Jonathan Darman: Mr. Obama's Washington

The life of a young senator in Washington can be lonely. After winning a Senate seat from Illinois in 2004, Barack Obama became a part-time bachelor. He lived three or four days a week in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the Capitol. He worked all day, and at night he missed his daughters and his wife, Michelle, left behind in Chicago. "I have chosen a life … that requires me to be gone from Michelle and the girls for long stretches of time and exposes Michelle to all sorts of stress," Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope." "Rationalizations seem feeble and painfully abstract when I'm missing one of the girls' school potlucks because of a vote, or calling Michelle to tell her that session's been extended and we need to postpone our vacation."

The Obamas' separated life was of their own making. When they had first pondered a run for the Senate, the couple had weighed the pros and cons of relocating to Washington. Obama quizzed Democrats on the balance between work life and home life; Michelle toured D.C. neighborhoods. In the end, they decided it was best to keep the home base in Chicago, where Michelle had her own career and the girls, Malia and Sasha, had a chance at normal life.

This is the stuff that people like about the Obamas—their insistence on maintaining something approximating "normal." From the start of their presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee and his wife have been at pains to show they view the capital as a strange and foreign place. They aren't the only ones. The Obamas are part of new generation of political couples that doesn't assume election to the Senate means a new life in Washington. Connie Schultz, a columnist for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, works at home in Ohio while her husband, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, spends weekdays in Washington. "What better way to keep a senator grounded," she says, "than to bring him or her home on a regular basis to the people who elected him or her?"

But while frequent-flier legislators have been a boon for constituent services, they aren't necessarily good for governance. Old-guard senators bemoan their new colleagues' eagerness to get out of town on Thursday nights, a tendency that the veterans believe has helped make Washington a more partisan place. It was easier to understand the gentleman from the other party, they reason, when you saw him cheering at St. Albans' soccer games. As he launches his general-election campaign, Obama faces the question always asked of outsider candidates: how do you change a place you've never really known? And as they contemplate capturing the White House under a banner of bipartisanship, Obama and his generation of senators face a broader dilemma: how do they work with their opponents when, for so long, they've lived their lives apart?

Members of Congress have always led geographically divided lives. In the early 19th century, the House and Senate convened in mid-December and typically closed by March or April, in time for members to head home for the planting season. The Civil War, however, made service in Congress a full-time job, and the men stuck in Washington sought to turn it into a real city. "They were trying to catch up with New York and Philadelphia society," says Betty Koed, assistant historian of the Senate. "They needed women to do that." By the mid-20th century, it was standard for senators to bring their families to town. Each of the last three presidents who had served in the Senate—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—raised families in the capital.

Senators' spouses and kids became creatures of Washington, for better and for worse. This was the heyday of the Georgetown dinner party, of men with martini glasses and hostesses in flowing gowns out of "Advise and Consent." John Warner, the Republican from Virginia, retiring after six terms, remembers this Senate as "a close-knit family" where "a new senator had a big brother and his wife had a big sister." The collegial quarters made it harder to stay mad. "I remember in the good old days, there were several senators who were known to keep a pretty good bar," says Warner. "We would just go down and have a sip together and go home. The fight was over."

A series of revolutions swept that Washington away. First the women's movement made senators' wives wonder why they were expected to drop their own lives to be at their husbands' beck and call. Then the 1994 Republican revolt made it a badge of honor to live out of a suitcase on Capitol Hill. Money dealt the fatal blow: by the late '90s, re-election campaigns cost so much that senators begged their leadership for short, Tuesday-through-Thursday sessions so they could spend the weekends raising money at home. A Washington residence for the family seemed pointless. By 2007, a majority of freshmen senators were arriving in the capital without their families.

Without the civilizing influence of spouses and children, Washington has receded into the swamp. Georgetown parties now belong to journalists and lobbyists. The influence peddlers have shifted much of the city's social center to Capitol Hill, where members of Congress bunk together in town houses for three and four and make their way at night between fund-raisers and receptions.

Obama stepped into this bachelor wilderness in 2005. Michael Strautmanis, Obama's chief counsel, recalls getting a call from the senator in the months before his term began. "Don't worry, this won't be in your job description," said the senator, "but I need you to help me look for a mattress." Obama shunned the party scene, confining his socializing to fund-raisers, dinners with policy experts and the occasional meal with old law-school classmates. "I'm not aware that he ever went to a residential party," says Cassandra Butts, a law-school friend who helped him set up his Senate office. "He could have developed much deeper personal relationships if he had spent more time in D.C," says a senior aide who would describe a weakness only anonymously.

All this makes for a sharp generational contrast between Obama and his Republican opponent. John McCain, too, never brought his family to Washington—but, until recently, he was certainly happy to make his way to Georgetown for a party or a dinner with friends. Warner, who supports McCain, says the Arizonan's "long service in the Senate" has helped him establish "close personal relationships with many senators across the aisle, which is an essential element to bipartisan success."

Obama's generation, meanwhile, scoffs at the notion that living in Washington makes for better public servants. "Don't tell me you're saying women are responsible for partisan discord," Schultz says with a sigh. "Just because [senators] don't sit around and drink a lot doesn't mean they don't talk." It's a fair point. But if they make it to the White House, the Obamas will have to live in Washington, full time. Obama often speaks about how he'd change the tone in Washington, appointing Republicans to his cabinet and encouraging open debate. He might also try some of the old customs—getting out to dinner, and opening up the bar.