By Justin Sink
President Obama’s recent campaign-style adventures outside of the White House bubble are a chance for the president to shed the confines of his office, relishing the beer, barbecue, and face-to-face conversations with everyday Americans he wistfully describes as too inaccessible as president.
But the more frequently “the bear gets loose,” as the president and top staffers jokingly refer to the unscheduled forays away from the White House grounds, the more heartburn the president causes for the Secret Service agents charged with protecting his life.
“I don’t get a chance to take walks very often,” he told a crowd in New York earlier this year. “Secret Service gets a little stressed. But every once in a while I’m able to sneak off.”
In Minneapolis late last month, he told a town hall meeting he liked to “tease” his Secret Service agents about how he was becoming unpredictable, before taking an unscheduled trip to a natural foods store and ice cream parlor. And in Austin earlier this week, Obama described how during a previous trip to the city, an unscheduled walk along the river had tested his detail’s nerves.
“I got about probably a mile, mile and a half, and then some people started spotting me so that by the time — Secret Service got nervous, and then by the time we got back, there was a big rope line and there was all the fuss,” Obama said.
The pull between allowing the president more freedom to engage with voters, escaping the confines of his office and the security challenges such movements create seemed crystalized in a pair of events during Obama’s trip to Denver earlier this week.
After grabbing some pizza at a photo op with individuals who had written him letters, the president decided to forgo his motorcade and instead walk down a downtown promenade. During that trip, the president was approached by — and ended up shaking hands with — a man wearing a full latex horse mask.
Later that evening, Obama dropped by a pool hall and brewery, where one patron asked Obama if he wanted to smoke pot with him.
“Do you want a hit, man?” the man says on a video that quickly went viral online.
While both incidents were ultimately harmless, they underscored the unpredictability of what can happen when a president ventures out of the bubble.
“Any time the president leaves the White House complex, there are risks involved,” said Secret Service spokesman Ed Donvoan.
So-called “off the record” events pose a “unique challenge” for the president’s security team, said Dan Emmett, a former Secret Service agent and the author of Within Arm’s Length, a book about his time working on presidential details across three administrations.
“There’s a huge challenge in that you have virtually no time to put it together,” Emmett said. “The biggest worry is wandering random crime in progress, or if you happen to run into the random crazy guy — the people walking down the street talking to themselves who could be armed somehow.”
Emmett says that the proliferation of smart phones and social media, which allow any individual to instantly broadcast the president’s whereabouts out, only heighten the risk of trips outside the bubble.
“Word gets around quickly — everybody has an iPhone,” he said.
Still, Donovan says the agency “mitigates these risks as much as possible.”
“We apply our knowledge and experience, and we've been doing this a long time,” he said.
Unscheduled trips can also have their benefits, said Mickey Nelson, who retired recently as the assistant director of the Secret Service.
“We use the element of surprise to our advantage,” Nelson said. “If we don't know were going there to the last minute, the adversary certainly doesn't know it.”
Nelson says that on presidential trips outside of Washington, the traveling Secret Service team includes dedicated agents who can fan out and help secure areas ahead of the president at a moment’s notice. He also said that in addition to “overt assets” like the agents traveling next to the president, “usually there’s a lot of covert” resources helping to protect him.
And after the president arrives at a restaurant or store, it’s fairly easy for agents to control the flow of patrons in and out — which decreases the risk posed by selfies with the president lighting up Twitter.
“We’ve been doing unscheduled movement since we started protecting the president in 1901,” Nelson said. “We’ve done them in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. We know what we’re doing.”
The Secret Service was reluctant to discuss if they had had discussions with the president’s staff about the frequency of the president’s “off the record trips,” which are happening with greater frequency as the midterm elections approach.
“But it just stands to reason, if something is happening more regularly that we are preparing for it more regularly,” Donovan said. “If we’re protecting a foreign dignitary and we know he likes to ride motorcycles, then we bring in people who know how to ride motorcycles. We prepare for things, and that would include if any protectee of ours is doing more events.”
Obama has not been subtle in indicating that such trips are more likely.
“What I’ve said to my team is, ‘Get me out of Washington,’ ” Obama told donors at a fundraiser Wednesday night in Texas.
And White House press secretary Josh Earnest has said walks down Main Street are one part of the White House’s efforts to break through a difficult media environment.
“The president, like many of his predecessors, has talked about the challenge that’s posed by the presidential bubble; that one of the things that this president misses the most is the ability to walk down the street and talk to people,” Earnest said.
“That’s particularly important to him because he is sitting in the Oval Office, right up that hallway, making the kinds of decisions that he knows have a substantial impact on the daily lives of Americans,” he continued. “And he is looking for as many opportunities as he can to try to get some access and some insight into what are the challenges that people are facing.”