to get home for dinner."
That said, Obama is hardly a shut-in. He's held six state dinners and has made his share of visits to local landmarks and institutions, including a memorable visit to the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in late 2011. He likes celebs and athletes, lingering during visits from U.S. Olympians, football and baseball champions, and the visits of Jerry Seinfeld, Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin.
But Obama's natural inclination is to turn inward, toward his family -- the first couple famously imposed a no-new-friends policy when they moved to D.C. Obama is simultaneously protective of his daughters' privacy and willing to refer to his feelings as father during times of greatest stress, like the December elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
"The kids come out in his conversation because they're on his mind, because he thinks about them, because they're part of his life," says Doug Wead, an adviser to George H.W. Bush who wrote a best-selling account of presidential children.
But the balance may be shifting, as his daughters get older.
Malia was 10 and Sasha was 7 when they moved into the White House. They're 14 and 11 now, and less interested in spending time with their parents than they once were, Obama said last week. "The nice thing is, is that now that my girls are getting older, they don't want to spend that much time with me anyway," he said at the final news conference of his first term, "so I'll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I'm getting kind of lonely in this big house."
He told ESPN last year that he expected to give up coaching Sasha's basketball team to make way for more experienced coaches as the competition gets more serious but wouldn't stop watching his daughters' games and playing with them.
"To have the chance on the weekends to go out and shoot with them and practice and snag some rebounds for them, that is something I hope to be able to do for a long time to come," he said.
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