WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama seems to have caught a bad case of cabin fever.
Since taking office, Obama has periodically grumbled about the claustrophobia that sets in when his every move is surrounded by intense security, rendering it nearly impossible to enjoy the simple pleasures that private citizens take for granted. But in recent days, the president has made more of a point to get out.
"The bear is loose!" Obama declared this week after leaving the White House on foot, ditching his motorcade and his suit jacket in favor of fresh air as he headed to the Interior Department.
Tourists milling about near the White House were incredulous, never having expected to see the leader of the free world in the flesh on a steamy Wednesday afternoon. One woman squealed with delight; another suggested she thought it might be an Obama impostor.
"It's good to be out," Obama said.
Traditionally, whenever the president leaves the White House, he travels by motorcade or helicopter, insulating him from the sights around him in what's colloquially referred to as "the bubble." Before he arrives at his destination, Secret Service agents have already prepared layer upon layer of security that generally keeps Obama at a distance from anything unpredictable.
Life in the bubble can feel suffocating, as many presidents have attested. For Obama, relief frequently comes in the form of a weekend golf outing where, from the secure confines of a military base, he can at least look from left to right without his view being obscured by barricades, reporters or enough police officers to defend a small country.
But every once in a while, the golf course just doesn't cut it.
"I don't get a chance to take walks very often," Obama quipped this week. "Secret Service gets a little stressed. But every once in a while I'm able to sneak off."
Nearly six years into his presidency, Obama seems to be sneaking off just a bit more often.
Last week, diners at a Shake Shack near the White House looked up from their cheeseburgers to see Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stroll in to the restaurant, where Obama hoisted himself onto the counter and slid across as workers cheered him on. The White House said Obama was there to promote government-financed work projects and a proposed minimum wage increase, but the hastily arranged visit raised a few eyebrows.
Three days later, Obama was en route to a fundraiser in suburban Maryland when his motorcade made a detour. Pulling in to a local park, Obama popped in to a baseball field where a handful of Little League teams were getting ready for the big game. Smiling ear to ear, Obama lobbed a few balls toward home plate and posed for photos, his shirt and tie standing out among the sea of blue-and-white uniforms.
White House officials offered little explanation for the stop, other than to point out that Obama was scheduled later in the week to travel to Cooperstown, New York, to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. That visit, officials said, was aimed at promoting tourism to the U.S. as a way to boost the economy.
"And, no, this not just an excuse to go the Baseball Hall of Fame," Obama's senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, wrote in a blog post, seeking to pre-empt a critique the White House was apparently expecting.
Former White House staffers said it's always gratifying to depart from the norm by allowing the president to interact more directly with citizens, even if it's a major headache for those responsible for making it happen.
"Staff loves it, Secret Service hates it," said Ari Fleischer, who traveled frequently with President George W. Bush as his press secretary. "They want everything buttoned down and under total, nothing-could-possibly-go-wrong control."