Should the president of the United States be able to go for a cup of tea without first alerting the press? Apparently not.
Last week the White House Correspondents Association got its pencils in a bunch over President Barack Obama’s unannounced walk to a Washington Starbucks. The New York Times reported that the Association requested a meeting with the White House press office to complain about the impromptu jaunt, which the Times described as “a break with the agreed-upon protocol dictating that a small group of journalists remain close to the president at all times when he is in public.”
Why the most powerful person in the world would ever submit to such a protocol is a mystery. In any case, Obama is right to begin ignoring it. Last week he visited a Virginia burger joint without telling reporters. The next president should never agree to the protocol in the first place.
The relationship between the White House and its press corps is largely co-dependent: Neither can function well without the other. Yet the president doesn't need the press to witness every french fry he eats, and an informed citizenry doesn't require the White House to submit to a presidential paparazzi. When celebrity gossip masquerades as political journalism, it becomes even more difficult for the president to see and experience “real life.”
The president already lives in a protective security bubble that seals him off from the world. This is necessary, but it can be isolating and demoralizing to the office-holder. The president serves people he can speak with only in carefully orchestrated settings and a nation he can see only through the glare of spotlights.
The president ought to have more opportunities to catch glimpses of normalcy -- while picking up a gallon of milk, riding the Metro, eating at a diner -- without the press looking on. Occasionally presidents do these kinds of things to remind us they are ordinary people. Such outings are usually media shows, however, stage-managed by the White House.
The president also should be able to talk with Americans in public settings without reporters listening in, including reporters who agree to treat the conversations as off-the-record. Those interactions are important both for the president’s political grounding and for his mental health. Who wants to have every conversation outside the office monitored by a journalist?
Of course, there's little chance a president’s visit to a public place will go undocumented. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, everyone with a smart phone is a de facto member of the (social) media, able to publish photos and commentary (“OMG, it’s POTUS!”) in real-time. But becoming a celebrity shouldn't prevent the president from remaining part of the citizenry.
When Obama has broken out of his bubble momentarily, he has delighted in shouting to stunned onlookers, “The bear is loose!” He should find more opportunities to step out without first telling the media. The First Amendment protects a free press. It should not imprison a president.
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