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Adjusting to Unreality

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; 9:58 AM

Barack Obama can't complain.

He can't fret about having his BlackBerry taken away. He can't gripe about not being able to drive his own car. He can't moan about not being able to take his wife to dinner without causing a major fuss. He asked for this new life.

And in fairness, Obama isn't complaining. But it's fascinating to watch what seems like a fairly normal guy -- to the extent that anyone who runs the presidential marathon can be considered normal -- as he is enveloped by the aura of abnormality that is life in the White House.

It's a shame, really, that presidents can't do something as simple as e-mail with old friends. It would help them pierce the bubble just a bit. They travel the world on Air Force One, have a personal chef, are surrounded by a supportive staff and have little unsupervised contact with ordinary people. All this is driven by logical reasons -- security concerns, demands on his time -- but can have the effect of leaving the country's leader out of touch.

Four of our past five presidents had been governors, living in mansions, and one had been vice president, living in the old Naval Observatory residence. They were, in other words, already in mini-bubbles before they reached the Oval Office. But Obama, as a senator for four years, still lives in a house -- a very nice Chicago house, to be sure, but a normal residence nonetheless. He doesn't have a ranch. He likes to play pickup basketball.

Can a former community organizer find happiness within the confines of the presidency? Yes, he gets to hang at Camp David, any movie he wants can be shown in the White House theater, and he'll be closer to his daughters living above the store. But to be constantly surrounded by Secret Service and trailed by the press is to live a life unlike that of any other American. No wonder, as John Dickerson notes in Slate, Obama in his "60 Minutes" chat talked about relaxing by washing the dishes.

"Of course, Obama (unlike me) doesn't need to wash dishes anymore. He's won. He doesn't even need to pretend. No need to drink beer at a bar or go bowling, either, or to otherwise offer demonstrations that he's a regular guy. Soon he will be the most powerful man in the world . . .

"Any professional who has been on the road for a long period of time can identify with the drift away from a normal life. Your cooking skills are replaced by room-service-ordering skills. Gradually, you forget which floor your office is on or whether you take a left or a right turn from home to get to church. A presidential candidate experiences this bubble-wrapped life completely. He lives in a world where his meals, movements, and laundry are all taken care of for him. This is necessary so that he can focus on NAFTA and Afghanistan . . .

"Sure, the new president has a brutal agenda ahead of him, but in this twilight moment of pause he can luxuriate in being free of the thousands of immediate details of campaign life. And unlike any incoming president in modern memory, Obama has returned from the prison of campaign life to a relatively normal life. Yes, he has the constant Secret Service protection, and he can't drive his own car. But within the four walls of his home, it feels normal."

For now, that is.

By the way, don't the Obamas have a dishwasher?

Looks like the nation is going to get its first black attorney general, which somehow seems less dramatic when we're about to get the first African American president.


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