"We could ride through town and people wouldn't know who we were," the former president recalls

By Adam Carlson and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
November 27, 2020 01:29 PM
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No president — past, present or future — can ever totally feel like themselves again: Even outside of the White House, there's the permanent Secret Service detail and the perpetual fascination of the public.

But one can dream.

In his new memoir, A Promised Land, former President Barack Obama writes of that recurring possibility, however remote, of being an average citizen again.

As he tells PEOPLE in an hour-long conversation for this week's cover story: "It used to come to me once every couple months, of me just walking down a street or occasionally taking a bike ride down the street and nobody knows who I am and I don't have any Secret Service around me. And I sit down in a park or at a café bench and have a tea or a coffee or a soda and just watch the world go by."

If only it were that easy. "Michelle jokes that I think I had a little bit of a fantasy — it was unrealistic, that somehow once the presidency was over, I could go back to strolling through Central Park," Obama, 59, says with a laugh. "I was disabused of that fairly quickly."

• For more from PEOPLE's interview with former President Barack Obama, including details of the former first family's life together in quarantine this year, subscribe now or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands now.

From left: Barack, Malia and Michelle Obama biking on Martha's Vineyard in 2015.
| Credit: AP
Barack Obama PEOPLE cover
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While the dream may have passed, Obama says he has found new pleasures in some passing anonymity — just as he imagined it.

"There are aspects of my life that I can't get back, now as much by virtue of celebrity as it is security. But there are things that I can do that I couldn't do as president," he says. "When we were in Martha's Vineyard this summer [where the couple bought a home in 2019], Michelle and I would go take bike rides."

• Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Barack Obama on PeopleTV.com or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

The precautions amid the novel coronavirus pandemic provided an unexpected silver lining.

"Particularly now that we have masks on, we could ride through town and people wouldn't know who we were," Obama says. "And it felt pretty close to what I had imagined — that sense of freedom, that sense of being able to go wherever you wanted."

"So it's not all the way back, but, 70, 75 percent back," he says. "That's not bad."