Obama, Reaching Outside the Bubble

Story by Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, 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."

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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company