Excerpted from The Hill: President Obama’s recent campaign-style adventures outside of the White House bubble are a chance for the president to shed the confines of his office, relishing the beer, barbecue, and face-to-face conversations with everyday Americans he wistfully describes as too inaccessible as president.
But the more frequently “the bear gets loose”, as the president and top staffers jokingly refer to the unscheduled forays away from the White House grounds, the more heartburn the president causes for the Secret Service agents charged with protecting his life.
Obama himself acknowledges that his impromptu walks and trips to restaurants can prove stressful for his security detail.
“I don’t get a chance to take walks very often,” he told a crowd in New York earlier this year. “Secret Service gets a little stressed. But every once in a while I’m able to sneak off.”
In Minneapolis late last month, he told a town hall meeting he liked to “tease” his Secret Service agents about how he was becoming unpredictable, before taking an unscheduled trip to a natural foods store and ice cream parlor. And in Austin earlier this week, Obama described how during a previous trip to the city, an unscheduled walk along the river had tested his detail’s nerves.
“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,” Obama said.
The pull between allowing the president more freedom to engage with voters, escaping the confines of his office and the security challenges such movements create seemed crystalized in a pair of events during Obama’s trip to Denver earlier this week.
After grabbing some pizza at a photo-op with individuals who had written him letters, the president decided to forgo his motorcade and instead walk down a downtown promenade. During that trip, the president was approached by — and ended up shaking hands with — a man wearing a full latex horse mask.
Later that evening, Obama dropped by a pool hall and brewery, where one patron asked Obama if he wanted to smoke pot with him.
“Do you want a hit, man?” the man says on a video that quickly went viral online.
While both incidents were ultimately harmless, they underscored the unpredictability of what can happen when a president ventures out of the bubble.
“Any time the president leaves the White House complex, there are risks involved,” said Secret Service spokesman Ed Donvoan.
So-called “off the record” events pose a “unique challenge” for the president’s security team, said Dan Emmett, a former Secret Service agent and the author of “Within Arm’s Length,” a book about his time working on presidential details across three administrations.
“There’s a huge challenge in that you have virtually no time to put it together,” Emmett said. “The biggest worry is wandering random crime in progress, or if you happen to run into the random crazy guy – the people walking down the street talking to themselves who could be armed somehow.”
The Secret Service was reluctant to discuss if they had had discussions with the president’s staff about the frequency of the president’s “off the record trips,” which are happening with greater frequency as the midterm elections approach.
Obama has not been subtle in indicating that such trips are more likely.
“What I’ve said to my team is ‘Get me out of Washington,’?” Obama told donors at a fundraiser Wednesday night in Texas. Read the whole thing