As Election Day approaches, President Obama is sharing a few important things about himself. He has mentioned more than once in recent weeks that he cooks “a really mean chili.” He has impressive musical pitch, he told an Iowa audience. He is “a surprisingly good pool player,” he informed an interviewer — not to mention (though he does) a doodler of unusual skill.
All in all, he joked at a recent New York fund-raiser with several famous basketball players in attendance, “it is very rare that I come to an event where I’m like the fifth or sixth most interesting person.”
Four years ago, Barack Obama seemed as if he might be a deliberate professor of a leader, maybe with a touch of Hawaiian mellowness. He has also turned out to be a voraciously competitive perfectionist. Aides and friends say so in interviews, but Mr. Obama’s own words of praise and derision say it best: he is a perpetually aspiring overachiever, often grading himself and others with report-card terms like “outstanding” or “remedial course” (as in: Republicans need one).
As he faces off with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Obama’s will to win — and fear of losing — is in overdrive. He is cramming for debates against an opponent he has called “ineffective,” raising money at a frantic pace to narrow the gap with Mr. Romney and embracing the do-anything-it-takes tactics of an increasingly contentious campaign.
Even by the standards of the political world, Mr. Obama’s obsession with virtuosity and proving himself the best are remarkable, those close to him say. (Critics call it arrogance.) More than a tic, friends and aides say, it is a core part of his worldview, formed as an outsider child who grew up to defy others’ views of the limits of his abilities. When he speaks to students, he almost always emphasizes living up to their potential.
“He has a general philosophy that whatever he does, he’s going to do the very best he can do,” Marty Nesbitt, a close friend, said in an interview.
Mr. Obama’s aides point to the seriousness he brings to the tasks of the presidency — how he virtually never shows up for a meeting unprepared, say, or how he quickly synthesizes complicated material. When Mr. Obama was derided as an insufferable overachiever in an early political race, some of his friends were infuriated; to them, he was revising negative preconceptions of what a black man could achieve.
But even those loyal to Mr. Obama say that his quest for excellence can bleed into cockiness and that he tends to overestimate his capabilities. The cloistered nature of the White House amplifies those tendencies, said Matthew Dowd, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, adding that the same thing happened to his former boss. “There’s a reinforcing quality,” he said, a tendency for presidents to think, I’m the best at this.
And though Mr. Obama craves high grades from the electorate and from history, he is in a virtual dead heat with Mr. Romney in national polls, the political equivalent of school progress reports.
For someone dealing with the world’s weightiest matters, Mr. Obama spends surprising energy perfecting even less consequential pursuits. He has played golf 104 times since becoming president, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who monitors his outings, and he asks superior players for tips that have helped lower his scores. He decompresses with card games on Air Force One, but players who do not concentrate risk a reprimand (“You’re not playing, you’re just gambling,” he once told Arun Chaudhary, his former videographer).
His idea of birthday relaxation is competing in an Olympic-style athletic tournament with friends, keeping close score. The 2009 version ended with a bowling event. Guess who won, despite his history of embarrassingly low scores? The president, it turned out, had been practicing in the White House alley.
When he reads a book to children at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, Mr. Obama seems incapable of just flipping open a volume and reading. In 2010, he began by announcing that he would perform “the best rendition ever” of “Green Eggs and Ham,” ripping into his Sam-I-Ams with unusual conviction. Two years later at the same event, he read “Where the Wild Things Are” with even more animation, roooooaring his terrible roar and gnaaaaashing his terrible teeth. By the time he got to the wild rumpus, he was howling so loudly that Bo, the first dog, joined in.
“He’s shooting for a Tony,” Mr. Chaudhary joked. (He has already won a Grammy, in 2006, for his reading of his memoir, “Dreams From My Father” — not because he was a natural, said Brian Smith, the producer, but because he paused so many times to polish his performance.)
Asked if there was anything at which the president allowed himself to just flat-out fail, Mr. Nesbitt gave a long pause. “If he picks up something new, at first he’s not good, but he’ll work until he gets better,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s fixation on prowess can get him into trouble. Not everyone wants to be graded by him, certainly not Republicans. Mr. Dowd, the former Bush adviser, said he admired Mr. Obama, but added, “Nobody likes to be in the room with someone who thinks they’re the smartest person in the room.”
