His time carefully guarded, president carves out some personal space
By Eli Saslow
The Washington Post
updated 3:24 a.m. CT, Sun., March. 1, 2009
Each morning when he arrives at the Oval Office, President Obama asks his staff to deliver him a package containing 10 letters. It is a mere sampling of the 40,000 or so that Americans send to the White House every day — a barrage of advice from students and teachers, small-business owners and the unemployed. In between his daily meetings with senior staff members and Cabinet secretaries, Obama has made a habit of sitting alone behind his desk and reading one letter at a time, friends and advisers said. The exercise is intended to help keep him grounded, but it also provides Obama with a glimpse beyond the White House walls and the Secret Service perimeter into what the president sometimes refers to as "the real world."
Obama has learned during his first 40 days in the White House that he must fight to preserve such direct connections to the citizens he leads. Obama's life as president is outsourced to about 25 assistants, 25 deputy assistants and 50 special assistants who act as a massive siphon to control the information that reaches his desk and schedule the meetings and public appearances that shape his days. A correspondence staff sorts through his mail and selects the 10 letters that he reads. Three calligraphers write his invitations and thank-you notes. Two "body men" follow him in lockstep to carry his jacket, supply his ChapStick and place his telephone calls.
The same culture of delegation has governed life in the White House for decades, but Obama's popularity has heightened the need for so many gatekeepers. As the country's first African American president, he receives an unprecedented number of requests for autographs, interviews, photographs and speeches, aides said, and less than one request in every thousand merits Obama's attention.
Friends and advisers said Obama has chafed at some aspects of his presidential existence. He campaigned tirelessly for 18 months to reach the White House, but, finally there, he seems eager to escape its smothering confines. Obama has asked his advisers to schedule at least one campaign-style trip out of Washington each week, and he has fled the White House to eat meals out, visit Camp David in Maryland and spend a weekend with old friends in Chicago. On Friday night, he sat courtside at Verizon Center and watched the Wizards trounce his hometown Bulls. One afternoon last month, Obama and his wife, Michelle, visited wiggly second-graders at a local public school because, Obama explained, "we were just tired of being in the White House." The first lady chimed in: "We got out! They let us out!"
Unlike predecessors who moved into the White House from governor's mansions after long careers in public life, Obama remains a relatively new politician accustomed to his freedom and personal space. Until a few months ago, he tended to conduct business with 2 a.m. e-mails and casual hallway chats. He roamed his campaign headquarters, stopped randomly in staffers' offices and plopped his feet up on their desks. Now, as president, he spends most of his time in the Oval Office, where secretaries can peer in through a peephole to ensure his day is running on schedule.
"People don't understand what it's like to be trapped within four walls that happen to be called the White House," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has spoken with Obama about his new life. "Barack is determined not to be engulfed in the bubble, because part of his own analysis is that's what happened to his predecessor. He knows it's easy to become a prisoner of these things and become totally cut off."
It is one of the great ironies of the presidency: The man who controls so much also cedes so much control. Long before Obama arrives in the West Wing after 8 each morning, every part of his day has been debated and partitioned by a circle of senior advisers. They help determine what documents he reads, which international leaders he calls and which meetings he attends.
His time is the most valuable commodity in the White House, and it's guarded like a precious jewel. Various staff members act as Obama's liaisons to Cabinet secretaries, governors and legislators, because he doesn't always have time to speak with the most important politicians in the country. A telephone in the Oval Office is programmed with the numbers of senior government officials, so calls to them can be made by pressing one button.
Gone are the days when friends could dial up Obama and ask him to make a speech at a party; now the White House scheduling department logs all requests for Obama's time, compiles a spreadsheet of intriguing options and asks a cadre of senior advisers for input before involving the president.
Gone, too, are the days when Obama and his speechwriter could mark up copies of a draft and pass it back and forth; now the staff secretary's office intercepts every document before it reaches the president, disseminates it to other staff members for feedback and then decides when to deliver it to Obama.
"The way I would frame the job is that I want to maximize his time," said Staff Secretary Lisa Brown, an assistant to the president who works out of an office on the ground floor of the West Wing. "So it's making sure that, when we send him something, it is what he wants to see, when he wants to see it, and we are helping him be as efficient as he could be."
Life inside the White House
In the name of efficiency, Obama's senior staff arrives at the White House before 7 a.m. to begin planning his day. A small group of close advisers — Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, scheduler Alyssa Mastromonaco, campaign architects David Axelrod and Pete Rouse — meets at 7:30 a.m. Less than an hour later, about 30 heads of White House departments gather in the West Wing's Roosevelt Room for a 20-minute roundtable. Each delivers a brief update on his department's activities, staff members said, and then Emanuel instructs them on the message of the day. Senior staff members in charge of such matters as trip planning and constituent outreach deal almost exclusively with Emanuel; some department heads said they have seen Obama only once or twice since he was sworn in.
Obama eats breakfast with his daughters and exercises in the third-floor gym before making his way to the Oval Office for a series of morning meetings. A national security briefing, a daily economics briefing, a review of upcoming remarks with his speechwriters — all are set pieces on his morning schedule that last between 15 and 45 minutes apiece. At 10 a.m., Obama meets with senior advisers, some of whom bring index cards inscribed with reminders of questions and key points. If they forget to mention something to Obama, their next chance probably won't come until the following day.
On days when he's in Washington, Obama usually holds a public event about 11 a.m. and then eats lunch in the Oval Office with a senior official, including a weekly lunch with Vice President Biden. Obama prefers to move around in the afternoons when possible; he has left the White House to see Cabinet members and to visit the Treasury and Energy departments. Obama has told friends that he hopes to return to Chicago once every five or six weeks and make regular weekend trips to Camp David. He is, spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "a restless soul."
