Frenetic Pace, Packed Agenda Put West Wing Staffers Through Wringer

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

The White House mess -- the military-inspired term for the West Wing cafeteria -- opens at 7 a.m. each day. And each day, there is a long line of hungry staffers who have already been at the office for well over an hour.

By 8 p.m., as the doors to the mess are about to close, the orders flow again as bleary-eyed staffers grab dinner before heading back to their offices for another conference call or meeting.

"I think the mess hates all of us," said a frequent customer who is a senior adviser to President Obama.

In a city where work can border on obsession, the Obama staffers stand out. They are not quite the walking dead, but their eyes are frequently ringed with the bags that accompany exhaustion.

"This is a place, because of the stress, the schedule and the sheer hours, that just chews people up and spits them out," said press secretary Robert Gibbs, whose alarm clock is set to 4:30 a.m., though he ignores the early ring more often these days.

All West Wings face fatigue at some point, but the Obama team has had a particularly frenetic start, the result of inheriting the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression and the team's own seemingly chaotic drive to push an agenda that includes the creation of a new health insurance system, auto bailouts, Middle East peace, nuclear nonproliferation, two wars and education reform.

Political Washington has long fostered a workaholic culture, the expectation that the rewards of service on the big stage of national government come with 18-hour, on-call days. But even the most hardy of Obama's staff members are beginning to recognize the toll that the pace is taking.

"I felt like a heavyweight boxer lying on the mat," Gibbs said last week, describing his mood before leaving with the president for an eight-day trip across 10 time zones.

Air Force One landed early yesterday at Andrews Air Force Base, carrying a presidential team that caught just a few hours of sleep each night in Russia, Italy and Ghana. All plan to return to work before sunrise today.

The grueling schedule has forced most of the presidential aides to abandon physical exercise, and the few who persist -- often because of incessant goading from their fitness-fixated commander in chief -- have planned their workouts at times that stretch their schedules even further.

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel arrives at the House of Representatives gym at 5:30 a.m.; his top aide, Sarah Feinberg, starts her workout at a Water Street gym at 5:15 a.m. By 5:30 a.m., the White House Bulletin -- a compilation of political clippings from newspapers and Web sites -- appears in inboxes and on BlackBerrys, demanding attention. By 7 a.m., West Executive Drive between the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building is filled with staffers' cars.

Obama's top aides gather in Emanuel's office at 7:30 a.m. daily. Gibbs -- like his predecessor, Dana Perino -- arrives not long after 6 a.m. to get ready for the meeting.

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