WASHINGTON - While away on his annual Christmas vacation in sunny Hawaii, President Obama has managed to escape Washington, but not "the bubble."

At home or on the road, the president lives in an isolating environment - a White House world staffed by thousands of people who protect, advise, and serve him at an annual cost to taxpayers of about $1.5 billion.

He lives, works, and plays behind fences and a wall of Secret Service agents. He never cuts the grass, does the laundry, or cleans the kitchen. He has driven a car only twice in nearly four years, once for 10 feet. He rarely goes to church; a chaplain visits him at his private Camp David mountain retreat. He doesn't go to movies; first-run releases are sent to him.

He says he tries to break through, reaching out for contact with ordinary Americans and the occasional feel of real life. But as Obama himself admits, it's hard.

"There is an inherent danger in being in the White House and being in the bubble," he said recently when asked following big midterm election losses if he'd lost touch with the American people. "When you're in this place, it is hard not to seem removed."

Fenced off

In the distant past, people could walk up to the White House and talk to the president. Then people started shooting at presidents, and the fences went up.

Once, they could drive by the White House. Then someone used a truck bomb to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City, and the Secret Service closed that part of Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic in 1995.

President Harry Truman could take walks around the streets of the capital. Then assassins tried to kill him, and presidents retreated. When Obama walked a few hundred feet across Pennsylvania Avenue in mid-December to meet with business leaders at Blair House, one of his heavily armored limousines stood by, and pedestrians were barred for blocks around.

The wall separating the president from the people has grown ever higher, the bubble ever larger, particularly with the terrorism threat.

Where President George H.W. Bush could sneak out for a quiet dinner at a Chinese restaurant, Obama has to plan well ahead to leave the building, even when taking what looks like a spontaneous outing for a hamburger.

"The ability to move any president is not what it was in 1989 or 1991," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "We couldn't decide to go somewhere tomorrow. It just takes a long time to get that apparatus moving."

A way of life

Security is one way a president is cut off from people. Lifestyle can be another. The way presidents live can reinforce their connection with the American people or punctuate the differences.

"Some of them have a more common touch than others," said presidential historian Bert Rockman. "Clinton certainly did. Reagan did. The younger Bush did for a while.

"Others have lacked the common touch. Nixon didn't have it. Carter didn't have it. Obama is very comfortable in the company of intellectuals."

Truman not only took walks but also insisted on washing his own socks and underwear. Ronald Reagan cleared brush and rode horses on his ranch. Bill Clinton had a taste for McDonald's. George W. Bush drove his own pickup truck at his ranch.

Obama doesn't do any of that.

At the White House, he has a staff of about 100 to cook and clean for him.

At Camp David, in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, the Navy provides staff to take care of the 49 buildings. It boasts a four-bedroom presidential lodge, a heated swimming pool, stables, a sauna, a movie theater, tennis courts, and a golf driving range. "It's about the only place you can really walk freely and be alone virtually unencumbered," Reagan told Clinton after his election.

Obama went to Camp David 10 times his first year in office, less frequently than some predecessors. George W. Bush cherished the seclusion, going an average of 18 times a year.

All told, nearly 6,600 people work to take care of the president, according to Bradley H. Patterson, a veteran of the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford White Houses who has written about White House staff.

That includes the Secret Service, the policy staff, the people who take care of the White House and its grounds, as well as Camp David, Air Force One, the Marine One helicopters, and the armored cars.

The price tag totaled $1.5 billion in 2008, the latest year for which records are available. The cost is all but hidden in the federal budget, spread out in 12 places, Patterson said, including the Defense and Homeland Security Departments. The 200 to 300 people who clean and maintain the White House are listed in the General Services Administration and National Parks Service, for example.

One way that Obama reaches out beyond the bubble, and beyond his circle, is by reading letters from ordinary Americans, 10 of them selected daily by staff and given to him each evening in a folder.

"Some of them just break my heart," he said. "Some of them provide me encouragement and inspiration."

And he's involved with his daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9. He frequently attends events at their school and recently started a regular Sunday trek to a private gym to play basketball with them.