There are a ton of things the president can’t do in an official capacity as the head of the Executive Branch. But there are also mundane, everyday things the US president isn’t allowed to do while in office, mainly for security reasons, that are quite surprising. Ironically, they’re the kind of freedoms so commonplace most Americans take them for granted.
Many of the forbidden activities listed below don’t come from the official “rules” for being president: they’re not all based on any kind of law. The everyday things American presidents can’t do come primarily from the ever-evolving guidelines set in place by the Secret Service, which the president technically has the right to ignore, but doesn’t, for obvious reasons. Read on for the totally normal things even the president can’t do.
Drive a Car
That’s right: US presidents are not even allowed to drive their own vehicles – at least not on public roads. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last president to ever drive on taxpayer-funded highway, because of course he was. Private property is a different story: George W. Bush, for example, drove a pickup truck on his Crawford, TX property and Ronald Reagan liked driving Jeeps on his ranch near Santa Barbara.
Obama, however, only drove a golf cart during his years in office, surprisingly without the Secret Service at his side (Biden was riding shotgun in a buddy comedy waiting to happen – you’re welcome, Hollywood).
Ride in a Convertible
The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a turning point in the history of presidential security. Waving from an open-topped convertible in a parade just isn’t an option anymore, for obvious reasons. But that tragic day in Dallas was far from Kennedy’s first time riding through crowded city streets in such a vulnerable way.
In 1963, for example, Kennedy stood in the back of a convertible to wave to crowds while on a visit to Dublin. Irish president Eamon de Valera commented at the time, “what an easy target he would have been.”
Use an iPhone
Not even the Commander in Chief gets to pick what kind of smartphone to use. Obama – the first president to carry a smartphone – admitted in 2013 that he was not able to use the popular iPhone due to unspecified security concerns. He instead fought to use a heavily modified Blackberry while in office, his model of choice since before his first big win back in 2008.
“They’re going to pry it out of my hands,” a worried Obama told CNBC at the time.
Be Alone When Out in Public
As former agent Jonathan Wackrow puts it in an interview with NBC, “Secret Service protection is the most intrusive thing that anyone could ever experience.” Presidents can’t even arrange a pickup basketball game – as Obama attempted early in his administration – without four hours’ notice. Unless a president is safely ensconced in the fortress-like conditions of the White House, they simply can’t be alone.
“Just think about you at your home tonight and four strangers just show up and they’re standing in your kitchen,” Wackrow said.
Eat Outside the White House Without a "Taster"
It sounds like an unenviable task from the Middle Ages, but yes, presidential food “tasters” do exist. The Secret Service doesn’t speak openly about it, but a White House spokesman and one senator (just to name a few legit sources) have mentioned the role to the press. This has led to some awkward situations, such as a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2013 where a taster-free Obama couldn’t partake.
“He looked longingly at [the food],” according to Maine Senator Susan Collins.
Copyright Published Works While in Office
If a sitting US president somehow found the time to write and publish a memoir or book of essays while still in office, they couldn’t, as a federal employee, secure a copyright on that work. US copyright law states any work created by a federal government employee in that person’s official capacity – including the president – is in the public domain.
A president is on duty 24/7, meaning anything unclassified they write while in office, including speeches, are free for others to use and repurpose.
Open the Windows in the White House
Even the most powerful person in the world can’t crack a window in his house to let in the breeze. As Michelle Obama related to Stephen Colbert in 2015, the Secret Service requires that all the windows stay closed. This also applies to windows in all official transportation.
The First Lady did reveal one exception: “One day as a treat, my lead agent let me have my windows open on the way to Camp David. It was like five minutes out. He was like, ‘Windows open. Enjoy it.'”
Accept Expensive Gifts
There are strict rules against presidents accepting expensive gifts from world leaders and other dignitaries. In 2016, the law says gifts worth more than $375 have to be turned over to the National Archives. Anything with a lesser value is okay and considered a “souvenir or mark of courtesy.” This can lead to some curious situations: George W. Bush, for example, had to purchase a pricey Bulgarian sheepdog named Balkan he received as a gift from the President of Bulgaria in order to give the dog a good home.
By buying the dog at face value, he was able to legally give it a good home with a friend in Maryland.
Go Anywhere Without the "Football"
The “Football” is the nickname given to the briefcase the Secret Service carries with them wherever they travel with the president. Though its exact contents are unknown, it does provide a way for the president to confirm his identity and contact the National Military Command Center in case of an emergency. It also provides a “menu” of options in case of a nuclear conflict. Presidents have to keep a laminated code card with them at all times to activate the “Football,” and a Secret Service agent has to lug the 45-pound bag around in close proximity to the president wherever they go.
Have a "Conflict of Interest"
In November 2016, President-elect Donald Trump told editors from the New York Times, in reference to his business interests clashing with his role as president, “The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Technically speaking, Trump is correct: the Congressional Research Service confirms “there is no current legal requirement that would compel the President to relinquish financial interests because of a conflict of interest.”
There is a clause in the Constitution, however, prohibiting presidents from accepting expensive gifts or “emoluments” from foreign governments or state-run foreign companies, meaning a Commander in Chief with real estate across the globe has to be careful about his role in daily business operations, making sure everything is sold at fair market value.
Otherwise, as Eric Levitz of New York magazine notes, he could be perceived as trying to “shape domestic and foreign policy around his own business interests.”