Presidential Motorcades, Street Closures, and the Little People

The most congested part of DC was shut down at the most inconvenient time possible last evening so that President Obama could attend a partisan political event. It's a routine outrage.

Presidential Motorcade DC

Margaret Soltan was in her GWU office and heard “endless sirens.”   The cause?

The evening commute in the West End will get tricky as President Obama heads to George Washington University to host a “Moving America Forward” town hall meeting for the Democratic National Committee. The event is scheduled to start at 7 p.m., but that means authorities will be clearing streets before then. The distance isn’t far, and authorities don’t discuss the routes the president takes. However, the street closures should roll through the area fairly quickly. The best advice we can offer is to avoid the area around the campus during this time period if you don’t have to be there. If you’re headed to points west, try Constitution Avenue and M Street to steer clear of the delays.

So, the president is doing the business of his party — not the nation — and thinks nothing of closing down an already congested part of one of the worst driving cities in the country during the height of rush hour to attend to it.   Nice.

Obama’s not unique in this regard, of course.   There’s no evidence that other recent presidents have given much thought to how the extraordinary measures to ensure their security impact the hoi polloi.  But, in DC at least, this is a huge and constant problem.   And it’s not just the president:  the mayor and myriad other Very Important People are afforded the luxury of motorcades and police escorts that shut down streets and delay the mere proletariat so that they might rush home to dinner or out to take in a play without the inconveniences of traffic.

My office is blocks from the White House, so the sirens are quite frequent.   And I often encounter motorcades whilst driving or even walking to various points in town.

I imagine that the average tourist, experiencing this for the first time in their life, is thrilled.   “Wow!” they say to themselves, “Is that the president?!”    It doesn’t take long, though, for the novelty to wear off and the resentment to sink in.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    Probably more irritating when it is a president you dont like.

    Steve

  2. No. It is annoying in all cases. And contrary to the spirit of democracy. We treat these guys like kings. Why are we surprised when they behave that way?

  3. Tano says:

    “And contrary to the spirit of democracy. We treat these guys like kings.”

    That is ridiculous. It is done, obviously, for security reasons, not as some manifestation of grandeur over the peasants. If you have ever seen one of these motorcades, you often cannot even tell which car is the President’s.

  4. DC Loser says:

    DC not only has the Presidential motorcades, but every foreign government high ranking official who comes calling has some kind of police/secret service motorcade with their accompaying black Suburbans with sirens and flashing lights forcing the “little people” to the side of the road while they get to go through red lights so they can make happy hour at the Willard. Sometimes I wonder whether we live in a democracy.

  5. Tano,

    I don’t think anyone begrudges the need for security. However, as anyone who lives or works in D.C. can tell you, there is seemingly no appreciation on the part of the people planning these motorcade routes — whether for the President or anyone else — of the impact that they have on local traffic and quality of life.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Probably more irritating when it is a president you dont like.

    Not at all. And, indeed, not only can’t you tell which SUV is the president’s — a good thing! — but whether it’s even the president’s motorcade. As Bernard and DCL note above, these things are ubiquitous.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    The same thing happens quite a lot in NYC whenever Mikey deserts the subway or when there are big events at the UN. What’s your solution Jim?

  8. James Joyner says:

    The same thing happens quite a lot in NYC whenever Mikey deserts the subway or when there are big events at the UN. What’s your solution Jim?

    I would end them completely for anyone not the president. And I’d limit them to official business.

    Frankly, POTUS has a helicopter. Why can’t they use that for most of these trips?

  9. DC Loser says:

    They don’t have a helipad at Ray’s Hellburger (yet).

  10. John Burgess says:

    Give POTUS and his guards a Metro Card! It’s an easy, one-stop ride from Farragut West to Foggy Bottom.

    Seriously, though, it could be worse. Try moving around Cairo on the same day that the Egyptian President is in his motorcade. If your path intersects his, you might as well go home and try again tomorrow.

    The composition of the POTUS motorcade has grown over the years. Not only is there his car and several for security, but you’ve also got the media ‘Death Watch’ that has to be there just in case, an ambulance, and all the strap-hangers.

