WASHINGTON -- On the rockiest day of his young administration, President Obama did what surely made him happy for a while.

He left.

With little notice, the president and first lady Michelle Obama bolted the gated compound of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in their tank of a limousine on Tuesday. They ended up at a Washington public school, greeted by children who could not care less about the collapse of a Cabinet secretary nomination.

"We were just tired of being in the White House," the president candidly told the gleeful second-graders at Capital City Public Charter School.

"We got out! They let us out!" Mrs. Obama said as the kids and their teachers laughed.

The White House said the Obamas' trip had been planned, just not publicly announced.

The surprise timing, though, gave the feel of two different worlds.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs was getting grilled about Tom Daschle's doomed nomination for health and human services secretary.

Meanwhile, the president was getting questions from boys and girls who are the same age as his seven-year-old daughter, Sasha.

One child asked him if he had a favorite superhero. Spiderman and Batman, the president answered.

Another student asked what it was like to live in the White House. Mrs. Obama took charge on this one, delighting the kids with all the perks of life in America's most famous house: a florist, a bowling alley, a movie theater, even a special place where people make chocolate and candy.
"You should come visit," she said.

The stop at the school underscored a promise that the Obamas made and insist they will keep: to avoid getting caught up in a White House bubble. They say they will be visible parts of the Washington community -- even in the midst of a hectic day. Or a difficult one.

Consider what happened just before the president left the White House compound.

In the span of a few hours, he dealt with the aborted candidacy of his government's chief performance officer over an embarrassing tax problem; he announced a new commerce secretary nominee to replace the one who withdrew weeks earlier because of corruption investigation; and he accepted the stunning withdrawal by Daschle, who had his own problems over back taxes and ethical conflicts.

None of that came up at school, although Obama did sneak in a plug for his economic stimulus plan.

He was upbeat. He and his wife read the students a book about the inspirational story of astronauts landing on the moon. He took a class photo, accepted hugs from the children, thanked them for pictures they made him, and even delivered them a couple of brown-paper bags full of books.

"Thank you, guys," the president said to cheers.

Awaiting him back home: More questions.

This time, they would be coming from five television network anchors, in rapid-fire interviews in the Oval Office. And so goes the job.