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Hours Into His Presidency, Obama Chafes at the Bubble

By Eli Saslow and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Barack Obama used to be a walker, breaking from his work for 15 minutes each afternoon to stroll outside and clear his head. But that was then. On the first day of his life as the 44th president of the United States, Obama needed to travel three blocks from his temporary home to a church service. The trip required 20 Secret Service agents, a 14-car motorcade, precautionary gas masks and a specially armored Cadillac limousine.

That wake-up call at 8:47 a.m. set the tone for the rest of Obama's day and foreshadowed at least the next four years of his life. Simple trips will never again be simple; personal space will no longer belong to him. So, even as he celebrated his inauguration, Obama acted like a man bestowed with sobering new burdens.

He spent much of his 18 1/2 -minute inaugural address outlining the challenges that await the country, and he solemnly accepted good-luck wishes from dozens of religious leaders and politicians who cautioned him on the import of his new position. He did brighten last night as he caressed his wife for their first official dance as president and first lady, during the first of 10 inaugural balls they attended last night. But for much of the day, he tilted his chin high and cast his eyes forward, like a boxer readying for the fight ahead.

The transition to power provided Obama with one long reminder that few things will come easy now. He planned to be at St. John's Church on Lafayette Square at 9 a.m., but his motorcade started making preparations for the trip at 7:45. A small army of local police officers and Secret Service agents guarded the back door to Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue, which itself was closed off by a large metal fence and protected by two security checkpoints.

Obama's guests exited Blair House first -- his sister, two in-laws, and a few more friends and advisers -- and split into identical limousines with blue license plates bearing the number 1. Then, in preparation for Obama, one of the limousines backed toward the Blair House door and inched until its rear bumper nearly touched the exit.

Ever since May 2007, when Obama became the earliest presidential candidate to be placed under Secret Service protection, he has chafed at the confines of security. He complained when advisers asked him to stop driving his own car, browsing alone through his favorite Chicago bookstore and running along Lake Michigan. He chafed at the idea of giving up his BlackBerry during the transition to the presidency.

When Obama walked out of Blair House yesterday, he was left with about 10 feet of open air that still belonged to him. Two Secret Service agents ushered him to the limousine, opened his door and closed it quickly behind him. Obama disappeared into a car referred to as "The Beast."

Built especially for Obama by General Motors, the car is reportedly equipped with eight-inch-thick armor-plated doors and pump-action shotguns. It contains night-vision cameras, Kevlar-reinforced tires and tear gas cannons. It has been environmentally sealed against chemical attacks and can generate an independent oxygen supply. And, just in case, the Beast pulled away from Blair House escorted by police motorcycles, Secret Service agents and a counterassault team.

It arrived at the church 90 seconds later.

In the past 2 1/2 months, as he began assembling his government, Obama also prepared for a more personal transition, friends said. He spoke candidly to his two daughters about living in the presidential spotlight and then encouraged his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, to move into the White House to ease the family's transition. He asked friend Mike Signator to watch over his house in Chicago and help preserve the life the Obamas built there.

But no amount of preparation could have steeled Obama for the suddenness of the transition -- a new house with new employees, a new job with unrivaled responsibility. During the morning church service, Dallas minister T.D. Jakes turned to him and offered a summation of the president's new reality.

"The problems are mighty, and the solutions are not simple," Jakes said. "And everywhere you turn, there will be a critic waiting to attack every decision that you make. But you are all fired up, sir, and you are ready to go. And this nation goes with you. God goes with you."

After church, Obama returned to the motorcade for a one-block ride to the White House, where he and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. met over coffee with their outgoing counterparts, President Bush and Vice President Cheney. After that, onlookers screamed and cheered as Obama's motorcade slowly made its way up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol for the transfer of power. Obama maintained a steady, determined look as he made his way to the west outdoor platform and took the oath of office.

Well over 1 million people greeted him there, braving frigid temperatures to celebrate amid the stirring song and crisp ceremony that accompany presidential inaugurations. But, with his serious carriage and somber words, Obama made it clear that he was focused less on the momentous change represented by his election than on the daunting responsibilities he has inherited. He reminded the crowd of the nation's deepening economic problems and the struggle against terrorism while making only indirect reference to his own history-making achievement.

"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real," he said. "They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time."

When Obama finally did get to celebrate, traveling yesterday afternoon along a 1.7-mile parade route lined with supporters, he again sat apart from the world and inside the Beast. He was guarded by two sets of fences, a row of heavily armored police officers wearing riot gear, eight motorcycles and four Secret Service agents who walked alongside the car. Obama stared out from his bubble at an adoring crowd, waving back, his breath fogging a bulletproof window.

Twenty minutes into the parade, the Beast pulled to a sudden stop. Obama's door swung open. He stepped out with his wife, Michelle. The crowd burst into applause. Obama burst into a smile.

For the first time all day, the president stepped out for a walk.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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