Tourists near the White House never expected to see the president in person on a steamy spring afternoon. One woman squealed with delight; another suggested she thought Wednesday's sighting might be an Obama impostor.
Since taking office, Obama has grumbled periodically about the claustrophobia that sets in when his every move is surrounded by intense security. That makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the simple pleasures that others take for granted.
"It's good to be out," Obama said.
Traditionally, whenever the president leaves the White House, he travels by motorcade or helicopter. Before he arrives at his destination, Secret Service agents have prepared security, which generally keeps Obama at a distance from anything unpredictable.
Life in this bubble can feel suffocating.
For Obama, relief frequently comes in the form of a weekend golf outing, usually at a military base. But every once in a while, the golf course just doesn't cut it.
"I don't get a chance to take walks very often," Obama said this past week. "Secret Service gets a little stressed. But every once in a while I'm able to sneak off."
Nearly six years into his presidency, Obama seems to be sneaking off just a bit more often.
Last week, diners at a Shake Shack near the White House looked up from their cheeseburgers to see Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stroll in. The White House said Obama was there to promote government-financed work projects and a proposed minimum wage increase, but the hastily arranged visit raised a few eyebrows.
Three days later, Obama was en route to a fundraiser in suburban Maryland when his motorcade made a detour and pulled into a park.
Obama stopped by a baseball field where Little League teams were getting ready for a game. Obama lobbed a few balls toward home plate and posed for photos.
White House officials offered little explanation for the stop, other than to point out that Obama was scheduled later in the week to travel to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. That visit, officials said, was aimed at promoting tourism to the U.S. as a way to boost the economy.
"And, no, this not just an excuse to go the Baseball Hall of Fame," Obama's senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, wrote in a blog post.
Former White House aides said it's always gratifying to depart from the norm by allowing the president to interact more directly with people, even if it's a major headache for those responsible for making it happen.
"Staff loves it, Secret Service hates it," said Ari Fleischer, who traveled frequently with President George W. Bush as his press secretary. "They want everything buttoned down and under total, nothing-could-possibly-go-wrong control."