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September 6, 2011

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Getting by with a little help from friends

US President Barack Obama has a trusted circle of friends who enjoy teasing him and allowing him to relax when he's not on duty, writes Erica Werner.

They golf with him, they vacation with him, their kids and his kids hang out. To them, he is Barack, not Mr President. He can be teased and tease back.

They form the trusted circle of tight-lipped friends who have sustained Barack Obama through good times and bad since his days in Chicago, from Hawaii to Washington to Martha's Vineyard and back again.

For the most powerful man on the planet who nonetheless may have one of the loneliest jobs, a close band of buddies - Eric Whitaker, Martin Nesbitt and Valerie Jarrett form the core - has become a second family, to a degree replacing the one he lost or never had with the absence of his father and death of his mother in 1995.

Apart from wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha, they are the people he is closest with. And to the American president, in his private life a creature of habit, there's a comfort in turning to trusted friends with whom confidence runs deep and there is no question about where loyalties lie.

"I think that for a president of the United States who's always on, it's a relief to be around people who've known you for a very long time so that you can just be comfortable, No. 1 being yourself, and No. 2 knowing that you can trust them completely," Jarrett said.

"There's a level of trust that has withstood the test of time. He doesn't have to worry about his friends leaking the details of his vacation to the press," she said.

"He enjoys being around people who are completely comfortable teasing him and treating him like a friend and not the president of the United States."

The three friendships date back to Obama's years in Chicago and he has maintained the ties remarkably close, even though he has not returned home to Chicago as much as he once said he had hoped to.

This warm season, Jarrett, whom Obama brought to the White House as a senior adviser, and Whitaker, an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center, vacationed with Obama on the Vineyard, the exclusive island off the coast of Massachusetts where Obama has been coming for more than 15 years, although not as long as Jarrett, who has been visiting since she was a young girl.

For Obama the annual vacation has assumed a sameness, providing an oasis of stability and normalcy that's missing in other aspects of his life. He golfs at the same island courses every year, and there is Whitaker, sitting next to him as he drives the cart. He and Michelle and the girls hit the same bike trail and shop at the same book store. They buy fried shrimp every year at Nancy's seafood restaurant, and sun themselves at the same beach; Jarrett is there, too, as the president relaxes and watches his girls swim in the ocean.

Nesbitt, who started and heads an airport parking company, doesn't come to the Vineyard although the friends hope to get him here sometime. But on Obama's other annual getaway, in his home state of Hawaii, they're all together again.

Nesbitt and Whitaker also turn up frequently in Washington, sometimes at unexpected times. The day after Obama struck a deal with Republicans in April to avert a government shutdown, he paid a quick, unannounced trip to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall to show that the nation's parks and monuments were open for business. Whitaker was at his side, and the two bounded cheerfully together up the imposing stone steps.

The core group met and cemented their relationship through various Chicago connections, including ties at the University of Chicago, where Nesbitt and Michelle Obama's brother attended business school together. Jarrett first met the Obamas in 1991, when she hired Michelle, then engaged to Barack Obama, to work in Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's administration.

The White House declined to make Nesbitt or Whitaker available for comment, and neither returned a message left at their offices.

Obama has other friends too, among them Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts, whose Martha's Vineyard mansion he visited this week; and UBS executive Robert Wolf, who rounded out one of his Martha's Vineyard golf foursomes, but none quite so close. And wherever Obama goes in the world one of the three may be found at his side. They provide Obama a listening ear if he wants one on policy issues, but if he does not want to talk shop, then they just let him relax.

When they are hanging out, they watch movies, read, eat, play board games, the things people do on vacation, aides say. Last summer, to Jarrett's chagrin, the White House publicized that Obama had beaten her at Scrabble.

Harvard law Professor Charles Ogletree, a friend, one-time teacher and fellow Vineyard vacationer who hosted a reception for Obama on the island two weeks ago, said the president showed up with "no suit, no tie, and a wide smile and a sense of relief" about being in friendly territory.

"As you walk into a room and you see him, you see how relaxed, how unguarded, how open and funny, and yet how serious when it comes to playing Scrabble," Ogletree said. "There's no privilege to being the president or first lady; it's all about friends, having fun, enjoying family and engaging in serious trash talk with the winner."


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