'Prisoners of the White House': how Obama (and other leaders) become isolated

Kenneth Walsh's new book discusses the seclusion of life in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., including some behind-the-scenes looks at the Obamas' daily life.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama arrives for a White House press conference in the Rose Garden.

President Obama calls it “the bubble.” President Harry Truman called it “the great white jail.” And President Bill Clinton called it “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.”

They were all talking about the constraints of living in the White House, which is the topic of Kenneth Walsh’s new book, out Wednesday by Paradigm Press. The book is titled “Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership.”

In it, Walsh, a veteran White House correspondent for US News and World Report, plumbs the seclusion of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for a long line of US presidents and, along the way, drops some interesting details on Obama’s personal struggle in “the bubble.” 

“Barack Obama has said that the hardest thing about being president is staying in touch with 'the flow of everyday life,'” Walsh tells USA Today. “And he has admitted that one of the biggest mistakes he made during his first term was confining himself to the White House too much.”

The downside, says Walsh, is that the President is constantly surrounded by a “cadre of idolizers,” like Chicago friend and confidante Valerie Jarrett and adviser and chief of staff Denis McDonough.

“Jarrett has gone too far in limiting others' access to the president, according to a number of White House and congressional sources,” writes Walsh in the book. “Her goal is to keep Obama in a cocoon of admirers who won't, in her mind, shake him up too much or present views that might be contrary to her understanding of Obama's positions.”

(Though, no surprise, the same could be said of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, he adds.)

The upside, says Walsh, is that the President is on a perpetual mission to escape the isolation of the White House.

“More than most recent presidents, Obama has made a sustained personal effort to break out of the bubble...” he says.

How does the President of the United States stay in touch with his roots – and with average Americans?

In spite of Secret Service protestations, he keeps a personal BlackBerry that he uses to email friends. He does his best to travel outside Washington regularly. And he follows sports, especially basketball and football, “which gives him a break from the tedium and keeps him from obsessing about politics,” Walsh says.

Our favorite: Every evening, the President selects 10 letters from constituents and reads them to his wife.

All in an effort to escape the bubble, which, ironically, Walsh attempts to gain entry to in his “behind the bubble” book.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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