In President Obama’s White House, some traditions give way to modern technology


President Barack Obama takes part in a live Twitter Q&A session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in 2012. His administration has transformed the use of technology in the White House. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Since Barack Obama took office, the White House has established a dedicated digital team, started tallying incoming phone calls electronically instead of by calculator and has begun using computer software to design ­floral arrangements. His media monitor tracks thousands of tweets and some 50 publications online every day. Casework is sent by e-mail instead of using human couriers.

The White House has long lagged behind the outside world in its technological capabilities, relying in large part on face-to-face meetings and mountains of paper to conduct business. But the future finally seems to have arrived, at least in part, redefining the way many staffers do their jobs and recalibrating the balance of power within 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Some of the changes are simple matters of efficiency. Intern hopefuls no longer have to print out their applications before submitting them, and White House tours are scheduled online. But other advances are aimed at promoting the president’s policies and personality, whether through chats on Twitter or “hackathons” aimed at the computer literati.

In the midst of all this modernization, a few enclaves of tradition persist at the White House. The wait staff has been serving formal dinners in tuxedos for the past 20 years, the porcelain in the residence is still handled with museum-quality gloves, and two calligraphers on staff still inscribe invitations and placecards by hand for events involving the president and first lady.

And even under Obama, the digital team sent correspondence to other staffers by fax for the first year of the administration.


Kori Schulman, left, director of online engagement, and Alex Wall, deputy director of online engagement, work in the White House Office of Digital Strategy. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Jobs transformed

But for many White House jobs, the technology-driven changes have been dramatic.

When D.C. communications consultant Jenni LeCompte served as President Bill Clinton’s media monitor in the late 1990s, the nighttime position consisted of picking up early-edition newspapers and then painstakingly cutting and taping story clips to be copied and delivered by 7 a.m. each day. When the president’s top aides traveled overseas, LeCompte read stories to them over the phone.

Her worst moments, she said, came when the Xerox machine malfunctioned.

“This wave of panic seeps in, because you have this jammed copier and you have no other means of getting it unjammed,” LeCompte said. “Your hands would be just black with newspaper ink by the end of the night.”

The current media monitor, by contrast, begins at 7 a.m. and spends the day glued to a computer terminal watching for stories, tweets and other communications that might affect White House press coverage.

Jessica Allen, who just finished a one-year stint in the job, said she followed 2,001 journalists at any one time because that was the maximum number permitted for her Twitter account. On a normal day, Allen estimated, she sent between 400 and 600 e-mails to a group of more than 80 White House staffers.

“It’s pretty much going nonstop all day,” Allen said in an interview. “There’s not really a point where there’s a break.”

In some cases, the very nature of a position has shifted. The White House staff secretary — who is responsible for all the paper that goes in and out of the Oval Office — once ranked as one of the president’s most important aides. Jon Huntsman Sr., who served as President Richard M. Nixon’s staff secretary for 15 months, oversaw personnel issues, the White House budget and briefings for every meeting Nixon had.

“After a year, I was literally burned out,” Huntsman recalled in an interview with Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar for the White House Transition Project. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a fairly powerful position, because we determined who got what offices, who got what limos, who got what perks, who got what salaries.”

Now, much of the paper that the staff secretary once handled is distributed electronically, allowing several senior aides to weigh in on a memo simultaneously. “Now it’s just kind of one giant group editing process,” said White House counselor John D. Podesta, who served as Clinton’s staff secretary during his first term.

During Obama’s tenure, the job’s ranking has gone from assistant to the president to deputy assistant to the president — with an accompanying $13,700 cut in salary and a smaller West Wing office. The secretary still travels constantly with the president, however.

Can more be done?

Sometimes the new technology gets in the way. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said he likes to hold meetings through videoconferencing because it cuts down on people glancing at their smartphones. “I worry about people’s attention when they’re using those electronic devices,” he said.

Some former Obama officials say the administration could still do more to take advantage of technology, especially to ease the burden on working parents. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as the State Department’s director of policy planning during Obama’s first term, said National Security Council directors should have the option of getting a special room secured for reviewing classified material in their homes so they can work remotely.

“It’s doable,” Slaughter said in an interview. “It’s just not a priority.”

Obama’s top aides, like many other federal employees, still use BlackBerry cellphones. While many Americans have switched to iPhones or Android devices, the government has been slow to change because of security concerns. The Pentagon’s White House Communications Agency has started testing Samsung smartphones but has not made the switch.

Many of the White House’s more cutting-edge capabilities are focused on expanding its outreach to the public, often at the expense of the traditional media. The White House digital team includes a dozen aides who specialize in content, graphic design, analytics and technology. In one 2010 effort, they live-streamed Obama’s State of the Union address through an iPhone app and then solicited viewers’ questions, which the president answered in a YouTube interview five days later.

The staff has also launched multiple Web channels, including one on BuzzFeed, and has created animated GIFs — the moving images that seem to dominate the Internet these days — to trumpet events such as the president’s recent Tumblr Q&A.

And there are more than 40 official White House Twitter accounts; the many accounts are seen as a way to amplify the administration’s message and to communicate different messages, on the same day, to targeted audiences.

Just before stepping down as White House press secretary this month, Jay Carney told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that he knows these efforts have “caused some tension” but added: “I also think it would be malpractice for anyone in our position not to take advantage of social media.”

An impact on policy

Sometimes the White House’s digital features — such as an online petitions tool launched in 2011 — have influenced the policy process. The administration decided to crack down on puppy mills and pushed to legalize cellphone unlocking because of petitions. The platform has reached more than 14 million people — a database that administration officials use to send targeted e-mails based on subject interest.

Yet some old-school practices persist and seem unlikely to go away. The president’s personal secretary is still the one who knocks on his door and hands him a note when he needs to get to his next meeting. Researchers still look up information in the book-laden White House library.

And rather than firing off e-mails or fashioning a PowerPoint presentation, many staffers still prefer face-to-face contact for the key discussions.

“In this building,” said communications director Jennifer Palmieri, “the important things happen in person.”

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