A day in the security bubble with Barack Obama

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While his inauguration is still weeks away, a group of journalists already follows Barack Obama in the Secret Service motorcade where ever he travels.

It might sound like being in the security bubble that surrounds the president-elect would offer many glimpses of the nation’s new leader.

But it all depends on the day.   The 12 journalists – wire service and newspaper reporters, TV network videographers, and still photographers -- who spent Friday following Mr. Obama around Chicago were fortunate if they caught just one glimpse of him.

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A high profile Sunday

Obama will be very visible this weekend.  He appears on “Meet the Press” this morning followed by a 2:00 p.m. (Eastern) press conference where he is expected to speak about the contributions of those that have served our nation.

News organizations have several reasons to have a representative group shadow the president-elect during his daily travels.  A group of Washington bureau chiefs explained the reasoning in a letter to the Obama campaign earlier this year.  “There may be times when the Senator needs to address the press corps about unexpected and dramatic news events, and there may be times when history demands the press corps be in close proximity to the Senator,” they said.

The demands of history can refer to various things – unexpected protests, unscheduled stops to address bystanders, accidents in the motorcade, or an attempt on the life of the president.

A day of hidden history

But any history being made December 5 was well out of sight of those of us who spent the day in a large white van that was part of Obama’s motorcade.   Before the day began, Mr. Obama’s press office announced that on Friday he would “ host private meetings in Chicago. He will also record and video tape the weekly radio address.”

The pool – so named because reporters and photographers taking part agree to share everything they learn -- met at the elegant Fairmont Hotel in downtown Chicago at 6:00 a.m.  Cost of an early morning muffin and diet coke in the lobby: $9.59.   Elegance does not come cheap.

The van we boarded at the hotel deposited us at the entrance to the president- elect’s neighborhood at 6:18 a.m.  We spent the next 25 minutes standing outside while the vehicle and our chilly persons were searched by Secret Service agents and a bomb sniffing dog.

Tracy Butler, the meteorologist at Chicago’s Channel 7, said Friday was “the coldest morning of the season.”  Temperature 8 degrees, wind chill 6 below.  Later in day it warmed up to 17 degrees.

Back in the van, at 6:51 a.m. we moved to intersection of 50th and Greenwood, nearer the Obama’s home, and held there until 7:40 a.m.  Then Mr. Obama’s black SUV appeared and the seven-vehicle motorcade made the six minute trip to the Regents Park luxury apartment complex, squeezing through side streets clogged with cars on both sides.

Before reporters or photographers could see him, Mr. Obama slipped through the rear door of the complex for a workout that is a fixed part of his day. While the president-elect worked at maintaining his lithe look, pool members sampled the wares at a local coffee shop.

Catching a brief glimpse

After 70 minutes at the Regents Park gym, the president-elect emerged from a rear door at the apartment complex wearing a black fleece jacket.  Pool photographers who ran to the doorway caught a fleeting glimpse of Mr. Obama getting into his armored SUV – their only sighting of the day.

We accompanied Mr. Obama home so he could take a post-workout shower and change clothes.

At 9:24 a.m., the motorcade emerged from Obama’s home on Greenwood Avenue and sped its way along scenic Lake Shore Drive with Chicago Police sirens blaring occasionally.   The procession pulled into the underground garage at the John C. Kluczynski Federal Building in downtown Chicago roughly 10 minutes later.

Finally, some drama

Earlier in the week, Mr. Obama left the office at the end of the day before the press van was ready to roll.  The newspaper pool report that day, from USA Today’s Richard Wolf, said, “finally, some drama from Obama.”

To avoid being left behind on Friday, the pool met at 3:30 p.m. for a second session with our friend, the bomb sniffing dog , and a pat down by a Secret Service agent.  Then we sat in the van and waited for 90 minutes for the newly elected president to decide he was done for the day.

The trip itself was fast. With a police escort, the drive back to the Hyde Park section of Chicago took 15 minutes despite rush hour traffic.   The motorcade stopped for some lights, flew through others.   We arrived at blockade at the outer perimeter of the president-elect’s neighborhood at 5:20 p.m. where the press van stopped.

Mr. Obama journeyed – unseen -- the rest of the way without us.

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