CHICAGO — When President-elect Barack Obama heads home for a break from the White House, he won’t go to a sprawling ranch or private seaside compound.
Obama will come back to a crowded city neighborhood, creating different security challenges for the Secret Service and perhaps headaches for his neighbors.
No other recent first family has lived in a city neighborhood like the Obamas. The $1.6 million mansion he and his wife, Michelle, share with their two young daughters sits just off a busy street – a stretch of which has been closed to traffic – and his closest neighbors are just a few feet away.
“My Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago,” Obama said in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune. “Our friends are here. Our family is here. We are going to try to come back here as often as possible … at least once every six weeks or couple months.”
His busy South Side neighborhood affords none of the privacy of President George W. Bush’s 1,600-acre Texas spread or President George H.W. Bush’s seaside summer retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine. President Ronald Reagan’s White House in the West was his mountaintop Rancho del Cielo in California. President Bill Clinton moved to the White House from the governor’s mansion in Arkansas.
But Obama is a Chicago transplant whose campaign was rooted in the notion that he’s not like the other guys, and living in an urban neighborhood near the University of Chicago is a symbol of that, said Paul Light, a presidential historian at New York University.
Obama, who owns only the one home, was even able to paint his Republican opponent, John McCain, as out of touch with voters when the Arizona senator apparently didn’t know how many homes he and his multimillionaire wife owned.
Maintaining strong ties to Chicago is one way Obama can stay in touch with the people who helped him get elected, Light said. “I don’t think the public will take kindly toward any sort of signal that he is somehow losing touch with the outside world, that he’s trapped on island Washington,” Light said.
Like other presidents, Obama is sure to spend some of his down time at Camp David, the presidential retreat on a remote Maryland mountaintop, and in Hawaii, a regular vacation spot for him and where he spent much of his childhood.
For security reasons, the Obamas’ urban oasis already has changed. Their large red brick house doesn’t have the benefit of being surrounded by acres of land like other presidential retreats, so the city streets near it look like a military zone with blocks-long metal and concrete barriers. Secret Service agents and police patrol the area.
But the Obamas are hardly prisoners in their home, although the family is under the constant protection of the Secret Service.
Obama visits a nearby gym nearly every morning and then travels downtown to work at his transition office or to hold news conferences. His motorcade sometimes shuttles his daughters, 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha, to school, and he and Michelle dine out at popular Chicago eateries.
Protecting a city Western White House poses some new situations for the Secret Service, as does any venue around the world where the president and his family need to be protected.
“We would not consider it more difficult,” said Agent Malcolm Wiley, a Secret Service spokesman.
And the attention to security isn’t something that will end when Obama leaves office. Before former President Bill Clinton left the White House, local officials in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., approved requests from the Clintons for security additions at their new home in Chappaqua, including an 8-foot tall fence.
The tight security near Obama’s home is something KAM Isaiah Israel, a landmark Chicago temple across the street, is taking in stride.
On its Web site, the temple tells visitors what to expect when coming, including ID checks on the street and possible searches of vehicles and bags.
“We have lived with and will continue to live with the security, and people have gotten used to it,” said congregation president Lawrence Bloom. He said the temple continues to run a full schedule of religious services, classes and programs.
When temple officials have met with the Secret Service, agents have told them that Obama is concerned about the imposing on the neighborhood because of his tight security, Bloom said.
Bloom wonders whether Obama’s street will go back to being a bit more normal when Obama is ensconced in Washington.
“We can’t be sure of that,” he said.