NASHUA, N.H. – The president of the United States travels in rarified air, literally.
From a gleaming Air Force One, with nary a drip of grease on its chrome-plated hydraulics, to a sparkling black Cadillac limousine dubbed, “The Beast,” to the traffic-free highways on which it rides, everything about the presidency exudes the best that everyone around it can do.
That was the overwhelming impression today as a Globe reporter and photographer had the chance to join the traveling circus, serving as the local “pool” reporter and photographer accompanying President Obama in his motorcade as he visited New Hampshire and spoke at the Elm Street Middle School in Nashua.
The trade for that exclusive access was the requirement to provide pool reports and photos to all the other news organizations unable to join in. The poolers were the designated eyes and ears for all the other journalists who couldn’t cram in the van.
The journey started about 11 a.m., when the media had to report to a private terminal at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to check in and go through a security screening.
For perspective, that was four minutes before Marine One touched down at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, after ferrying the president from the White House to the former Andrews Air Force Base.
By the time Air Force One started rolling toward the runway at 11:12 a.m., dogs were checking laptop and camera bags in New Hampshire for explosives.
And before the presidential aircraft had reached its cruising altitude, the media contingent meeting him at the airport was sitting in a sterile room inside Wiggins Airways, prepped for his arrival.
Almost nothing last-minute ever happens around the president.
About 12 minutes before the plane touched down, a member of the White House Advance Office – which sounds just like it is, traveling in advance of the president to organize his movements – moved the pool out a flat-bed trailer on the tarmac.
It offered an elevated perspective from which to watch the plane land. The pool – as well as a group of about a dozen “greeters” who would meet the president at the bottom of the aircraft stairs, and another 60 or so VIPs in a pen at the edge of the tarmac – watched as a helicopter flew over the runway on an aerial inspection, and an airport vehicle followed with its own ground-based run.
All commercial traffic at the airport, including a Delta commuter flight, was put into a ground hold.
Soon, the plane was visible against the steel-gray sky, its landing lights and four engines making it look far more imposing than the Boeing 737s and regional jets that usually fly out of the airport.
It touched down at 12:20 p.m., a plume of blue-gray smoke billowing from its tires, and the air filled with a roar as the thrust-reversers on its engines deployed.
A few minutes later, it pulled to a stop, a Marine in uniform there to greet the military personnel aboard, a technician ready to run out with a phone line on an extra-long cord to ensure the plane had a backup to its wireless telephones.
As Air Force personnel steered the stairs to the plane’s front door, a door at the base of the rear fuselage opened and off poured a group of Air Force security personnel, Secret Service agents, White House staffers, and members of the traveling press pool that accompanies the president wherever he goes.
The president emerged at 12:28 p.m. to shake hands with the greeters: Carol Shea-Porter, Jim Demers, Phil McLaughlin, Alice Chamberlin, Ron Ault, Joanne Dowdell, Jay Bowers, Deb Pignatelli, Moacir Barbosa, and David Laughton, according to the Obama campaign.
After shaking each hand, he posed for a group photo under the presidential seal on the aircraft fuselage.
The president then strode across the tarmac to greet those in the pen.
“How you doing, New Hampshire?” he said as the group applauded him. “Good to see you guys.”
He gave a high-five to one child, and quipped, “There are some good-looking babies around here.”
The motorcade, with the president in his limousine and another identical backup alongside, was rolling at 12:37 p.m.
The motorcade traveled around perimeter of airport, inside the fence, and exited at the south end, merging into the rear entrance road that passes the cargo terminal.
A few bystanders watched from office entrances blocked off with orange cones.
The motorcade then headed on closed roads to northbound Route 3, also known as the Everett Turnpike, and in the opposite direction of Nashua.
That indicated a thoroughly planned but not previously announced “OTR, or “off-the-record” visit someplace.
Soon Manchester proper was in sight. The exited Interstate 293 North at Exit 6, Amoskeag Street, and headed away from city.
At 12:51 pm, it arrived at an office building housing the Teamsters Local 633.
The pool was led downstairs into a basement room, where about 60 people chanted, “Fired Up, Ready to Go.”
The president entered the spartan canvassing/call center in shirt sleeves and joked he was just passing by.
He gave a mini-stump speech and rattled off a list of administration’s accomplishments.
“All that’s at stake,” said Obama.
