Barack Obama came to the White House without a lot of experience in national politics and government. His rise from local to national was one of the fastest in American history.** He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and became president only four years later. (Obama had, overall, about 12 years in elective office, which put him at double the number of years G.W. Bush had before becoming president, but who’s counting?) In watching the presidency over the years, sometimes from the closer vantage of that of a White House reporter, it has been clear that virtually all presidents and their staff are surprised when they first walk on the big stage. The amount of media attention, for example, is one shock. The attention is unending, night and day, weekdays and weekends, hour by hour, minute by minute. Everything that happens in the White House is, in one way or another, potential news.
There are a multitude of other shocks as well. Many who have served in recent decades have said they get to see more of their families than previously because, after all, they are “living above the store” and it is only a short walk from the Oval office to the private residence. The constant attention and protection of the Secret Service is something that presidents appreciate and, at the same time, would like to escape if they could. They don’t call the president “the prisoner of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” without some meaning in the phrase. In fact, presidents are prisoners of their office, their power and the dangers that await them outside the White House.
President Obama, now running through his 6th year as president, appears to have made an important discovery of late: he can, in fact, get out and have lunch if he wants to. And, he can do it much more frequently than once a month. He did it again today (6.23.14), eating at Chipotle in Woodley Park in upper northwest DC. He’s been out like that quite a bit lately and not too long ago decided to walk from the White House to the Interior Department for a meeting. He announced to everyone on the walk: “the bear is out!”.
This is a big change for Obama and an enormous change from the years after the 9-11 attacks of 2001, when the vice-president, Cheney, was often described as being in a “secure location” rather than at any official place or residence. Obama appears to have discovered, perhaps a little late, that he is in charge of the Secret Service, rather than the other way around. This is healthy and might even help Obama in his mood and governing style, but only time will tell. In any case, breathing fresh air outside the White House can’t hurt and will likely help him endure the years ahead of his presidency.
The key to this kind of thing from the viewpoint of protecting the president is to make the visits completely unannounced in areas where Obama is not necessarily expected to be. Of course, there are give away signs that a president might be coming to a restaurant, but those signs remain a matter of security, even though long time residents of DC readily know what they are. (I am not going to mention any of them here.)
There is a certain risk in “security” being applied when a president is trying to do his job. Whoever advised G.W. Bush to remain airborne made him look like a bit of a fool by flying him around the country, rather than back to DC, after the 9-11 attacks. It looked like he was running and hiding rather than dealing with the nation’s problems.
Clearly, a president must know when to override the concerns about security, when to assert that the threat to him is less important than the threat to the nation. In movies, the Secret Service is often shown grabbing a president and shoving him into a limo. This might be an exaggeration, but Cheney reported that he was similarly grabbed and taken to the White House bunker. This can be dangerous because someone being shoved around is obviously not able to conduct business at that moment.
Obama, citizen and resident of DC, is a new discovery. Beware of where you have your lunch. You just might have to share the experience with the President, lots of Secret Service agents and with a “press pool” standing outside, rain or shine.
Doug Terry, 6.23.14
**A faster rise to the presidency was had by Teddy Roosevelt who became president with less than seven full months as vice-president after having been Governor of New York. At 42, however, Roosevelt, our youngest president ever, was even at that point a highly experienced politician.