WASHINGTON—During a nationally televised address Tuesday, a visibly tired and worn President Obama informed the country that he was going out for a pack of cigarettes and would be back in 10 minutes or so.
At press time, it was already getting dark and he had not yet returned.
"My fellow Americans, a year ago I was elected to the office of president of the United States," Obama said. "With that responsibility comes a lot of expectations. A lot of pressure. I inherited a trillion-dollar deficit, two wars, a financial system in crisis, and a failing health care industry. I've been trying to piece it all back together, you know? Trying to be the man everyone elected me to be. The man of this White House. But sometimes—sometimes it's like I'm suffocating."
"Anyway, I'm going to go get some smokes, but I'll…be right back," added Obama, his voice trembling slightly. "Don't wait up."
Following the unexpected announcement, a solemn Obama reportedly grabbed his keys, hugged his two daughters for what witnesses called an extended period of time, kissed his wife on the forehead, and quietly whispered, "I love you."
Secret Service agents later confirmed that a half-tearing, half-smiling Obama was greeted by Vice President Joe Biden in the White House Rose Garden. Kneeling on the lawn, Obama reportedly told "Big Joe" that he would be in charge of the country for a while, and that the vice president should keep an eye on Iraq and Iran while he was out.
"He'll be back any minute now and everything will be okay again," said press secretary Robert Gibbs, checking his watch. "Maybe the 7-Eleven he went to was out of his brand so he had to go somewhere else. Or maybe he got lost. Or…or maybe he just decided to stop and get some ice cream for everyone and that's why he's not back yet."
"Yeah, that's it," Gibbs added. "That's it."
Sources within the administration confirmed that Obama has made no contact with members of his staff since leaving on the errand. Among those observed by reporters peering out an East Wing window awaiting his return were Defense Secretary Robert Gates and first daughter Sasha Obama, who said they initially thought they heard the president coming in through the visitor's gate, but that it turned out just to be the White House dog, Bo.
Though many claimed it isn't like the president to just up and leave, sources acknowledged that Obama has seemed distant in recent weeks, worrying aloud about how he's going to keep the nation afloat during a crippling recession, or be a good role model to its more than 300 million citizens.
In addition, White House aides reportedly heard Obama mumbling "It never stops, does it?" and "This—this can't be my life" whenever unemployment climbed a percentage point, North Korea conducted another missile test, or it became apparent there would never be bipartisan support for health care reform.
"About a month ago, Barack asked what I would do if I got something I thought I really wanted, but then it turned out not to be what I expected at all," chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said. "He asked if I've ever just wanted to start fresh again, if I've ever just stopped for a second and asked myself, 'Do I really want to be the person who has to rebuild America's image abroad, only for people back home to say I'm not concentrating enough on domestic issues?'"
Added Emanuel, "Then the president looked me straight in the eyes and he said, 'Rahm, have you ever thought about just sailing off someplace forever and never, ever coming back?'"
Emanuel wasn't the only one to notice a change in Obama.
"One night after work—I think it was a meeting with the Joint Chiefs—he came home late and just sat on the edge of our bed shaking his head for 20 minutes," Michelle Obama said. "I was pretending to be asleep, so I don't think he knew I was watching, but at one point, poor Barack, he just started whimpering."
While the first lady remained confident of her husband's return, citing Obama's tendency to take long walks, Vice President Biden said he saw something in Obama's eyes that told him otherwise.
"He's gone," Biden said. "He's gone, and he ain't never coming back."