Shortly before the 2004 Illinois Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, which he was to win by a landslide, Barack Obama was riding high. After about a year of nonstop campaigning, the Illinois state senator had raised far more money than any of his rivals, and his path both to the nomination and to the floor of the U.S. Senate seemed assured. But his closest advisers sensed that the 42-year-old candidate and father of two — 5-year-old Malia and 2-year-old Sasha — was feeling a bit down and listless. As Valerie Jarrett later told biographer Richard Wolfe, she suggested that the candidate meet her for lunch at Chicago’s posh gym, the East Bank Club.
“What’s wrong?” Obama asked “the principal,” as he referred to his chief aide. Jarrett replied, “Your heart isn’t in it. What’s wrong with you?” “I miss my girls,” Obama said as tears welled up. “I don’t want to be the kind of father I had.” But after composing himself, he added, “I’ll work it out. I’ll be okay.” This hands-on dad, who helped coach Sasha’s grammar school basketball team, puts a high premium on both connecting with and providing direction to his girls. At 6:30, Obama and his wife sit down with the girls for a family dinner without any outsiders. The evening meal, observed Obama’s former body-man Reggie Love, was treated “like a meeting in the Situation Room. There’s a hard stop before that dinner.” While aides sometimes call him back to work at 8:30 or 9, they rarely dare to go upstairs to bother him during the sacred dinner hour.
The President is an Asiaphile. He spoke wistfully of his time in Indonesia and his memories of the smells and flavors of street food there. The reaction among regular people in Hanoi to the fact that the US President chose to eat Bun Cha was beyond all imagining. The effect was unbelievable. People were actually crying the next day, describing to me their shock and their pride, the reactions of their neighbors, to this completely unexpected choice of meal—and the venue. He was among the very few guests on my show who ever asked the camera crew if they got to eat too. And he made a point of taking a picture with all of them when we were done.