President Obama has a history of pointing out the restrictive lifestyle behind the tight security of the Secret Service, frequently explaining how much he misses his personal freedom.
“Shortly after I had been elected — Bill can relate to this — the Secret Service bubble shrinks and it starts really clamping down,” Obama said during a 2012 fundraiser in New York City with former President Bill Clinton.
“The thing that you miss most when you’re President – extraordinary privilege, and really nice plane and all kinds of stuff – but suddenly, not only have you lost your anonymity, but your capacity to just wander around and go into a bookstore, or go to a coffee shop, or walk through Central Park,” he said.
The President’s political team exploited Obama’s wistfulness last summer, as they tried to emphasize that Obama was an ordinary person who was engaged with the American people.
In public, Obama would talk about how he felt like a “caged bear” behind the Secret Service agents that yearned to get lose.
“The Secret Service — I always tease them. I’m like a caged bear, and every once in a while I break loose – and I’m feeling super loose today,” he said during a Town Hall Event in Minnesota. “So you don’t know what I might do. You don’t know what I might do. Who knows?”
“Keep in mind, I don’t get a chance to take walks very often,” he explained during a New York visit in May. “Secret Service gets a little stressed. But every once in a while I’m able to sneak off. I’m sort of like the circus bear that kind of breaks the chain, and I start taking off, and everybody starts whispering, the bear is loose!”
As he strode on the streets of Washington D.C. to get some Starbucks one afternoon, Obama appeared mildly embarrassed by the scene his security team was causing.
“Suddenly there’s no one on the streets anymore,” he said with a grin. “Oh well.”
As he crossed the street, he added, “Guys, you gotta give me a little space though. C’mon. The whole point is not to have… move ’em up a little further.”
At a DNC fundraiser in July, Obama recalled the last time he remembered walking alone by a river in Austin, TX before a primary debate.
“The last time I took a walk unencumbered was in Austin, Texas. True story,” he said, “And I walked along the river, and I got about probably a mile, mile and a half, and then some people started spotting me so that by the time — Secret Service got nervous, and then by the time we got back, there was a big rope line and there was all the fuss. And I have wistful memories of that walk.”
During a 2010 interview, Obama also complained that it was difficult to go out in public with his children.
“There is a value to anonymity in terms of just being able to wander around, sit on a park bench, take your kids to get ice cream without having Secret Service and helicopters over you,” he said. “That part of this life I’ll never get used to.”
Even First Lady Michelle Obama has expressed her desire to get free — at one point describing the White House as a “really nice prison.”
“Sometimes I miss being able to walk out the front door and go wherever I want to, whenever I want to,” she said during a Q-and-A with children at the White House. “Sometimes I miss walking around where nobody even cares whether you’re there. So sometimes me and the President, we dream about sneaking out of the White House and going to have ice cream, and nobody really knowing who we are.
In 2012, she joked that she would drive the Secret Service crazy if she walked out the door.
“I technically could. It would drive a lot of people crazy,” she said when asked by David Letterman if she could go to 7-11 for a Slurpee.
“I threaten to do it, I do it all the time, I say, ‘I’m walking out that door, I’m walking out. I’m leaving!’ You see people talking into their wrists, ‘Is she kidding?’ – I’m going to do it one day.”
Obama also appears self-conscious about his level of security in the modern presidency.
During a 2013 visit to Tanzania, Obama recalled when Robert Kennedy arrived for a visit in the back of an open truck instead of a “fortified limousine.”
“As Kennedy’s truck made its way through the crowds, he picked up two boys and let them ride alongside them,” Obama said. “The Secret Service doesn’t let me do these things.”
In 2010, while visiting with newly elected governors at the White House, Obama recalled a time when President Lincoln didn’t have to deal with the Secret Service.
“[A]t the time that he was President, visitors used to be able to come in — Secret Service weren’t there to nag you and frisk you,” he said, recalling a story about Lincoln meeting with a citizen who demanded to see him at the White House.
While visiting factories and hosting events at the White House, Obama’s attitude towards the Secret Service frequently turns jocular, treating agents like babysitters keeping him out of trouble.
“I felt pretty good,” Obama said after sitting in a Chevrolet Sonic. “They took away the keys, though. Secret Service wouldn’t let me [drive].”
Obama also frequently talked about not being allowed to drive a Chevrolet Volt.
“I was able to drive like five feet before Secret Service said to stop,” Obama said, recalling a visit to a factory in 2010.
In spite of his complaints, Obama appears to understand that the restrictions are part of the job.
“One of the things about being President — I’ve talked about this before — is that some nights when you want to go out and just take a walk, clear your head, or jump into a car just to take a drive, you can’t do it. Secret Service won’t let you. And that’s frustrating,” he said during a White House concert.
Then he added, “But then there are other nights where B.B. King and Mick Jagger come over to your house to play for a concert. So I guess things even out a little bit.”