The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Think President Obama missed D.C.’s traffic nightmare? Think again.

Traffic is bumper to bumper and mostly at a stand-still on the outer loop of the I-495 Capital Beltway after snow fell Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in National Harbor, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Travel has its privileges when you're the most powerful person in the free world.

But even for President Obama, the perks of the White House are no match for Mother Nature.

The president returned from a day trip to Detroit on Wednesday night just as an inch of snow was falling on the Washington region. As Air Force One touched down at Joint Base Andrews, the Secret Service made a "bad weather call," meaning the snow would force the president to return to the White House via motorcade instead of Marine One.

Easier said than done.

Area roads had not been treated with salt, and snow plows were slow to be deployed, creating a massive traffic jam on the Beltway, major thoroughfares and side streets across the region that delayed some commuters up to nine hours.

The decision to ground Marine One, moreover, was made so late that White House officials had to recruit a new set of reporters to travel with the president back to D.C. Normally, the reporters who would have assembled to watch Obama land, the in-town pool, would have traveled in vans out to Andrews Air Force Base to greet the president and accompany him to the White House. But there was not sufficient time to do that.

Instead, in mid-flight back to D.C. from Detroit, a White House press officer asked members of the press already traveling with the president to assemble a new protective pool. About half of them agreed, even though at least one group had to leave a car at the air force base’s parking lot.

Things weren't quite so bad for the president. But even he had a tricky commute, according to a pool report from Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason, who accompanied the motorcade to provide news coverage for the White House press corps. Mason writes:

Departing at 7:26 p.m., President Obama's motorcade made its way slowly from Joint Base Andrews to the White House through the snowy streets of suburban Maryland and Washington, D.C., stopping at most stoplights and easing its way through slow and crowded traffic, often employing sirens and flashing lights.

White House officials did take some practical precautions Wednesday night: rather than using the armored Cadillac known as "the Beast," the president traveled in a sport-utility vehicle instead.

Contrary to popular belief, the president's motorcade does not always have the streets to itself. Although local police often will bar traffic from the roads when the president is passing through, Obama, as have his predecessors, will sometimes follow traffic rules along with other drivers, especially when he's on personal business, such as on weekends.

Mason reports that the press van "slipped and skidded on icy roads making contact several times with the curb." The motorcade passed several fender-benders in the first 20 minutes of the drive. But the trip lasted 1 hour and 14 minutes, according to Mason's pool report, before winding its way to the White House. The trip is about 14.8 miles, according to Google Maps, and takes about 30 minutes without bad traffic, even for ordinary commuters.

Other reporters who had traveled on Air Force One with Obama were not as fortunate as the president. One reported that it took her 2 ½ hours and another five hours to make it to their respective homes in the District, a few miles from the White House.

As the president noted in 2009, when school was canceled for his daughters because of icy roads, as a Chicago native, he was surprised at how wimpy the Washington area is when it comes to bad weather.

"As my children pointed out, in Chicago, school is never canceled," Obama said. "In fact, my 7-year-old pointed out that you'd go outside for recess [in a storm]. You wouldn't even stay indoors. So, I don't know. We're going to have to try to apply some flinty Chicago toughness."

In any case, we hope Obama is staying put on Friday and Saturday, when a blizzard warning is in effect for the area. But regardless, he's already feeling a bit nostalgic for his presidential motorcade. Speaking to an audience in Detroit Wednesday, the president remarked, "I already drive in a great American car, which we affectionately know as the Beast."

"Next year I’ve got to give it up.  I’m saying goodbye to the Beast," he added. "So I figured that I needed to do a little browsing now at the Detroit Auto Show."

While the audience laughed, and shouted out different suggestions, Obama reminisced about all the cars he had purchased in the past.

"Now, I will say, the Cherokee was my first new car I ever bought. Somebody was asking me -- I didn’t get a new car until I was, like, 32," he said, as the crowd burst into laughter. "I always had an old, beat-up hoopty. But my first brand-new car with the brand-new car smell was a Jeep Cherokee. And I thought I was a bad man once I was in that car.  I was all up high, looking at the road. Man."