PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Most presidents begin their post-White House life by returning to their childhood homes or the places where they began their political careers.
Their arrivals often are marked by cheering crowds, speeches from local dignitaries and, in the vast majority of cases, the strains of a high school marching band.
Former president Barack Obama made a different choice. Hours after he witnessed President Trump’s swearing in as the 45th commander in chief, Obama was on a plane circling the small airport here. His pending arrival was announced over the same static-filled loudspeaker used to inform weary travelers about flight delays and gate changes.
“Attention, all airport personnel,” the loudspeaker voice said, “a ramp freeze is in effect.”
A few hundred people in the airport terminal — most of them returning home from golf or spa vacations — edged toward the windows overlooking the tarmac where a convoy of black sport-utility vehicles was forming.
“I heard he wanted to get some warm weather,” a retiree on his way home to Canada said of the former president.
“I heard he just wanted a good night’s sleep,” said a woman who had volunteered for Obama’s campaign in 2008.
A former president’s return to private life is frequently a reflection of the man. Those first few hours as a citizen can offer an unvarnished and unscripted glimpse into his regrets, insecurities and hopes for the future.
Sometimes the welcome ceremonies are simple.
“He’s homefolks to us,” the mayor of Independence, Mo., told a cheering crowd as Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess Truman, stepped off a train from Washington in 1953. Truman complained about all the unpacking he had to do.
Often they are melancholy — a moment to reflect on elections lost and opportunities missed. A helicopter dropped Jimmy Carter on a muddy field in Plains, Ga., in 1981, where he was greeted first by his mother. He had been up for two days waiting for word that American hostages being held by Tehran had finally left Iranian airspace.
“You gonna sleep at home?” his mother asked in old video footage.
“I hope so,” Carter replied. “I ain’t been to bed since Saturday night.”
He wove his way through the crowds of people waiting in a cold rain on Main Street to see him. The manager of the local Sears presented him with a 200-piece tool set for his workshop. A band played “Dixie.”
In 2009, George W. Bush landed in Midland, Tex., where he had been raised in a three-bedroom rambler and where 20,000 people were eagerly awaiting his first words as a former president.
“Popularity is as fleeting as the Texas wind,” said Bush, who left office with two unpopular wars still raging and a dismal 22 percent approval rating.
“I’m coming home with my head held high,” he said.
Unlike most presidents, Obama is staying in Washington so that his youngest daughter can finish high school. He is unique among modern presidents for his peripatetic childhood and complicated family history. His father was from Kenya. He was raised by his sometimes-absent mother and grandparents in Hawaii and Indonesia.
He eventually adopted Chicago, his wife’s home town, as his base.
Obama’s tenuous roots, cool personality, and lack of friends and former colleagues seeking favors made him something of an enigma to some of his advisers. “He may be the least sentimental guy I’ve ever met,” marveled one top aide from his first term.
To Obama, this rootlessness was a virtue. He sought to build a political identity that transcended the country’s old racial, geographic and ethnic divisions. He was the first black U.S. president, but also called himself the first Pacific president, and spoke proudly of his Kansas and Scotch-Irish roots.
“See, my grandparents, they came from the heartland,” Obama said at last summer’s Democratic National Convention. “Their ancestors began settling there about 200 years ago.”
Even as the country grew more angry and polarized during his presidency, Obama believed that his shape-shifting identity, and ability to empathize with Americans of all races and backgrounds, could help him bridge deepening divides. In his final news conference, he imagined a future in which there would be a female president, a Jewish president, a Hindu president.
“Who knows what we are going to have,” he said. “I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them.”
In the real world, Obama’s plane was still circling the Palm Springs airport. Heavy clouds and rain had descended, making it too dangerous to land.
The airport was still on a security lockdown for his arrival, and travelers began to complain loudly about their late flights and missed connections.
“There’s a Navy base nearby,” said a man between handfuls of Fritos. “Why don’t they land there?”
“Don’t you talk to me like that!” a woman yelled at a ticket agent.
Courtenay Allen, a 52-year-old dentist, scanned the gray horizon for signs of the plane. There were rumors that the Obamas were looking to buy a place in Palm Springs.
“This is not the kind of weather to convince him to buy,” she said.
