'He Broke Up A Fight': People Who Met Obama Off-Camera Share Their Experiences

On camera as President, he was suave, articulate, and full of hope. But what about when the cameras were off, and he was just Barack 'Barry' Obama?

These people had the chance to meet the 44th President in person. Did their impression of him line up with his public persona? Read on to find out!

[Sources listed at the end of the article.]


"I went to middle school with Mr. Obama, whom I knew as 'Barry,' at the Honolulu-based Punahou School. 

Although he was not particularly outspoken, Barry was a sensitive, empathetic kid and he had limits to how much injustice he could tolerate. He seemed to dare himself to overcome the pressure to keep silent, without caring, or at least without seeming to care, about the social consequences of standing up for the victim of teasing. 

At one point, while a student was being picked on, Barry had had enough. I remember the look of disgust on his face. He squinted and sighed deeply, and then the words rang out, 'Guys … that's enough. Lay off.' The victim of vilification had been protected because Barry had the character to overcome the silence of the passive observer. We did not know at the time that his behavior was indicative of a deeper desire to serve and protect the most vulnerable people in our society.

The president was really sensitive about that. To speak up about it was pretty brave, I thought. In retrospect, he had something inside of him that I think teachers and adults recognized. But to kids, he was just another kid in class."

Elliot Mandel

(1/2) "During my tenure with the U.S. Secret Service, I was part of then-Senator Barack Obama's protection detail from March 2007 until November 2008, on his election night.  I was chosen as part of a 'round robin' detail where agents were selected at random from their field offices to spend time with a candidate on the campaign trail to keep him safe.  

Sen. Obama was given protection unusually early due to the volume of threats that he was receiving.  The rotation consisted of being out on the road with him 24/7 for three week intervals, home for six weeks, and then back out again.  It was like this for 18 months. 

I made it a point to remain unbiased in my political opinions when asked about Mr. Obama while on this assignment. I also tend to judge others by how they treat me rather than how they expect to be treated.  I will say that, personally, I have differed on many of President Obama's stances in politics.  I do not support much of his political agenda."

[Continued]

Jason Wells

(2/2) "With that stated, Senator Obama, Mrs. Obama and their two daughters were always extremely cordial and appreciative for everything that we provided them.  They were engaging with us, asking us about our families and making sure that we were provided for.  On numerous occasions, Mr. Obama would ask me how my wife was doing (she was pregnant with our first child), and wished her the best.  

I never, never saw him belittle another person, I never witnessed him do anything behind his wife's back. For all of my political differences with Barack Obama, I will be the first to say that he is a very decent man. 

Please note, that was prior to his time in the Oval Office.  I have not interacted with him since then, but everyone who I worked with who was affiliated with him said that he had not changed."

Jason Wells

(1/2) "I've met Barack Obama on three occasions at political events. Each time I only had 30-45 seconds to chat with him but seemed very personable and had that politician's skill of making you feel like the most important person in the world while you have his attention. He is very 'in the moment' when he's with you.

One of my meetings does stand out, though. My mother generally voted Republican up until 2007 when she became a huge fan of Barack Obama's. In 2010, I was invited to meet him prior to the mid-term elections and I was able to bring my 82-year-old Mom with me. We were to meet the President in a small group with about 20 other people before he gave a speech to a huge crowd in Columbus, Ohio. 

While we waited for him, my mother proceeded to tell anyone within reach about how she had seen so many things in her life, lived through the Great Depression, WWII, saw the civil rights battles, a man land on the moon, and so on. Now, she was so happy to meet this great man. 

After a little while I took her aside and said, 'Mom, when he comes in we're only going to have a few moments with him so be cool. Just say 'hello,' shake his hand, make some pleasantries, and let him move on. Don't embarrass me.' She assured me she wouldn't."

