In Barack Obama’s first interview since winning the election, he made an odd but revealing confession: He found it soothing, he said, to do the dishes. I knew exactly what he was talking about (though for me it’s light carpentry). He is experiencing the bends associated with the post-campaign re-entry into daily life. This afflicts not only candidates but the reporters who travel with them.
Of course, Obama (unlike me) doesn’t need to wash dishes anymore. He’s won. He doesn’t even need to pretend. No need to drink beer at a bar or go bowling, either, or to otherwise offer demonstrations that he’s a regular guy. Soon he will be the most powerful man in the world. So why, out of the blue, was he telling 60 Minutes viewers about the soothing power of dishwashing? His wife, Michelle, was surprised, too: “Since when was it ever soothing for you to wash the dishes?” She asked so quickly and demonstrated such a refined B.S. meter, I wanted to offer her a seat in the press gallery. (Glimmers of authenticity between a first couple will be another White House first we can welcome.)
A symptom of the campaign bends is the temporary view that even the life’s most mundane tasks are magical. Why? Because they are discrete, yield results, and require manual labor: characteristics not associated with most campaign duties. Obama, who has been out of his house for two years and faces a future in which his life will never be the same again, may have perhaps the most acute case of this condition in history.
Any professional who has been on the road for a long period of time can identify with the drift away from a normal life. Your cooking skills are replaced by room-service-ordering skills. Gradually, you forget which floor your office is on or whether you take a left or a right turn from home to get to church. A presidential candidate experiences this bubble-wrapped life completely. He lives in a world where his meals, movements, and laundry are all taken care of for him. This is necessary so that he can focus on NAFTA and Afghanistan. If he makes a wrong turn, there is a hand to direct him gently down the correct hallway.
This highly artificial life makes a body starve for the reality it used to know. It was clear that Obama was sensitive to the simple pleasures of returning to his home environment when he described hearing his wife move around the house when she wakes up before him. He’d been away from it so long, it probably rang like thunder.
Sure, the new president has a brutal agenda ahead of him, but in this twilight moment of pause he can luxuriate in being free of the thousands of immediate details of campaign life. And unlike any incoming president in modern memory, Obama has returned from the prison of campaign life to a relatively normal life. Yes, he has the constant Secret Service protection, and he can’t drive his own car. But within the four walls of his home, it feels normal. Most incoming presidents return from the campaign trail to their already servant-filled lives in governors’ mansions or the vice-presidential residence.
Even though Obama may have once hated doing the dishes, after two years of being stretched across the campaign trail, those old chores become deeply meaningful. Under this post-campaign buzz, I once fixed a kitchen cabinet, and it was so rewarding that I took on the middle-distance stare of those people who do tai chi in the park. “I’d make it into a soothing thing,” said Obama about his Palmolive meditations.
If I’m right, Obama should probably be kept away from culture. He once described listening to Miles Davis as a near-religious experience, which suggests that if he’s left alone, he might break out of his trademark equilibrium. My wife and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago the day after the election, and I could barely make it past the front hall, I was so engrossed with everything I saw (That’s the museum map, dear). New presidents get a big book filled with all the art they can use to decorate their White House. Best to keep the president-elect away from this.
For the next 60 days, Barack Obama is on furlough to his real life before an even more restrictive life begins—and he knows this. In Sunday’s interview, he lamented that he can’t take a walk and can’t visit his old barber. It’ll be hard to drop a towel in his new house without someone rushing to pick it up. And it’s not just his movements that will get pinched. His forms of expression are going to get clipped. He is likely to lose his BlackBerry, and if he still keeps a journal to work out his thoughts, his lawyers will probably tell him to stop writing in that, too.
Just five years ago, Barack Obama was a state senator in the Midwest. Now he’s about to become the most powerful person on the planet. This fast climb will take some considerable adjustment once he gets to Washington, and the opportunities for solace will be scarce. Like his predecessors, he will probably dart out of the White House for dinner at a friend’s house to reconnect with regular life. If he’s got the bends really bad, afterward he’ll probably offer to do the dishes.