Said Vanessa Sievers, 28, who was waiting on a flight to Seattle: “I wonder why he didn’t go to Hawaii.”
The two strangers talked about their families, the election and the prospects for the Trump presidency, which Sievers compared to the weather: stormy and cold.
They speculated about Obama’s life after the White House. Would he still travel everywhere with a big security detail? Would he give speeches for money or devote himself to civic activism? Would he oppose Trump?
“He must be so tired,” Allen said.
The voice over the loudspeaker announced that the 90-minute ramp freeze had been lifted, and passengers began boarding their long-delayed flights. Obama’s plane was being diverted to March Air Reserve Base, about 60 miles away.
Presidents get to choose who will accompany them on the first journey of their post-presidential life. Ronald Reagan left the capital with his closest aides and 14 journalists from major newspapers and television networks, who were invited along to document the trip. He and former first lady Nancy Reagan spent an hour chatting with the reporters as the plane headed toward California.
Shortly before touchdown, the reporters were invited into the main cabin for cake and champagne.
Sometimes a president’s departure can reveal barely masked ambitions. After eight tumultuous years in Washington, Bill and Hillary Clinton landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, where a rostrum with the slogan “Putting People First” was waiting on the tarmac.
The former first lady was a newly minted U.S. senator with her eyes on the White House; she thanked every Democratic politician and operative within earshot — a list that included lawmakers, union representatives, the New York City public advocate and the local county chairman.
She then turned the microphone over to her husband.
“We’ll do a lot of good things yet,” the former president said.
As president, Obama had tried to make a virtue of his lack of attachments, casting himself as someone who would not be held captive by Washington and its focus on near-term political gain. His relationship with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress was frequently distant. His focus, he often said, was on the “long game.”
To his critics, Obama was detached and arrogant, unwilling to take part in the give and take of Washington politics. His supporters described him as a president who was determined to rise above Washington’s dysfunctional politics and make history.
As his time in the White House drew to a close, Obama became nostalgic, even sentimental. He reminisced about his two daughters growing up in the White House and worried about his imperiled legacy.
He talked a lot about missing his team of aides and advisers.
“Are you going to have reunions?” Obama was asked in his last network interview.
“Well, I don’t think we’re going have T-shirts and all that stuff,” he replied. “That sounds kind of sad.”
Obama’s convoy of armored SUVs raced from the Air Force base through deserted and darkened streets to a gated resort near Palm Springs, where he would spend the first night of his post presidency. He was traveling with just six of his closest aides and two longtime friends from his days in Chicago.
On the sidewalk near the community’s guardhouse, a small group of cold and wet well-
wishers stood vigil, hoping to catch a glimpse of the former president and first lady. The contingent consisted of a bank executive, a retired firefighter, a massage therapist, and a 14-year-old high school student and her mother, a manicurist.
Adriana Canizales had raced over with her mother as soon as her classes broke for the day. She was holding a bouquet of flowers. Her high school ID card hung from a lanyard around her neck.
She hoped that the flowers would persuade Obama to stop or at least roll down the window so that she could thank him.
Hours passed with no sign of the motorcade. Some people grew tired of waiting and drifted away. Others arrived.
“It’s such a bummer for there to be so few people,” said a mother who came with her two children. “Maybe he’ll understand that it’s California and its raining.”
By 8 p.m., about 20 people were on the sidewalk.
“I am visualizing him stopping and saying hello,” the massage therapist said.
Adriana, who had now been waiting for more than five hours, nodded. She was imagining it, too. She was perched on the edge of the sidewalk when the flashing lights of Obama’s motorcade came into view and the small crowd began to yell. Adriana jumped in the air and waved her flowers as the convoy, a flash of silver and black, sped past.
Obama’s welcome had lasted a little less than three seconds.
“Did anyone see the president?” the bank executive called out.
Adriana was crying. “I did,” she said softly.
“Was he smiling?” the executive asked.
“Of course,” Adriana replied, sounding more confident.
The crowd spent the next 10 minutes poring over their cellphone footage to see if anyone had snapped an image of Obama, but the evidence was inconclusive.
As people headed back toward their cars, Adriana walked over to the guard shack with her flowers.
“Is there any way possible for you to get these to the Obama family?” she asked.
She returned a few minutes later, still holding the bouquet.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.