The Thirty Days of Barack Obama

Barack Obama
Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

As carefully as Barack Obama prepared for it, the presidency has held some surprises for him—some foreseeable, some not, and some of his own making. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of the early Clinton era, Obama concluded that, unlike Clinton, he didn’t want to hold the numerous meetings that can chew up so much of the president’s time. Instead, according to his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, Obama’s style is to drop by an aide’s office—a restless man, he roams the White House corridors—or stop an aide in a hallway and ask, “How are you coming on that thing we were talking about?” Gibbs says, “The worst thing is not have an answer.” Asked what happens then, Gibbs replied, “He gets that disappointed parent look, and then you better go find an answer.”

Obama’s publicly announced schedules have large gaps; he makes it a point to set aside time to step back and think—sometimes going for a long, solitary walk around the White House grounds—or make calls, or read. A night owl, he usually takes work home, to be studied after he’s tucked his daughters into bed. Aides say he turns around paperwork fairly quickly, responding to and signing off on their memoranda. As for Obama’s admission during the campaign that he can misplace papers, Gibbs told me, “It’s easier now that he lives over the store.”

Of Obama’s approach to governing, Gibbs says, “He’s not by any stretch a micromanager.” According to another close observer, “The boys are running the White House”—by which he meant chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, chief campaign strategist and now senior adviser David Axelrod, and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who was also chief of staff of the campaign. Gibbs is often called in for advice, because he’s smart and he knows Obama’s mind well. This cast of characters—Axelrod has the prized if unglamorous office adjoining the President’s study—gives a strong political tone to the Obama White House. To the disappointment of a number of Obama’s supporters, he also has continued the widely criticized practice of having an office of Political Affairs in the White House (headed by Patrick Gaspard, national political director of the Obama campaign and a longtime labor activist).

About two weeks into Obama’s presidency, when I asked a White House aide if there was anything noticeable about Obama the president as opposed to Obama the candidate, he said:

There’s a somberness and an intensity to his day that’s extraordinary. I saw it occasionally in the campaign, but there were always light moments and banter; there’s a funny side to him. Now he’s determined and focused in a very serious way; it’s a little sad.

Obama takes particular care to avoid getting caught in traps (a lifetime trait)—some see this as avoiding taking a position—and as he began his presidency he was determined, as he had been in the campaign, not to…

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