Presidency Can Feel Isolated, Lonely

With power comes a sense of isolation and loneliness, experts say.

November 17, 2008, 4:08 PM

Nov. 18, 2008 — -- President-elect Barack Obama is quickly learning what many former leaders already know: It's lonely at the top.

Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes" Sunday evening that he's already been warned by former presidents about the loneliness and isolation that comes with being the man in charge.

"[A]ll of them recognize there's a certain loneliness to the job," said Obama. "That, you know, you'll get advice and you'll get counsel. Ultimately, you're the person who's gonna be making decisions. And I think that, even now, you know, I -– you can already feel that fact."

Obama's lament, for example, not being able to take a walk alone or go out for a haircut, is well-known to inhabitants of the White House, dating back to Abraham Lincoln, who was probably the last president to more or less live among the people without a lot of security.

Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and ABC News consultant, said that many presidents, despite the constant company of security personnel and Cabinet members and advisors, have felt lonely and isolated during their time in office.

"There are a number of factors that contribute to the loneliness [of being president]," said Smith. "Ultimately, it's the sense of responsibility.

"The crushing sense of personal responsibility -– think of what this president is up against: a couple of wars and a spiraling economy –- there's no escape," said Smith.

"And that's lonely."

White House Life: Privileged, but Isolated

While Obama told Kroft that he knows the isolation and lack of privacy is part of what he signed up for when he ran for president, combating loneliness has been an issue in almost every administration, Smith said.

Lincoln found solace in humor and theater, said Smith, but with no public opinion polls in existence yet, managed to reach out to the public -– and through the walls of the White House -– to meet with citizens face-to-face.

"Back then you could walk right into the White House –- there were no guards or Secret Service," said Smith. "So, two to three times a week, Lincoln would hold office hours for the general public.

"People would tell Lincoln that he was wasting his time, but he'd always respond that he was taking a 'public opinion bath,'" he said. "In other words, he was bathing in the opinions of others and breaking through that bubble."

But as security threats worsened over history -– the terrorist attacks on 9/11 shut down the road in front of the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue, permanently and suspended tours of the house –- a president's ability to connect with the outside world became even harder, said Smith.

"The cocoon of security has only grown stronger," said Smith. "The post-9/11 world has made the job even more isolated."

Smith attributes the common love most presidents have had for the Camp David retreat a result of the fish bowl life of the White House.

"It's a chance to get out of the bubble," Smith said. "Sure, you go into another bubble [at Camp David] but at least it feels different."

Feelings of loneliness may only get harder when Obama will presumably have to surrender his Blackberry when he takes office in January, subsequently making communication with his friends and family even harder.

The New York Times reported Sunday that while e-mail was less of a presence in everyday life in 2001, President George W. Bush also had to write an e-mail to friends explaining why his in box would be closed.

"Symbolically, Obama abandoning his Blackberry –- which he clearly likes a lot -– is a reflection of what is going to happen from here on: everything will go through other people now," said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

Long before Bush and Obama's days, President Harry Truman described life inside the White House as a prison in his 1947 diary, where he wrote that he'd consider running for vice president on a possible ticket with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1948.

"Ike and I could be elected and my family and myself would be happy outside this great white jail, known as the White house," he wrote.

Zelizer recalls President Jimmy Carter's final days in office as some of the most isolated of his tenure.

"During his final days in office when he was trying to deal with the hostage situation in Iran, Carter was literally sitting there with one or two advisors -– as alone as you can get in that position," said Zelizer.

"Inevitably, things get incredibly rough as your presidency continues," said Zelizer. "And ultimately, even if you have the best and brightest around you, the decision is still yours to make."

Sen. Hillary Clinton also bemoaned some aspects of her time in the White House -– discussing frequently how she missed the conveniences of everyday life from her pre-White House days.

In a May 1994 interview on CNN's "Larry King Live," Clinton said that the hardest part of living in the White House was "being so confined, feeling that you can't just walk out the door and go to the store."

The bubble Obama will live in for the foreseeable future -– expansive motorcades and diligent security details -– may only be penetrated by his two daughters, said Smith, who added that children help to combat the isolation in the White House.

"Children have a way of breaking through the bubble," he said. "They have a way of imposing normalcy on what is usually a very artificial situation."

"The apparatus of the modern presidency is as isolating as it gets," said Smith. "One of the challenges any new president faces is how much effort he is going to expend in trying to cover that and live a normal life.

"The best thing the Obamas have going for them is that they adore each other and their kids, and the most normal thing about their lives over the next four or eight years will be their lives with each other."

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