He then segued to a pro-union segment, before highlighting the importance of New Hampshire.
“These four electoral votes—right here—could make all the difference in the world,” the president said.
He added: “I’m gonna need you guys over the next 11 days to work as hard as you can. Do it not for me, do it for your kids.”
He ended his remarks at 12:58 p.m., pointed the end of the room, and said, “I’m just going to start down here and shake every hand.”
That drew cheers.
As he worked the rope line, one woman said, “Tell Michelle to stand by; we need a woman in the White House.”
The president laughed.
The pool was then hustled out, and the motorcade was moving again at 1:11 p.m., heading on a closed I-293 South and back onto Route 3/Everett Turnpike South.
The speedometer read 75 mph most of the way, and the motorcade did not stop to pay the toll.
It left the highway at Exit 5, Route 111 East, at 1:29 p.m., and rolled onto residential streets with some residents excitedly standing on their front lawns, waving and shooting cell phone pictures and video.
It arrived at the Elm Street Middle School at 1:34 p.m., the strains of warm-up act James Taylor audible in the distance.
The pool split off from the president as he reached the back entrance of the school.
The speech was open-press, meaning the pool didn’t have to transcribe or draft pool reports about it, since anyone in the media wanting to hear it could get a credential.
An hour after the president finished, the pool was hustled back to the motorcade – well in advance of the president’s planned 5 p.m. airport departure. That indicated another OTR was likely.
Sure enough, after driving up the turnpike a few minutes, the motorcade pulled into The Common Man restaurant in Merrimack at 4:19 p.m.
The president went from room to room, shaking hands and posing for pictures. One patron said she knew something was up when a person in a suit told her to stay in her seat.
“We were told we couldn’t go upstairs and they said we couldn’t go up there,” said Cathy Albert of Merrimack.
She was sitting at a bar with husband, Peter, and son, Steve Gosine, 18—who will be voting in his first election.
He said he was inclined to cast his first presidential vote for Obama, but joked, “I’m going to make my decision based on his handshake.”
At 4:37 pm, the president entered and shook hands with the family.
“What’s going on, guys? How’s everybody doing?” he asked.
The president then said to young Steve, “I need your vote.”
After being told he wanted to be an engineer, the president said, “Steve, we need engineers.”
He later posed for a picture with the family, joking to Cathy about her “baby’s” scruffy beard.
Then, looking elsewhere, he said, “What’s up, Patriots’ fans?”
The president said he liked New England’s team, except when it plays the Bears, and said he hoped they did well for the fans’ sake after the Red Sox dreadful season.
“Have you guys heard about the White House beer?” he asked. “It is outstanding. Got great reviews. New York Times reviewed the beer,” he added. “I was going to bring you a case, but someone forgot it,” he said as he jokingly looked over at his staff.
Hoisting a beer (a Common Man Ale), he toasted, “To America. It doesn’t matter what party.”
The pool was ushered out at 4:50 p.m. Obama exited the restaurant and greeted a line of people outside at 4:57 pm.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” he asked, as he toted a Common Man takeout bag.
He gave some young children boxes on presidential M&Ms.
The pool was sent to the vans at 4:59 p.m., and, after retracing its route, was back at the airport at 5:15 p.m.—about 10 minutes behind schedule. The president was jogging up the front steps before reporters could scramble out of their vans.
Seven minutes later, the glimmering robin’s egg blue-and-white Air Force One was roaring down the runway, headed back to Maryland.
As it lifted off, the local pool’s responsibilities ended.
Obama’s trip came during an active period of campaigning in New Hampshire.
Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, was in New Hampshire on Friday, visiting campaign offices in Concord, Berlin, Conway, and Laconia. The vice president himself is scheduled to come to Keene on Monday.
And first lady Michelle Obama was supposed to visit the University of New Hampshire on Tuesday, but cancelled Friday after the school announced it would close its campus to cope with any effects from Hurricane Sandy.
Meanwhile, Ann Romney, the wife of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, is due to campaign in the state on Monday, while Romney himself is due to have a rally in Milford on Tuesday night.
According to the Obama campaign, the president has traveled to New Hampshire ten times—including Saturday’s visit—since the start of his presidency.
This year, the president has visited the six times – including Saturday – and has held six political events and one official event.
He had last been to Nashua on March 1.