President Obama found an enthusiastic crowd inside the Sony Pictures soundstage… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Reno and Los Angeles — The Secret Service won't let him pump his own gas. The armchair political consultants think he botched the healthcare overhaul. By his own reckoning, he is older, grayer, but no less impatient with Washington's sclerotic political system than the typical 2008 Obama volunteer with that peeling "hope" poster tacked to the wall.
President Obama landed in Los Angeles on Thursday at the end of a two-day Western swing that served to promote his deficit-reduction plan and raise campaign funds, but also offered a few glimpses into the president's psyche at the midway point of what he hopes will be his first of two terms.
Ping-ponging between raucous fundraising events and scripted town hall meetings in California and Nevada, Obama flashed an introspective side that he normally conceals behind disciplined talking points and an unflappable persona.
At several events over the two days, he told audiences he was "frustrated" — tired of disingenuous political arguments and annoyed that some of his administration's deeds have been little noticed. Nobody seems to realize that he cut taxes, he noted at one event.
Speaking at a fundraising event at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Obama said he was certain his supporters shared some of that feeling.
"I know there are times when some of you felt frustrated because we haven't gotten everything we wanted to get done right away," he said. "I know who you all are. I know the conversations you've been having: 'Oh, I don't know. I don't like that compromise with the Republicans. I don't know, that healthcare thing — why did it take so long? I don't know, Obama, he's older now. He used to look so fresh and exciting. I still have that poster, but I don't know.'
"Look, there are times when I've been frustrated, just like you've been. But we knew this wasn't going to be easy."
There's a method behind this message: Obama wants to show he understands that core supporters are disillusioned with compromises he's made. He needs to reenergize them for the campaign. Along his motorcade route to the studio lot, a knot of protesters held signs expressing left-wing disenchantment with the president, such as "$ for Jobs & Schools not War."
But the confessional tone also has created some unusual scenes, in which his listeners feel compelled to buck up the leader of the free world.
With his graying hair and lined face, Obama told supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser on Wednesday that he looks older than he did in the campaign.
At that, a woman shouted: "That's all right. You're still fine."
In full campaign mode, Obama takes pains to list what he views as his administration's accomplishments: Two women appointed to the Supreme Court, major investments in energy, a healthcare overhaul on a scale that eluded so many of his modern predecessors.
But he also seems dismayed at times by what he describes as the hypocrisy of high-level politics. One example, he said in an appearance in Reno, where he answered friendly questions at a factory before flying to Los Angeles, is the way conservative politicians react to the $787-billion economic stimulus package.
Obama said he has watched on television as officeholders criticize the stimulus, even though they have taken the money to use for their states.
"That guy right here? He took that check! And he used it to balance his budget, and then he starts getting on TV complaining about how irresponsible we are? What are you talking about?" Obama said. "It's not on the level sometimes."
And don't get him started on taxes. He gave his Reno audience a pop quiz.
"How many people here know that not only did we cut your taxes when I first came into office, but back in December we just cut your taxes again? How many folks are aware of that?"
There was some scattered applause among the 425 people in attendance. Obama's voice rose.
"You wouldn't know it from watching TV. You would think that I was just out there raising everybody's taxes."
Being Barack Obama has its consolations, though.
Polls show he matches up well against likely Republican opponents in the 2012 race. His income tax returns, released by the White House this week, show that he made $1.7 million last year.
But some days, it's hard not to dwell on the negative.
In his visit to Facebook headquarters Wednesday in Palo Alto, Obama mentioned that he had 19 million Facebook "friends."
Not bad, but a number that "puts me half a million friends behind SpongeBob SquarePants."
He added: "So that's something to aspire to."
Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.