Obama Struggles With Life in the Spotlight

Barack Obama wanted to escape. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day in London, warm and not a cloud in the sky, and all afternoon the president had been cooped up with foreign leaders inside a stuffy ballroom at Winfield House, a grand mansion that is home to the U.S. ambassador. The property has one of the largest and most beautiful private gardens in London. Its lawn, green and lush, is the length of several football fields, framed by shady magnolia trees that were just beginning to bloom.

For security and privacy, the Secret Service had covered the windows facing the lawn. But whenever a door leading to a back credenza opened, Obama was able to catch a glimpse of the outdoors. After he said goodbye to his last guest, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama walked to the back door and peered out. "Come on," he called to two of his closest aides, senior adviser David Axelrod and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "Let's go take a walk."
The Secret Service agents on duty "freaked," in the words of one senior Obama aide who recounted the story (and who, like others quoted in this story, asked for anonymity for the usual reasons). They raced ahead of the president, fanning out to make sure Obama was safe.

His regular team of agents—as they often remind Obama, much to his chagrin—do not enjoy moments of spontaneity like this. On the roof, snipers stood at the ready as the president and his aides slowly circled the lawn again and again. "We did that for about 45 minutes," Gibbs recalled. "Just looping around." They talked a bit about business—there was drama between the Chinese and French that put the looming G20 talks at risk—but mostly Obama kept quiet, taking in the view and keeping his thoughts to himself.

It was a rare moment of semi-freedom for a president who has struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy in the White House. Just two days later, at a town-hall meeting in France, Obama talked about the drawbacks of being president: "You know, it's very frustrating now. It used to be when I came to Europe that I could just wander down to a café, and sit and have some wine and watch people go by, and go into a little shop, and watch the sun go down. Now I'm in hotel rooms all the time and I have security around me all the time. And so just, you know, losing that ability to just take a walk, that is something that is frustrating."

Obama is hardly the first president to complain about life in the White House bubble. "I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible," wrote Woodrow Wilson. William Howard Taft called it "the loneliest place in the world." Harry Truman spoke of "the great white jail known as the White House," a phrase echoed by Bill Clinton, who called it "the crown jewel of the federal penal system."

Yet Obama seems to have had a tougher time adjusting than Clinton, or even George W. Bush, in part because he can still remember what it was like to be a normal person. Before becoming president, he spent just four years in the U.S. Senate; though he was hardly a stranger to the public, Obama still had a life. If he wanted to take a walk around Capitol Hill, he could—and often did. But Obama's temperament has also made the adjustment difficult. Though outgoing in public, Obama was an only child and spent a lot of time alone (he's described himself as being hermitlike during his days at Columbia University). That hasn't changed. "He likes solitude, where he can just take a moment and collect his thoughts and breathe," says a close Obama friend. "And in this job, there is none of that."

One escape for Obama has been Camp David. He didn't think he'd like the secluded presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, but he quickly fell for the place when he first visited a few weeks after the inauguration. Away from the press and the public, he and his family can "let loose and be themselves," he told an aide, who related the story to NEWSWEEK. The Obamas have hosted friends from Chicago at Camp David, including the president's best friends, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt, who played basketball with Obama and his personal aide, Reggie Love. The Obamas have been exploring the retreat's winding trails. "There's lots of open space where he can go for a walk and clear his mind," says Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House aide and longtime friend of the Obamas.

It's tough to feel too sorry for Obama (and he's said he doesn't want you to). After all, he did push hard for the privilege of being trapped in the White House. And it's a pretty safe bet he'll be asking to stay on another four years when his first term is up. But he's made it clear to aides that he doesn't much enjoy the pomp and circumstance that comes with the job. Just after Election Day, Obama went to his transition office in Chicago for the first time. Staffers stood at their desks as he passed, showing respect to the new president. About halfway down the hallway, Obama stopped dead in his tracks. "You know what, guys, this is weirding me out," Obama said, according to an aide. "You don't have to do that every time I walk by." (Aides do refer to him as Mr. President, as tradition requires.) Three months in, Obama is still not used to hearing the "Stars and Stripes" play when he enters a room or concludes a speech—and doesn't particularly enjoy it.

Obama has been frustrated by the enormous amount of planning and security that precedes his every step. During a flight to California in March, an aide says, he was told he would have a 30-second car ride from Air Force One to his first event, a town-hall meeting in Orange County. "Can I walk it?" Obama asked his lead Secret Service agent. "No, sir," the agent replied, explaining it was 750 yards away. Obama did the math. "That's, like, a five-minute walk?" the president said. The agent gave no ground: too unsafe, he said. Exiting the plane, Obama did as he was told and got into the limo. Thirty seconds later, as he prepared to take the stage, he turned to his staff. "We're walking on the way back," Obama said firmly. With the presidential limo driving slowly alongside him, Obama walked to his plane alone—or as alone as he can ever be. About 100 people, including Secret Service agents, his top aides and a White House doctor carrying a medical bag, scurried behind him. Settling back into his seat on Air Force One, Obama grinned like a kid. "OK," he declared. "That was great!"

But there are obvious pluses to living and working at the White House. For the first time in years, Obama and his family are under the same roof almost every night—something that hasn't happened since he was sworn in as a senator in 2005. Back then, Obama spent his weeks in Washington, D.C., while Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia stayed in Chicago. Now they have dinner together most evenings. Last week Obama was flying back to the White House on Marine One after a day trip to Iowa when he pointed out the window. "Look," Obama told his aides. Michelle, Malia and first dog Bo were on the Truman Balcony watching the president land. "It was wonderful for him," says Jarrett. "Having his family together again is a huge source of pleasure for him, and for them all."

Mostly, it's the little things that Obama has struggled to leave behind. Back in April 2007, just after he launched his campaign for the White House, he reluctantly agreed to take on Secret Service protection to ease the worries of his wife and his top aides. In doing so, he tried hard to retain as much normal routine in his life as possible, including frequent dates with Michelle. As president, date nights and casual outings are now the subject of intense White House planning sessions, requiring blueprints for travel, logistics and security. "Spontaneity is over," Jarrett says.

Maybe not entirely. In January, shortly after the Obamas moved into the White House, Washington's first big snowstorm hit. It was nothing by Chicago standards, but Michelle and the girls went outside to play on the snowy lawn anyway. On the way, they stopped by the Oval Office, where Obama was in a meeting with his senior aides. Sasha and Malia proudly showed off their makeshift sleds that staff in the White House kitchen had formed out of large cookie sheets. As they headed out the door, the girls waved to their dad. "This meeting is one minute from being adjourned," Obama declared. Sixty seconds later, he was up and out the door.

Obama Struggles With Life in the Spotlight | U.S.