But away from the public eye, advisers say, the president has carefully nurtured a sense of spirituality that has served as a grounding mechanism in turbulent times, when the obstacles to governing a deeply divided nation seem nearly insurmountable.
Every year on Aug. 4, the president’s birthday, Obama convenes a group of pastors by phone to receive their prayers for him for the year to come.
During challenging times, prayer circles are organized with prominent religious figures such as megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights activist.
Each morning for the past five years, before most of his aides arrive at the White House, Obama has read a devotional written for him and sent to his BlackBerry, weaving together Scripture with reflections from literary figures such as Maya Angelou and C.S. Lewis.
“I’ve certainly seen the president’s faith grow in his time in office,” said Joshua DuBois, an informal spiritual adviser to Obama who writes the devotionals and who ran Obama’s faith-based office until earlier this year. “When you cultivate your faith, it grows.”
Obama is particularly moved by theories that draw connections between biblical themes and the personal journeys of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., DuBois said.
He added that the president’s spiritual strength is his belief that God will carry him through to see another day.
“Because of these grounding aspects of his life, he doesn’t let the day-to-day challenges really shake him,” said DuBois, a former associate pastor at a Pentecostal church.
The image of Obama as someone who draws heavily on faith to guide his daily life contrasts with his public persona. An intensely private person, Obama has shied away from all but the most general descriptions of his spiritual life.
“Sometimes I search Scripture to determine how best to balance life as a president and as a husband and as a father,” Obama said in February at the National Prayer Breakfast. “I often search for Scripture to figure out how I can be a better man as well as a better president.”
The best clues to which texts fortify Obama’s spiritual consumption might come from the daily devotionals that DuBois started sending Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, in 2008.
DuBois ran religious outreach for the presidential campaign that year, and his digital benedictions for Obama have been compiled in a forthcoming book, The President’s Devotional.
“A snippet of Scripture for me to reflect on,” Obama has said. “And it has meant the world to me.”
At pivotal moments in Obama’s presidency, DuBois sometimes selects texts that offer lessons appropriate to the challenges at hand.
Before one State of the Union address, it was the words of Isaiah: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
Others are intended as an oasis from conflicts: “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair,” reads a verse from 2 Corinthians that DuBois sent Obama one November.
In his final years in office, Obama plans to continue with the morning meditations, the birthday call with pastors and ad hoc prayer circles, said a senior administration official, who wasn’t authorized to comment by name on Obama’s spiritual life and requested anonymity.
In times of crisis, from hurricanes to school shootings, many Americans look to their president as a source of strength and comfort.
“This office tends to make a person pray more,” Obama said last year in an interview with Cathedral Age magazine. “And as President Lincoln once said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’ ”