"Since we've gotten to the White House, the president has told us that there's too much padding and things can be back to back because he needs to fit a lot into the day," Mastromonaco said. "I still err with caution, because you don't want someone like Secretary Clinton or a foreign leader waiting for 40 minutes. But he feels like 'I'm here.' And he wants to get things done."
Mastromonaco tries to schedule Obama's meetings in 30- and 45-minute chunks. She leaves short gaps in between — "desk time," she calls it — for Obama to return phone calls, study briefing documents or read through his constituent letters. Even after a busy 11-hour day in the Oval Office, Obama usually leaves to meet his family for dinner, with more work still to do.
"When we started the campaign, nobody knew who he was, so we had to jump through a lot of hoops for support," Mastromonaco said. "Now, everyone is here, and everyone wants us to go to this dinner or that dinner, and everyone appeals to me. The president said to me, 'You don't mind saying no. You like it.' "
Obama has tried to establish some boundaries of his own. Even though his family is served in the residence by a full-time staff of 92 that includes six butlers, three florists, a seamstress and a lighting expert, friends said the old Obama family rules still apply. Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, still wake themselves up with their own alarm clocks. They still make their own beds and clean their rooms, regardless of the housekeeping staff. They still eat limited desserts, no matter how talented the family's new pastry chef.
Having young children may make it easier for the Obamas to embrace a less stuffy approach to socializing. On the family's first day in the White House, Michelle Obama gathered the 92 employees in the East Room and told the group it would be treated not as house staff but as "part of our team," an aide in attendance said. Maybe someday soon, the first lady told the staffers, they would cover the East Room's floor with newspaper, invite everybody's kids over and host a pizza party.
Obama craves some casual interaction to cushion the formality of life in the White House, friends said. Hosting his first black-tie dinner last week, Obama cleared the East Room of all but six tables, essentially forcing his guests onto the dance floor during a set by Earth, Wind & Fire. He invited the Chicago Bulls to join him at the White House for half an hour Thursday.
Younger staff members said Obama likes to be kept up on their gossip about weekend nights and new girlfriends and feels left out anytime he's the last to know what's going on in their lives. On Super Bowl Sunday, he invited a few dozen people to the White House for a party and implemented two rules: no talking about politics and no posed pictures. Instead, Obama instructed a personal photographer to follow him during the party and take candid shots of him chatting with his guests, which would be mailed to them later. Obama explained to a few congressmen in attendance that he wanted to feel like a part of the group, not apart from it.
Obama looks forward to family dinners
Still, whenever Obama hosts, his guests must first submit their Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and cities of birth to the Secret Service — a screening process for which Obama has sometimes felt compelled to apologize. He distributed a new cell phone number to friends after he won the election in November but instructed them to keep it a secret and call sparingly. He fought hard to keep his BlackBerry, but it still connects him only to a small network of close friends and advisers, many of whom said they would never dare e-mail the president except in the case of an emergency.
"I'm much more of a minimalist in communicating with him now than I was even a couple of months ago," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and Obama mentor. "I'm more direct, more focused, and I've learned to eliminate what I would call the ad hominem aspects of the dialogue and just get to the point of my advice.
"It is going to be impossible for him to be as open and involved with friends and supporters as he was in the pre-White House days. There are e-mails that I'm not going to send. Fewer names will be mentioned. Fewer expletives will be used."
Other friends have adopted the attitude that their relationship with Obama is on sabbatical.
"I think we both miss it desperately, but I'm not going to call him all the time and see if we can catch up and chat or go get tickets to a Washington Nationals ballgame," said Terry Link, Obama's closest friend from his days in the Illinois Senate. "His life doesn't work like that anymore. Our friendship is our friendship, so if it's four months from now, a year from now or when he leaves office, we'll eventually catch up and I'll tell him what's going on in the real world."
Until then, Obama is left to find ways to make his world real. As a U.S. senator, he complained that Washington sometimes felt "status-conscious" and "artificial," and he promised voters during the presidential campaign that he planned to travel outside the capital for a regular dose of perspective. During the past three weeks, as Obama aggressively tried to sell his economic recovery package, he traveled to Indiana, Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona and Canada as well as Camp David — more trips outside Washington in his first month than any of the previous five presidents. Ronald Reagan only left twice during his first month, both times for Camp David. George H.W. Bush took one day trip to New Hampshire, and his son limited early travel to jaunts along the East Coast. Bill Clinton confined travel during his first month to an extensive three-day trip through the Midwest and California. But none of Obama's recent predecessors was grappling with two wars and the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression.
Advisers said Obama will continue to board Air Force One every week, for reasons both political and psychological. His only caveat is that an effort be made to get him home in time for dinner. Because of Obama's travel schedule during the long campaign, it has been more than two years since the Obamas enjoyed regular family dinners. That time at the table with his daughters is what Obama looks forward to all day, staffers said.
But his escape from the strictures of the White House never lasts long. While Obama eats, a team of three staff members works to compile his nightly briefing book. It is a weighty packet of government documents, memos, speeches and articles meant to prepare Obama for the next day. "You look at this and you think, 'Wow, the number of issues that he is working on in depth in a given day is remarkable,' " said Brown, the staff secretary.
Around the time Obama finishes his dinner, a staff member delivers the briefing book to his residence. Its arrival announces the end of the president's favorite part of the day, drawing him back to his new reality. He usually reads it late into the night, sometimes studying until 1 a.m.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.