    It’s amusing to contrast this with the Queen of England who travels in her Daimler limo accompanied by a handful of motorcycle outriders. The cycles leapfrog to close intersections immediately before the limo gets to them, then move on to the next.

    One of the more entertaining things I saw while assigned to the US Embassy in London was the initial ‘discussions’ between the USSS and British security as the latter explained how, no, it wasn’t possible to close Heathrow for Air Force 1’s arrival, and no, it wasn’t possible to close the M4/A4 for the POTUS motorcade, and no, the motorcade actually wouldn’t fit in the whole of Downing St.

  11. grampagravy says:

    How about a “free market” solution to what’s bothering you guys here. You could move to, say, Winnemucca and flip burgers or something.

  12. grisjuan says:

    I’m an Obama supporter and yes, it was still irritating. I was headed to a talk starting at 7 in the GW University Lisner auditorium – almost next door to where the president was speaking at 7 – and was late because I had to walk several blocks out of the way.

  13. floyd says:

    “It’s a routine outrage.”

    This describes a lot more that just traffic jams, and I wonder when America will wake up and… ” for the novelty to wear off and the resentment to sink in”.
    Unfortunately It will not likely be anytime soon, regardless of what happens in November
    Until then, moving to Winnemucca, will not bring relief from an ever increasing and”routine outrage”.

    “It’s a routine outrage”….. such a phrase could contain the seeds of real hope and change.

    .

  14. James Joyner says:

    How about a “free market” solution to what’s bothering you guys here. You could move to, say, Winnemucca and flip burgers or something.

    That makes no sense whatsoever. We’re not allowed to complain about the abuses of power of our political leaders because our ideology is one that’s skeptical of government power?

  15. JKB says:

    Come on, where’s that protest spirit. Start a campaign among the locals that when they encounter one of these motorcades, stand on the curb and turn your back to the the dignitary as they go by. Kind of like an “up yours” wave. Get enough of the people lining the street to do this and the politicians might start thinking how they anger people. Plus it’ll build a send of camaraderie among the hoi polloi.

  16. ponce says:

    “That is ridiculous. It is done, obviously, for security reasons…”

    Wouldn’t it be far safer to transport the President in a nondescript sedan with zero fanfare?

  17. john personna says:

    If you keep the President bottled up, the terrorists win.

    (Seriously, you are saying that because there are new security requirments, the President should limit his personal business. He didn’t invent 15 car, or whatevever, convoys. The Secret Service did. Re. “nondescript sedans” … if we knew that would kind of ruin it. Maybe he does.)

  18. john personna says:

    BTW, I think that “mortgage armageddon” and “beheaded Mexican cops” are more important stories. Don’t think of an elephant.

  19. James Joyner says:

    Seriously, you are saying that because there are new security requirments, the President should limit his personal business.

    I’m saying that the inconvenience to citizens should be considered in these matters. If we’re going to have outlandish security measures every time he goes out and about then, absolutely, he should limit his trips to those that are essential or that can be scheduled in low peak hours.

    The better solution would be to adopt the British mindset described by John Burgess above. Security Theater has been allowed to run amok.

  20. James Joyner says:

    BTW, I think that “mortgage armageddon” and “beheaded Mexican cops” are more important stories.

    But I don’t have much of anything to add beyond the obvious on those stories. Maybe Steve Verdon and Steven Taylor will weigh in.

  21. DC Loser says:

    Security theater has been allowed to run amok because nobody has had the gonads to tell the Secret Service to back off. The USSS always use the excuse that they need to do whatever they want to protect the President with no constraints. So far no POTUS has had the intestinal fortitude to tell them “I’ll take my chances.”

  22. James Joyner says:

    The USSS always use the excuse that they need to do whatever they want to protect the President with no constraints. So far no POTUS has had the intestinal fortitude to tell them “I’ll take my chances.”

    It really started to go downhill when Clinton allowed them to wall off Pennsylvania Ave.

