Jarrett on Life in the White House Bubble

One of Obama's oldest friends and most trusted advisers on the personal constraints of White House life—and the occasional urge to break free.

Bartholet: How is [the president] adapting to life in the bubble? It was something that concerned him a bit.
Jarrett: It still concerns him. He chafes. He'd love nothing better than to slip away and go into an old bookstore and meet a random stranger and have a conversation. So accepting that that part of his life has changed, probably forever, has taken some getting used to, and I'd say he's still not used to it.

In ancient times, there was an Arab caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who would disguise himself and go out into the streets to check the pulse…
[Laughs] He'd love that. The circle of people that he interacts with every day is small by necessity. [However], we do a significant amount of outreach here in the White House; we've brought in a far more diverse circle of people with whom the president interacts. In a sense, he has to trust us to bring these new and fresh and diverse ideas to him because he doesn't have the opportunity to just go out in the world the way he used to.

You mentioned that he has a small circle around him. Some people have observed that it's basically a boys' club, [and] you are the exception. Can you discuss that, and what your role is in that small circle?
I guess I would disagree with the description of it as mostly male. Is the question, does the president have confidence in women and encircle himself with strong women to whom he gives a lot of responsibility? The answer is yes.

I recall early on that the president and the first lady were determined to have a regular date night, to be able to go out on the town.
Yeah, it was a great idea. It hasn't turned out to be as easy as they may have thought.

So what happened? Was there a moment when they realized…
I don't know if there was a single moment. I think it was a gradual evolution to realize how inconvenient it is to everybody else—whether it's the street closures, or the restaurant having to dedicate a room, or just the infrastructure it takes to move them around. It takes some of the spontaneity and therefore some of the fun out of it. And I think they also realized that right here in the White House they have a movie theater and they can have friends come over. He'll still surprise her from time to time and take her out. But I think that until you actually live here, you don't realize how much effort it is for a lot of other people to move just the two of them around.

So does he or she feel a sense of claustrophobia sometimes?
Camp David has been terrific. The president and the first lady both enjoy being able to drive their own go-cart and feel some sense of independence. It doesn't really feel like a bubble at Camp David. It's just beautiful, and the girls can invite friends, and they can have privacy. To tell you the truth, I never hear Michelle complain at all, and the only thing the president says is that he wishes he could have that spontaneous exit from time to time.

There was a lot of attention early on as to what church the Obamas were going to choose, and it seems that they have decided not to choose.
Well, not as yet. But they have been to church [in Washington] a few times, and there's a church at Camp David where they can go. Let's face it, it's a burden on the church to have the president and first lady visit. The congregation has to go through metal detectors.

[The president] has made some tough decisions, but has in the process alienated or disappointed some of his allies. Do you give [him] some of that feedback?
Oh, sure. I give him all the feedback, both the positive and the negative. [President Obama] didn't take his popularity and simply rest on that and become paralyzed for fear of disappointing.