MADISON, Wis. — President Obama marked the anniversary of his election Wednesday by speaking in unusually personal terms with schoolchildren and educators in a politically friendly state, far from the partisan fray.
His decision to come to James C. Wright Middle School, an innovative and ethnically mixed charter campus, was made weeks ago. But for Obama, the day served as a respite from the Afghan war, the health care scrum and the post-election punditry in Washington that he disdains.
He used the occasion both to pitch his education reforms and to speak about his life in the White House — as a father helping to oversee his daughters' studies, as a former community organizer who is now president.
He stepped into a gymnasium packed with several hundred people, including students wearing Obama T-shirts designed for the visit. In the flash of a hundred digital cameras, he told the audience that his "Election Day was a day of hope, it was a day of possibility."
"But it was also a sobering one," he said, "because we knew even then that we faced an array of challenges that would test us as a country."
The sobering moment he faces now is no longer the prospect of a collapsing economy; in states such as Wisconsin, the outlook is improving and even showing signs of job creation.
Still, in a hint of the anxiety felt among the progressive left about the president's plans, demonstrators outside the school held up signs demanding, "Fund Schools, Not Wars" and "Books, Not Bombs."
Late in his speech he strayed from the script to open a rare and fleetingly brief window on his life in the White House during this past year.
"Malia and Sasha are just wonderful kids," Obama said. "And Michelle is a wonderful mother."
But he noted that his daughters, like all other kids, "at times want to slack off" and prefer "a computer game to hitting the books."
He told a story of Malia, his sixth-grader, who came home recently with a 73 percent score on a science test. A few weeks earlier, she scored an 80 percent on a test, and Obama made clear that he expected more.
This time, she was unhappy with her performance without any prodding, and she laid out a plan to improve her study habits for the next test.
On Tuesday night, Obama told the audience, now raptly focused on him, she came home with a 95. There was a burst of applause. He smiled, paused.
He was a long way from Washington, talking about his kids to kids. "She told me, 'I just like having knowledge,' '' Obama said. "What had happened is that now she wanted it more than us."