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Wednesday, November 19, 2008; Page A21

Barack Obama, poor guy, would just like to go out for a walk.

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One of the most poignant moments in the Obamas interview with "60 Minutes" came when Steve Kroft asked the president-elect how his life had changed since Election Day.

"There's still some things we're not adjusted to," Barack Obama said.

"Like what?" Michelle Obama asked.

"Me not being able to take a walk," her husband replied. "I'd love to take you for a walk."

Every president-to-be goes through this transformation; every president chafes at it. Harry Truman spoke of "this great white jail known as the White House." Bill Clinton called it "the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system."

Yet for most presidents, this loss -- the deprivation of both autonomy and anonymity -- is not the jolting event that it is for Obama. Some, like John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush, were born to prominence and scrutiny; others have become acclimated to it over years in politics. Before the White House has come the governor's mansion or the vice presidency, with cosseting staffs and hovering security details.

But Obama is unique in his warp-speed transformation from obscure state senator to 44th president in just four years. The obvious downside is his lack of experience, but the potential advantage is his unusual proximity to normality. In the isolation chamber of the White House, it can be useful not only to know real people but to have been one yourself in the not-so-distant past.

"I actually think that we are as close to what normal folks go through, and what their lives are like, as just about anybody who's been elected president recently," Obama told Kroft. "Hanging on to that is something that's important."

Different presidents experience the constraints of the office in different ways. Clinton craved human contact. He was happy -- delighted, actually -- if everyone he met knew exactly who he was, as long as he could talk to them.

In his autobiography, Clinton described going out for a run as president-elect, and stopping, as was his habit, at McDonald's, where he met a 59-year-old man who had lost his job in the recession. "I walked back to the hotel thinking about that man, and how I could manage to keep in touch with the problems of people like him from behind the wall that surrounds every president."

Obama, more self-contained, seems instead to yearn for the freedom of "being able to just wander around the neighborhood." That "loss of anonymity," he said, is "something that I don't think I'll ever get used to."


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