[Continued]

David Fry

(2/2) "A little while later the door opened, Secret Service staff came into the room with other handlers, and Obama walked in and started greeting people. We all stood in stiff attention as he went from person to person shaking hands and chatting briefly, as is the usual protocol. He got to my mother and reached for her hand but she latched onto his first! She started the same speech about having lived through Depression, WWII, seen so much, etc., and Obama listened intently and kept nodding his head and commenting. 

My mother wouldn't let go and talked about how much he meant to her and how great the country had been when she was growing up, and he assured her that it was still great and would be even greater in the future. She paused and said, 'Can I have a hug?' He said, 'Of course!' and bent down and gave her a long, tight squeeze while I took photos. His kindness made a mockery of my fussy concern over my embarrassment.

I have trouble believing Obama ever made anyone as happy as he made my mother that evening. She tells that story to anyone who will listen and has the photos of her hug on her phone so she can look at them any time she wants.

Here's the best of those photos:

David Fry

"An earth science teacher at my school was and is a registered Republican who was adamantly opposed to Obama. He had his class write letters to Obama about climate change, because he was so certain Obama wouldnt acknowledge the letters and he wanted to prove that behind the talk Obama didnt care about climate change.

The letters went off in the mail. A month later, he received a package from the White House. Inside was a long, thoughtful letter about how happy he was that young kids were writing to him about important issues. There were signed photos of him, his family, and his two dogs.

Who knows, maybe his staff wrote the letter. I'm sure Obama has tons of signed photos that he sends out. But my registered Republican science teacher colleague was so overcome with pride and joy that he framed the letter and the picture and will tell this story to anyone who will listen.

Meanwhile, Ive written to city council members and gotten nothing in response. Go figure."

Ivy Lin

(1/2) "This story comes courtesy of my friend Marwan Abderrazzaq, a game producer and director known for Call of Duty: Black Ops and Silent Hill: Homecoming.

Marwan went to college at Boston University (BU) back in the early 90s. Boston has 35 colleges and universities. The students, myself included, liked to play pick-up basketball games on the many indoor courts at the YMCA on Huntington Ave. The games are a big jumble of young people from all over.

It was at the Y that Marwan and his buddies from BU found themselves matched up against a bunch of Harvard guys. some of the Harvard guys started talking smack—talking down to the BU guys. The game became heated and before we knew it, we were on the verge of taking it outside to settle the matter.

Out of nowhere, one tall, skinny guy from Harvard got in the middle and tried to calm everyone down."

[Continued]

Michael Lent

(2/2) "Somehow, he was able to calm everyone down. The game finished without incident. 

When Marwan left the building he was surprised to see the same guy outside the gym smoking a cigarette. The guy apologized for his friends and said that they were actually decent people when you got to know them.

Marwan complimented the Harvard guy on his ability to deescalate the situation, then extended his hand and introduced himself. The guy gave a huge smile and said, 'That makes two of us with interesting names. Im Barack.'

Marwan never saw Barack Obama again until he appeared on television as the junior senator from Illinois."

Michael Lent

"A few years ago, Obama visited us at Teds Bulletin, the Washington, D.C. restaurant that I co-own. I of course came out to meet him personally, and helped take his order.

After his meal, he made a point to say hello to all of our team members, was very observant, complementary and genuinely interested in how they were doing and what other opportunities they were seeking outside of their work or in school. He even stuck around for a while and signed a few menus!

I also used to play a bit of hoop with him in Chicago at a certain gym. Nothing serious, just 'run and gun' with a group of guys to stay in shape. He was competitive, but always a good sport. I recall he also had a pretty good shot just outside the three point line.

It's easy to forget that politicians and celebrities are also people."

Perry Jobe Smith

(1/2) "Not my own story, but in 2016 then-Vice President Biden was asked during a CNN interview, 'Is there a moment with President Obama that you will remember forever?'

Biden became very emotional, and began to describe the circumstances leading up to his sons death. Biden's son, Beau Biden, died from cancer in 2015. Joe Biden had a very close relationship with President Obama, and often confided with him regarding his son's illness.

