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Much to his chagrin, 'plain old Barack is gone'

Obama nourished his soul on a life of routine in Chicago, friends say. Now they hope he can find comfort in a city he has never embraced.
Image: Barack Obama, Malia Obama, Sasha Obama
President-elect Obama drops his daughters Malia, left, and Sasha, off at school in Chicago, on Monday, Nov. 10. At right is a U.S. Secret Service agent. Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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."

Savoring final weeks
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.

Obama's typical day as president-elect follows a routine that is necessarily spare: breakfast at home with his daughters, a trip to the apartment-building gym, six or seven hours at his downtown transition office and the evening at home. He usually enters buildings through underground parking garages and almost never ventures outside.

Gone are the trips to his cacophonous Hyde Park barbershop to see the man who has cut his hair for 15 years; now his barber, Zariff, comes to him. Gone are lunches at Medici, where servers still wear T-shirts that read "Obama Eats Here." Now, if anything, Obama carries in, although on Friday he allowed himself a rare liberty: a trip to Manny's Coffee Shop and Deli. "I'm just glad to be out," he said.

"There's still some things we're not adjusted to," Obama told "60 Minutes" during his only extended interview since he was elected. "You know, the small routines of life that keep you connected, I think some of those are being lost. One of the challenges I think that we're going to be wrestling with is how to stay pretty normal."

'Fishbowl' Washington
That challenge is exacerbated by the fact that Obama must build his new life in Washington, a city where he has never felt comfortable. After he was elected to the Senate in 2004, Obama decided to commute to work instead of moving his family to what he called the "hothouse environment" of Washington. He spent three days a week in Washington and then rushed home to Chicago, buying tickets on multiple flights to ensure the earliest possible arrival. He met Cassandra Butts, a law school friend, for dinner in Washington once each month. Most other nights, Obama ate takeout food alone in a one-bedroom apartment near the Capitol.

"There's a sort of fishbowl, ingrown quality to Washington," Obama said in 2005. "I think everybody is very status-conscious about, you know, who's a senator and who's in power and who's not."

A close friend from Chicago, Mike Strautmanis, who worked for Obama in the Senate, worries about the change in cultures. "The one thing about Chicago as compared to Washington is that most relationships in Washington are fundamentally based on politics either currently or building things for the future." he said. "I think what he wanted is a few relationships that didn't have that subtext."

As president, Obama's first option is to bring some of those relationships to Washington with him. His mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, is expected to move into or near the White House and continue to help raise her grandchildren, whom she often supervised during the 21-month campaign. Some people in Obama's inner circle expect Nesbitt to move to Washington with his physician wife, Anita, and five children, but Nesbitt said he has not had time to even consider the possibility of transplanting.

Several other Obama friends and associates -- all of whom now receive a deluge of résumés and inauguration ticket requests from near-strangers -- said they either are considering moving to Washington or will move if asked.

"You know, if he calls and asks me to be the head custodian, I still don't think I could say no," Link said. "If he needs me, then I'm going to be there. For a lot of us friends, our first interest is going to be looking out for him and just helping him get adjusted however we can."

Four of the past five presidents moved into the White House from a government mansion; the fifth, Ronald Reagan, had spent two terms as a California governor. All were familiar with living in a security bubble -- a public space -- and dealing antiseptically with the outside world.

Until recently, Obama and his wife were accustomed to pumping their own gas, shopping at a nearby food co-op, riding bikes along Lake Michigan and attending neighborhood barbecues.

"I don't know how you re-create that, even if everybody moves to D.C.," one friend said. "You just don't have as much time if you're president of the United States, and it's not as easy to drop by the White House. It's hard to make new friends for anybody, especially when you're in their position and, 'Oh, we have to make sure they're not purely interested in us and laughing at our jokes because of who we are.' "

Jarring for Michelle
The move could be particularly jarring for Michelle Obama, whose social and professional life is interwoven with Hyde Park, where until recently she held a prominent position at the University of Chicago Hospitals. She grew up a few minutes from their current home and has lived away from Chicago only during her time at Princeton University and at Harvard Law School. She is on the boards of an African dance company and her daughters' private school.

The future first lady will have a far more public role than she is used to. But at least initially, she plans to focus on helping her family adjust -- her husband to his new job, her children to Sidwell Friends School.

"She will be engaged. You will see her at the school. Parents will get to know her," another Chicago friend predicted. "I don't think they'll be walled in the Rose Garden."

Giannoulias said: "It's going to be a totally different life. Hopefully they can find places or relationships where things are still normal."

That rare space of normalcy is where Link thought he had guided his phone conversation with Obama last week. He congratulated the president-elect and joked with him about life in the Illinois Senate, and they laughed together at an old memory. "Hey," Obama said before hanging up, "let me give you my new phone number."

Then he paused.

"By the way," Obama said, "don't you dare give that number to anybody else."

Slevin reported from Chicago.