The Moment This Summer When Barack Obama Felt (Almost) Like He Was a Normal Person Again
"We could ride through town and people wouldn't know who we were," the former president recalls
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.
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."
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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."
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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."
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