One day, during lunch at the White House, Biden mentioned to President Obama that Beaus condition was deteriorating and Beau would probably need to step down from his position as the Attorney General of Delaware.

However, Beau Biden was supporting his family with the job, and if he resigned there would be little money for them to fall back on. Joe Biden told Obama that if necessary he would sell his house in Delaware, in order to sustain Beau's family."

[Continued]

Pinchas Balsam

(2/2) "At that point, Obama turned to Biden and said 'don't sell the house; promise me that you won't sell the house.' Biden responded that the money he had in savings would probably be enough, and that he would only sell his house as a last resort. In response, Obama told Biden he would provide the money if necessary, and he should absolutely not be forced to sell his house.

To answer your question, this story clearly underscores what a decent, generous, and kind man Obama is, even in private."

Pinchas Balsam

"During the 2012 Presidential race, I was working in Cleveland. I had a very popular radio show and was asked to interview President Obama. Our interview went so well, he wanted to do other interviews on the stations I was overseeing. His campaign invited me and my family down to see him make a speech on the tarmac at the Burke Lakefront airport.

It was a mild October evening and we had to get out there several hours before he arrived. My daughter at the time was 6 years old. She was so excited to see him speak. She wore a T-shirt that read 'Pretty Little Girl For Obama.' They put us in an area where he had to walk by, but they told us he probably would come close enough for us to meet him. We sat out there for hours waiting for him to arrive. When he landed and walked to the podium he glanced over and pointed to my daughter and winked, she was so excited and was jumping up and down. I vividly remember him not having much of a voice, it was late and he had made several speeches that day.

After his speech was done, he waved to all of us as he walked to the plane. I lifted my daughter up high so she could see him clearly, then suddenly he stopped in his tracks and started walking directly over to us. He saw my daughter's shirt and grabbed her hands and she lit up like a Christmas tree. He said some quick kind words, then walked off. That moment will always be something my daughter will never forget. The next day we saw a picture of that moment--of Obama holding my daughter's hands--on the cover of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Despite being in the heat of a tight Presidential election, after multiple speeches and flying around the country in a single day, he still took the time to greet us when it was not on his agenda. Here's the photo below."

Colby Colb Tyner

"I recently read Michael Lewis's 2012 in-depth profile of Obama in Vanity Fair. Granted, Lewis is a journalist rather than a friend of Obama's, but he gets access to and portrays Obama during some very personal moments. 

Lewis's article corroborates much of what has already been said about Obama by those who know him. But he also captures aspects of Obama's personality—such as his competitive streak on the basketball court—which have been overlooked.

I find it so interesting to hear about these less-well known sides of his personality, since we normally don't get to see the full picture of who he is in the media."

Jeffrey Bernard Yozwiak

I went to middle school with Obama back in the early 1970s. I've seen him face-to-face a couple of times since then, but I hear from classmates who have run into him for longer interactions.  You will not be disappointed believing quite good things about him, and historians will record this, long after the politics have changed. 

We have another classmate who works in the West Wing on national security and he reports that the President is still the good person we knew him to be since childhood.  Perhaps more important than being a nice person, he seems to have the ability to switch from regular guy to commander-in-chief as the situation requires.

Ronald Loui

"I met 'Barry Obama' and his mom Anne during their trip to Quebec City for Mother's Day in 1992. At the time, I was the Manager of the Muse de l'Amerique francophone (Museum of French America) in the center of the city. He walked into the Welcome Building and approached me at the front desk.

He asked about the building and museum, and we chatted for about 3 minutes. Then, he signed the museum guestbook--'Barry Obama'--and was on his way. He was impressive enough so that, in 2008, I instantly recognized him during the Town Hall meeting debate with Sen. John McCain. He does something interesting where he will smile when you ask him something, continue to write, and then look at you with an answer. 

So I have nothing much to say about Obama, except that when I met him, he was exactly as nice as he is when the cameras are on him."

