- President Biden has described living in the White House as "a little like a gilded cage."
- He has ways to break out of the bubble, like this weekend's planned trip back home to Delaware.
- There are also "weekly conversations" to connect with everyday Americans during COVID.
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President Joe Biden has said he feels "extremely self-conscious" when people wait on him at the White House.
Life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as he put it in a CNN town hall, is "a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things."
When he tries to escape it all, say for one of the handful of treks he's made home to Delaware, there's a chance his motorcade will snarl traffic, as it did when he attended a St. Patrick's Day mass. "The whole city of Wilmington practically was shut down," Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said, explaining to fellow senators on a webcast why he missed his train and had to take the next one. "No traffic was moving."
It's a safe bet that, while Biden has had his eye on the presidency for most of his adult life, there's probably a tiny part of "Amtrak Joe" that wouldn't mind being the one on that train, riding from the station bearing his name in Wilmington to Washington like he did for 36 years while representing Delaware in the Senate.
White House living isn't quite that simple for any president, including a notoriously gregarious one currently under additional pandemic restrictions — or even his dogs, who have had some bad headlines. Even Biden's Peloton was seen as a potential security risk.
Presidents live in a bubble where normal outreach to everyday people is tough. So is running an errand or stopping to grab your favorite sub at Delaware-founded Capriotti's.
"It's a huge disruption every time they go anywhere, and that's isolating," said Matt Bennett, a cofounder of the Third Way think tank who worked in former President Bill Clinton's White House. In Biden's case, Bennett added, he can't be out there, shaking hands or inviting people to come over. "He's still shackled by the pandemic, but hopefully, soon enough, that will be over."
So far, Biden's trips to Delaware have produced uneventful pool reports from the journalists tasked with tracking his every public move. The president regularly leaves his suburban home for church, sometimes with his grandchildren in tow. The family has also visited Camp David a few times, including on Easter weekend.
"It's a limited group, and certainly not the big Irish Biden clan that many of you have seen throughout the course of his time in public office," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked about the message a family gathering would send during COVID restrictions.
What about the 'Secondary Hold?'
In his book "A Promised Land," former President Barack Obama described the "pervasive, routine weirdness" of life in the White House that he experienced shortly after taking office. He recalled wanting to ditch the press corps on private outings, and how his Secret Service agents tracked his every activity, including bathroom trips: "Renegade to Secondary Hold," they would say.
Obama also complained about the way everyone would stand up when he entered a room: "'Sit down,' I'd growl, telling my team that those kinds of formalities weren't my style. They'd smile and nod — and then do the exact same thing the next time we met."
Presidential bubbles can also be confining on other levels, including when aides shy away from saying something the president doesn't want to hear, said Margaret Thompson, who teaches a course on the modern presidency at Syracuse University. White House staff derive their power from their proximity to the president — and many don't want to jeopardize that by upsetting the boss, she said.
"You tend to cater to what you think the president wants to hear, even if you are well intentioned, and even if you start out, saying 'I'm going to speak truth to power,'" she said.
Most modern presidents have tried to combat that phenomenon by surrounding themselves with people who they are comfortable with and who remind them of when life was normal, Bennett said.
That's why Donald Trump had his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner working so close to him in the White House. It was the same story with Valerie Jarrett, a longtime Obama family friend who served as a senior advisor to the then-Democratic president.
For senior positions in the Biden administration, the president likewise turned to people he has known for decades. For instance, Ron Klain, his chief of staff, served as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1989 when Biden was chairman. Secretary of State Antony Blinken started as Biden's staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002.
"You have to have people around you who can tell you privately that you're wrong or that you need to do something differently," Bennett said.
'Where the Hell are we?'
Biden's earliest days as president, of course, have included some unique restrictions that make his experience different than any other in recent history.
After the January 6 Capitol riots, Biden's team nixed plans for him to travel to Washington for his inauguration via train, as he and Obama did in 2009, multiple news outlets reported. Security has remained intense, though part of the tall fencing surrounding the White House complex dating back to the Trump administration began to come down on Wednesday.
Meanwhile the threat of COVID still alters daily life. Axios' Mike Allen wrote that attendees at a meeting Biden held with historians described the White House as "ghostly quiet" because fewer aides are working in Biden's "COVID-era West Wing." Everyone wore masks and the glasses were covered with paper stamped with the presidential seal as part of COVID protections.
The pandemic has also upended Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress. That primetime speech on April 28 is expected to reflect COVID restrictions, with limitations on the number of lawmakers in the House chamber and social distancing, CNN reported.
Biden does have some experience with bubble living during his eight years as Obama's vice president. But he told CNN's Anderson Cooper during a February town hall that life at the US Naval Observatory was "totally different."
"You can walk off a porch in the summer and jump in a pool, and — and, you know, go into work," he said of the vice presidential residence that's just a short motorcade ride from the White House. "You can ride a bicycle around and never leave the property and work out."
Now, living in the White House, he joked, "I get up in the morning, look at Jill, and say, 'Where the Hell are we?'"
White House restrictions don't seem to be cramping the first lady's style. She is continuing her career as a community college professor. She's also continuing her pranks.
The woman who once stuffed herself in an overhead bin on Air Force Two, just to give someone a scare, was at it again on April Fools' Day. Posing as a flight attendant on a plane ride home from California, she donned a wig and a "Jasmine" name tag while passing out Dove ice cream bars to fool reporters. It worked.
Earlier, she decorated the White House North Lawn with big heart cutouts with messages including "unity," "compassion," and "love" as a Valentine message to the country. "I just wanted some joy," she told reporters, strolling amid the display with her husband and dogs.
Spontaneity may be more difficult for the president, who often appears to be sticking to the script crafted by White House speechwriters, communications staffers, and other top aides.
But a White House official pointed to the president's "weekly conversations" with everyday Americans as a way for him to connect during COVID.
During a trip to a DC hardware store, W.S. Jenks & Son, Biden got to talk with employees about the impact of the pandemic on small businesses, he called someone's mom — and he bought a pair of pliers.
Before the visit, the White House staff and Secret Service planned out where the interactions would take place in the store, trying to control as many variables as possible, said Mike Siegel, a co-owner. But Biden pushed some of that itinerary aside and made an unplanned stop at one of the urban farms housed in the building.
"He, himself, I would say followed about 15 to 20 percent of that script," Siegel said. "He decided early on that he was going to make the event a little bit more impactful for everyone involved."