  23. john personna says:

    I don’t see Steve getting enthused by both foolishness and fraud in the private sector. He’d probably also rather talk about Barney. 😉 Steven, I don’t know.

    This MERS/robo-signer thing really does strike at the idea threaded through so many comments here that the private sector could have handled the mortgages, if the government had just gotten out of the way.

    We now return you to discussion of street congestion …

  24. steve says:

    “That makes no sense whatsoever. We’re not allowed to complain about the abuses of power of our political leaders because our ideology is one that’s skeptical of government power?”

    Sure. If you are just griping to get it out of your system, go ahead. If you want a solution, is your proposed one practical? Do the political consequences of an assassination of a foreign prime minister outweigh the inconveniences of motorcades? Anyway, I would suggest smaller motorcades. Press is on their own. The Secret Service likes to keep cars moving, so you need to consult with them. Lastly, the definition of official business is vague enough I dont see that working.

    I assume you wrote about this before 2009, or is this something new?

    Steve

  25. Nightrider says:

    My office is very close to the White House. Several motorcades go by daily. The President and visiting heads of state obviously ought to have a motorcade. This Fox Newsish story about Obama’s audacious motorcade would be trumped only the story Fox News would run if Obama stopped them, and thus would be alleged to have jeopardized national security and demeaned the office (like when Carter was mocked by Republicans for ending hail to the chief).

    But clearly a lot more people get them than the President based on their frequency. They do go by quickly and seem to generally avoid rush hours, so it does seem like they try, but they are also probably expensive and seem unnecessary for most underlings who apparently get them.

    And, ah, I could only wish that motorcades were the worst of our traffic problems around here.

  26. Nightrider says:

    PS — like what about the overzealousness with which police delay traffic to investigate accidents? That causes massive delays all over the country every day, not just the one place the President happens to be. That seems like a more productive place to call for cost-benefit analysis and checks on things that police do that inconvenience people.

  27. grisjuan says:

    About a month ago, I was on a flight out of White Plains, NY. Obama was coming into Stamford for a fundraiser dinner.

    My flight boarded on time, but then they shut down the airspace in the area for almost 2 hours. It would have been less, but a rain shower came through and our pilot said they sent Obama’s helicopter somewhere else to wait it out. Eventually, they had to let some planes land as they were running out of fuel.

    Luckily, my connection in Chicago was delayed too or I would have been stuck in Chicago for the night.

  28. Tano says:

    “Wouldn’t it be far safer to transport the President in a nondescript sedan with zero fanfare?”

    No, because it is usually not a secret about where the President is going to be. So if it is well known that he going to give a speech at the Hilton at 2PM, then any organized effort to get him would have a very easy shot, under your scenario.

  29. Tano says:

    “The USSS always use the excuse that they need to do whatever they want to protect the President with no constraints. So far no POTUS has had the intestinal fortitude to tell them “I’ll take my chances.””

    I have to say, I find this whole thread to be an exercise in empty ranting and venting. Your precious “quality of life” is disturbed because you choose to live in the major capitol city of the world, and you then have to encounter the necessary security measures that need be taken in such an environment? Give me a frikken break here…

    We lost a President in my lifetime. Another was shot at twice. A third was shot and hit, and came within a few inches of being killed. And that was before the extended reach of the modern wave of terrorism. The President needs that kind of protection that he recieves. And so do many other officials whom whack-jobs or terrorists would love to take out. And visiting foreign leaders need to be protected as well.

    I lived for 5 years, 7 blocks from the WH, and worked across the street from one of the favored venues for Presidential meetings and speeches. I’ve seen countless numbers of these motorcades. Sure it can be a pain, if all you are focused on is your own schedule and your own moment-to-moment convenience. But dealing with this like a grown up is just part of the landscape of living in a place like DC.

  30. Peter says:

    Get a look at this ridiculously large motorcade for the president of Chechnya. It’s not even a real country!

  31. sam says:

    I dunno, JJ. You live in the capitol city of the most powerful nation in the history of the world and, seems to me, given the nature of the digs, inconvenience is to be expected, or so I’d think.