Marie-Lynn Richard

"I can't talk about the President, but I can speak about the 22-year-old Barack Obama. We worked in the same little company and I was his editor. He wrote a few articles on interest rate swaps for my newsletter, the Business International Money Report, which was aimed at treasurers and CFOs of multinational corporations. It was Barack's first job out of Columbia, and he wrote about it (in not particularly flattering terms) in Dreams of My Father.

Barack was quiet, thoughtful and kind. He treated everyone respectfully, regardless of their age, position or seniority. There was heavy partying going on at that little company, but Barack left at the end of the day and didn't socialize with his co-workers outside of the office. He was polite, helpful, and always cooperative.

I don't think he found the work particularly engaging, but he didn't complain about it. I liked him. I think everyone did.

I'll just add that I disagreed with some of his rhetoric and policies when he was in office, so there's no self-interest in this positive review. Though in hindsight, and given the President have now, perhaps I didnt appreciate him enough at the time."

Dan Armstrong

"I met Barack Obama in a completely nonpolitical context while he was a senator, but prior to when he ran for President.  He came to speak to one of his friends, who happened to be one of my friends that I was spending some time with.  

So, when we met, he was completely off-guard and just a regular dude. He introduced himself, shook my hand, smiled, told a joke, and talked to our mutual friend for a moment. He felt kind, genuine, and somewhat professorial. It wasn't much different than walking onto a college campus and speaking to a random professor (a charismatic one, not one of the super-introverted professors).  

You could tell he was obviously intelligent and well-educated, but also very charismatic. It wasn't much of an interaction, but he was certainly just being himself, and the whole thing was very genuine. I've interacted with a lot of politicians, and in this instance, I could tell he certainly was not in politics mode.

My impression of him was positive. I did not recognize him until he introduced himself, and even then, to be honest, I didn't really know who he was."

Andrew Perpetua

"When he was running for Senate here in Illinois back in 2004, I was at Chicago's Union Station to take a train out to work. It was about 6 a.m. Candidate Obama was by himself, no entourage, shaking hands and chatting with commuters. I shook his hand and he asked me what I was doing, where I worked, etc. He was genuinely interested in what I had to say. 

I spoke to him about healthcare. I was working as a freelancer at the time and had very poor coverage. In response, he offered some thoughts and smart discussion about our healthcare system, rather than simply saying, 'I'm going to fix it all.' I liked him immediately and felt he had a certain presence. I do remember thinking he would go far. I just didn't realize how far, how fast."

Kevin Watts

"I dated a woman a dozen years ago who knew the Obamas well when they lived in Hyde Park, where they still own a home. She used to babysit for them occasionally, so she had many occasions to observe and interact with them behind the scenes,' and she just raved about what good & impressive people they were. Kind, generous, humorous, caring, very smart and effortlessly socially skillful--that's the review she gave me."

Joseph Johnston

"My son Dusty, and our whole family, met the President in the Oval Office in 2011 as part of a Make A Wish. As we entered, Hillary Clinton was leaving. Before meeting with her, he had also had a tough meeting with House Republicans earlier in the day. 

He was so welcoming and comfortable. The way he interacted with my son, who is severely disabled, was a window into a good soul. We spent 20 minutes with him, and he was full of questions that made Dusty feel like he was the important one in the room. What a great guy."

Neil Brandom

"I was a lowly field producer for a local TV station the first time I met him, and he was contemplating a run for US Senate. He turned to me with a very serious tone, and said, 'Brittany. I just ate. Is there anything in my teeth?' He smiled broadly. 'Please don't let me go on television with something in my teeth!'

Charming, humble, normal, just like the rest of us. I had similar off camera interactions as a young newsperson with Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, John Edwards, Mayor Richard M. Daley, even HRC. I could go on. Not one was as personal and genuine as Obama. Say what you want about his politics, but Barack Obama is a genuinely good man."

Brittany Troop Abbate

Article Sources: 1, 2

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