WASHINGTON — Travel has its privileges when you’re the most powerful person in the free world: No lines, no delays, no traffic. Except when you try to drive in a Washington-area snow event.
For President Barack Obama, the perks of the presidency were no match for Mother Nature on Wednesday night, when he, like every other commuter on Washington’s roads, got stuck in a weather-related traffic nightmare. An unexpected two-inch dusting of snow at rush hour turned his usual 10-minute commute from Joint Base Andrews to the White House into a 1-hour, 14-minute slog.
For a Chicago native who in 2009 chided Washingtonians as a bunch of weather wimps after his daughters’ school was closed because of ice, the episode was probably enough to leave him yearning for the Midwest heartiness of the Windy City.
Call it the perfect storm: Air Force One landed at Andrews, near Clinton, Maryland, just before 7:30 p.m., delivering the president from a day trip to Detroit to tout economic growth. Rush hour, normally tapering off, was still at full throttle as the snow and icy road conditions slowed traffic to a crawl.
Air Force officials made a “bad-weather call,” meaning the snow would force the president and his Secret Service detail to return to the White House via motorcade instead of his usual method: Marine One, the presidential helicopter.
Easier said than done.
Area roads had not been treated with salt, and snowplows were slow to deploy, creating a huge traffic jam on the Beltway, major thoroughfares and side streets across the region that delayed some commuters up to nine hours. The military’s weather call was made so late that the Secret Service and local police did not have time to clear the roads of other vehicles — not that they would have been able to even if they wanted to try.
On occasion, especially when Obama is on personal business, such as weekend golf outings, the presidential motorcade follows normal traffic flows, even stopping at red lights. But for security reasons, officials usually halt traffic and close streets to the public when the president is on official business.
The Secret Service took some practical precautions: Rather than using the armored Cadillac limousine, affectionately known as “The Beast,” the president traveled in a more nimble sport-utility vehicle.
“Departing at 7:26 p.m., President Obama’s motorcade made its way slowly from Joint Base Andrews to the White House through the snowy streets of suburban Maryland and Washington, D.C., stopping at most stoplights and easing its way through slow and crowded traffic, often employing sirens and flashing lights,” wrote a reporter who accompanied the motorcade.
The reporter noted that the press van “slipped and skidded on icy roads making contact several times with the curb,” and the motorcade passed several fender benders in the first 20 minutes.
“After nearly an hour, the motorcade vehicles started making more aggressive use of their sirens and stoplight privileges,” according to the report. Asked Wednesday about security concerns over the president traveling in heavy traffic on icy roads, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama was being transported “in a heavy SUV, with a highly trained driver at the wheel.”
The two-inch snowfall on Wednesday was not widely predicted by Washington’s meteorologists, who have been focused on a potentially historic blizzard forecast for Friday and Saturday. In 2009, Obama got his first taste of Washington’s snow jitters when school was canceled for his daughters because of icy roads.
“In Chicago, school is never canceled,” Obama said then. “In fact, my 7-year-old pointed out that you’d go outside for recess in a storm. You wouldn’t even stay indoors. So, I don’t know. We’re going to have to try to apply some flinty Chicago toughness.”
The trip from Andrews to the White House is about 14.8 miles, according to Google Maps, and takes about 30 minutes without traffic, even for ordinary commuters. Obama arrived at the compound at 8:40 p.m. — 74 minutes after the motorcade set out.
Aides said Obama plans to stay put this weekend when the blizzard warning is in effect. But he might already be feeling a bit nostalgic for some of the perks that come with the office.
“It’s probably a reminder of how much the president will miss having access to Marine One a year from now” when his term ends, Earnest said. “Helicopter travel is not something that he is likely to have regular access to as a former president. Last night may have been a reminder of how painful that transition could be.”