First Lady Michelle Obama embraces President Barack Obama as he surprises her during the White House Kitchen Garden Fall Harvest
Pete Souza: President Obama talks with Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of “Let’s Move!”, and former Executive Director of “Let’s Move!” Sam Kass during the fall harvest in the White House Kitchen Garden
The wrenching ritual has become all too familiar to President Obama. His armored limousine deposits him at a nondescript building big enough to hold a large number of families whose loved ones have died in a mass shooting somewhere in America. Away from the news cameras that normally track his every interaction, he enters rooms thick with grief and the hushed voices of people in shock. He grasps for words of sympathy, comfort and condolence and offers long, tight embraces that the mourners will remember far more vividly than his words. Mr. Obama will travel to Orlando, Fla., on Thursday for the latest round of mass consoling, four days after a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 at a gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in American history. “He hugged each one of us individually — and I mean hug, so that I was able to smell his cologne,” said Sharon Risher, 57, who lost her mother,
Ethel Lance, and two cousins in the shooting in Charleston, S.C., last year, and met privately with Mr. Obama the next week. “It was not a little pat on the back. The intimacy of that hug is what I’ll always remember.” Roxanna Green — whose 9-year-old daughter, Christina-Taylor Green, was one of six people killed in a 2011 shooting in a supermarket parking lot in Tuscon, Ariz., where Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding an event — said she had campaigned for Mr. Obama with her daughter and mother and had often dreamed of meeting him. “But you never want to receive a visit like that from anybody,” Ms. Green, 50, said in an interview. “Their hugs were just long and genuine, like something you receive from a family member,” she said of Mr. and Mrs. Obama. “He said she was a beautiful girl, and he’s so sorry, and it was just a horrible loss and his girls are about the same age,” she recalled. “They were both very, very emotional. It was like it happened to someone in their family.”
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.