Monday, November 24, 2008

Armed agents patrol from the back of Obama's motorcade. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

Obama Friend; 'Plain Old Barack Is Gone'

Eli Saslow/Peter Slevin

Washington Post

A familiar number showed up on Terry Link's cellphone last week, the one that belonged to the friend he tutored in politics, dominated in golf and sometimes referred to playfully as "Ears." At least once each week for almost a decade, the Illinois state senator had talked on the phone to Barack Obama, but now the number seemed to belong to somebody else.

"This time I answered, 'Hello, Mr. President,' " Link said. "When he called, it used to just be 'Hey, Barack. What's going on?' But plain old Barack is gone."

Obama's home in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood has become a compound guarded ever more closely by bomb-sniffing dogs and Secret Service agents who peer through binoculars at neighboring rooftops. When he travels around the city, it is in an armored limousine and 20-car motorcade, so he has mainly stayed bunkered at home or a downtown transition office. Last week, Obama told one friend that he felt "a little boxed in."

This is only the beginning of the transformation that awaits the president-elect and his family. In two months, they will move into a sterile house in a unfamiliar city where they have never felt particularly comfortable. Friends say Obama is savoring these final weeks in Chicago and spending as much time as possible with his family before he takes the oath of office Jan. 20.

During his political rise, Obama safeguarded times of normalcy and credited them for keeping him sane. A run on the treadmill in the early morning. An evening meander through 57th Street Books. Date night with his wife, Michelle, at one of their favorite restaurants. Pickup basketball at a gym downtown.

Obama already has learned that his mundane routine will be difficult to replicate as president, but his friends say that establishing some kind of similar comfort zone is critical to his success in Washington. They consider it one of the most pressing -- and most challenging -- issues of Obama's transition: How can he create a life as president that keeps him happy?

"Look, there are just certain things that he can't do anymore, or he can't do as easily, and that's going to be hard," said Marty Nesbitt, Obama's closest friend in Chicago. "The objective is to just make sure that things stay as similar to the way they used to be as they can. The same routines, the same conversations -- that's what he wants."

The Obamas have said they will personalize the White House by buying a dog and hosting sleepovers for their daughters. Friends expect them to occasionally spend time back in their Hyde Park home and take annual vacations to Hawaii. Inside the impermeable White House, Obama, by instinct an introvert, can read in the solarium or write in his office, alone and unbothered.

For almost five years now, Obama has lamented the way his public rise has infringed upon his personal space, calling it the most painful drawback of high-profile public service. During his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, he chafed when friends suggested it was no longer safe for him to run alone on the shore of Lake Michigan. He argued with aides a few years later when they assigned him a full-time driver, explaining that he preferred alone time in the car.

On the night of his election, Obama questioned whether it was necessary to speak to a crowd of 200,000 in Grant Park behind two panes of protective glass, agreeing to the arrangement only after staffers convinced him that it was. Although his staffers continued to party into the early hours, Obama was home before 2 a.m. He awoke by 8 the next morning, dressed in a sweat shirt and a baseball cap, and rode to the gym in a friend's apartment building for his regular morning workout.

"Like everybody else, he's got his routines," said Alexi Giannoulias, a friend who plays basketball with Obama. "There are some little things that make him enjoy life, and he's not just going to give all of that up."

Many things, though, Obama has relinquished. Only three times has he left home after dark since Election Day. He traveled with his wife to a friend's house to celebrate adviser Valerie Jarrett's 52nd birthday. One night, the couple went to dinner at Spiaggia's, a stylish and expensive Italian restaurant where the Obamas traditionally celebrate Valentine's Day over a quiet meal. This time, Secret Service agents guarded the perimeter and a crowd gathered and snapped pictures of the Obamas on their way back to the motorcade. And on Saturday night, he went to parties at the homes of Nesbitt and Penny Pritzker. He played basketball with friends Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park. Continue Article