- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Has the Secret Service gone too far? It’s a question being asked with increasing frequency in these days before the inauguration of Barack Obama by tens of thousands of commuters who must make the daily trek from the Virginia or Maryland suburbs to jobs from Capitol Hill to the White House, the corridor that is the heart of the federal bureaucracy.

In its understandable zeal to guard against every contingency, the agency charged with protecting the president-elect will shut off hunks of main thoroughfares, resulting in interminable traffic jams on K Street and other arteries so important to the city’s commerce. At the same time, officials announced they would shut down all the bridges leading into the city from Virginia on Inauguration Day from early, early morning to early evening, a plan that brought howls of protest from the Commonwealth’s congressmen.

So loud were the outcries that the protection authorities decided to modify the edict. They would permit foot and bicycle traffic. Otherwise to reach the District, Virginians would have to take the famed Beltway to Maryland where the thoroughfares would remain open until one reaches the center city where most of the streets will be closed. Virginians could, of course, take the Metro to reach the few businesses that will remain open or to join an estimated 2 million others eager to view the installation of the first African-American president of the United States.

Never in the history of these things has there been such an elaborate tightening of security. Why? Those who are close to the agency charged with assuring the safety of the new president and his family say it is because the “expression of interest” - the euphemism for the threat level - for Mr. Obama is 10 times higher than it was for George W. Bush and is climbing daily. To meet this challenge, the authorities, they say, have little choice but to risk incurring the wrath of citizens by employing the most stringent, restrictive measures.

Part of the early problem was caused by the refusal of the Bush White House to allow the president-elect and his family to move into Blair House across the street from the presidential mansion until this Thursday, Jan. 15, because of a promised one-night stay for a former Australian prime minister, an ally of George Bush’s on Iraq. This forced the Obamas to move into the Hay-Adams Hotel across Lafayette Square from the White House and resulted in measures that altered the downtown traffic patterns. It was just another bad taste being left by an already highly unpopular Mr. Bush.

So will the new president face such continued heightened security measures that his movements will be far more restricted than usual, even compared to those for Lyndon Johnson who was a captive of the White House during his final years in office because of anger over Vietnam? Perhaps, but it will be difficult to control a chief executive notoriously active and energetic. He is a young man who could come to resent the oppressive 24-hour measures.

It hasn’t been too long ago that Jimmy Carter climbed out of his limousine and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to watch the parade celebrating his Inauguration. That would be foolish in this day and age of violence. To cut down on the possibilities of a really bad day, the Secret Service will employ a new presidential limousine that is far more resistant to threats, including explosives and biological types.

But it is outside the confines of the limo or the presidential complex itself that worries the protective forces. Mr. Obama’s penchant for personally reaching out to supporters and constituents will be difficult to manage. As one who portrays himself as a man of the people and has given every indication he truly is, the new president faces restrictions unlike anything we have seen for some time.

Is the Secret Service overreacting? No. And the slight inconveniences these measures cause us are a small price to pay for the new president’s safety.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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