Even some Democrats in Washington say they have been irritated by his tips on topics ranging from the best way to shake hands on the trail (really look voters in the eye, he has instructed) to writing well (“You have to think three or four sentences ahead,” he told one reluctant pupil).
For another, he may not always be as good at everything as he thinks, including politics. While Mr. Obama has given himself high grades for his tenure in the White House — including a “solid B-plus” for his first year — many voters don’t agree, citing everything from his handling of the economy to his unfulfilled pledge that he would be able to unite Washington to his claim that he would achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Those were not the only times Mr. Obama may have overestimated himself: he has also had a habit of warning new hires that he would be able to do their jobs better than they could.
“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Mr. Obama told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, at the start of the 2008 campaign, according to The New Yorker. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
Though he never ran a large organization before becoming president, he initially dismissed internal concerns about management and ended up with a factionalized White House and a fuzzier decision-making process than many top aides wanted.
Now Mr. Obama is in the climactic contest of his career, about to receive the ultimate judgment on his performance from the American people. It is a moment, aides say, he has been craving: during some of the darker days of his tenure, he told them that he wanted the country to evaluate him not in isolation, but in contrast to the Republican alternative. The tough, often successful attacks from the right have hardened and fueled him, aides say, driving him to prove that “we’re right and we’re better,” as one ally put it.
In 2008, he said he wanted to change the nature of politics and keep governing separate from campaigning; since then, he has overhauled his White House to prepare for the re-election bid and has run tit-for-tat negative ads, some of which, like some run by his opponent, have been criticized by media truth squads for inaccuracies.
He offers his share of verbal jabs at his rival, too.
As far back as 2008, Mr. Obama’s assessment of Mr. Romney was scathing. On the day Mr. Romney dropped out of that presidential race, Mr. Obama told reporters that the former governor was a weak candidate who made “poorly thought out” comments (the compulsive grader again). He savored Mr. Romney’s stumbles in the Republican primaries this time around, an adviser said, professing wonder that it took him so long to lock up the nomination.
This February, in an otherwise placid meeting with Democratic governors — routine policy questions, routine presidential replies — Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana asked Mr. Obama if he had what it took to win the 2012 race.
For a moment Mr. Obama looked annoyed, a White House aide said, as if he thought Mr. Schweitzer was underestimating him. Then he came alive. “Holy mackerel, he lit up,” Mr. Schweitzer said in an interview. “It was like a light switch coming on.”
No matter what moves Mr. Romney made, the president said, he and his team were going to cut him off and block him at every turn. “We’re the Miami Heat, and he’s Jeremy Lin,” Mr. Obama said, according to the aide.
Since then, Mr. Obama has been working at a furious pace, headlining three times as many fund-raisers as George W. Bush did during his 2004 re-election campaign, according to Mr. Knoller.
When local campaign staff members ask him what they need to do better, he talks about himself instead. “I need to be working harder,” he recently told one state-level aide.
He recently began preparing for the presidential debates, reading up on Mr. Romney and his positions. One danger is that he could sound grudging or smug by indulging in his habit of scoring others (as in, “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” one of his worst debate moments from 2008). As he slashes into Mr. Romney’s arguments, he sometimes cannot help letting crowds know what he thinks of his rival’s political skills.
“When a woman right here in Iowa shared the story of her financial struggles, he gave her an answer out of an economics textbook,” he said about Mr. Romney in May, his tone incredulous.
Though Mr. Obama quizzes his team on all aspects of the campaign, he is concentrating most on the rhetorical challenge of making a case for a second term. He has worked on making his stump speech tighter, less defensive and more forward-looking in recent months, and he is still testing and discarding lines. “That’s the meat of the campaign, that’s where his focus lies,” said David Axelrod, his chief strategist.
Not only do the White House, the Supreme Court and a budgetary crisis hang in the balance, but so does a national judgment on whether Mr. Obama’s agenda was a good idea in the first place. So perhaps it is not surprising that he cites not just his record, but also every other accomplishment he can think of.
Then again, he is just as competitive in private, when there is little or nothing at stake. At one of his farewell meetings for White House interns, Mr. Obama dispensed some life advice.
“When you all have kids, it’s important to let them win,” he said with a smile. “Until they’re a year old. Then start winning.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.