Carrie Budoff Brown
Barack Obama is bringing back the night-owl presidency.
With the metabolism of a White House set by its occupant, Obama's team is preparing for a return to long nights, heavy weekend shifts – and a boss who will venture into Washington far more than the place's current resident.
It’s a throwback to Bill Clinton’s cramming-for-an-exam style, a shift from George W. Bush’s early-bird routine. Aides expect the workload to be so intense, at least for the early months, that they’re trying to formalize ways to help staffers stay in touch with spouses and kids – with ideas under consideration that include inviting family members into the White House for casual after-hours meals.
Another possibility: urging aides to go home for dinner, as long as they come back to finish the night.
Obama aides say there are no specifics so far, but hinted that staffers' children may be seeing the inside of the White House like never before – as way to stay in touch with Mom or Dad.
“Family is very important to the Obamas and while the challenges ahead will require long hours, hard work and sacrifice for everyone in the incoming administration they hope to make the White House a place that is open and welcoming to the families of White House employees,” said Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman.
Bush famously arrives at the Oval Office by dawn, leaves by 6 p.m. and goes to bed by 10 p.m. Dinners out are as rare as a lunar eclipse.
Obama, by contrast, stays up late. He holds conference calls with senior staff as late as 11 p.m., and often reads and writes past midnight. Ahead of the Democratic National Convention, he spent consecutive nights holed up in a Chicago hotel room, working on his speech until 2 a.m.
And in the 10 days alone, Obama stopped by a Senate cocktail party, dined out with foreign policy types, and made a visit Saturday to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington institution and pillar in the African-American community. He stayed out until 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at a dinner with conservative columnists.
“The expectation is that it will be a lot of hours, and hours we were used to working before the transition,” one Obama aide said. “Everybody is comfortable with that. There is an expectation that the first few months will set the tone.”
Michelle Obama often speaks of using her new role as First Lady to highlight the struggles of balancing work and family. But she need look no further than her husband’s White House, where not just the incoming president – a father of two daughters – will feel torn.
The senior ranks include several parents of young children, including incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, press secretary Robert Gibbs, and Jackie Norris, chief of staff to the First Lady.
In his attempt to maintain balance, Obama would routinely divert his lumbering campaign apparatus back to Chicago simply to be present for important events: picking out a Christmas tree, taking the girls to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, attending a dance recital. His staff would take their own timeouts, too. Gibbs flew home less than five days before the election so he could spend Halloween with his son.
“There is a great deal of respect and importance for being there for your children,” the aide said.
Still, the White House will no doubt foster an unforgiving pace, particularly now that late nights may be more normal than they were under Bush. Emanuel, for example, doesn’t think twice about dialing up his staff as early as 6 a.m. He schmoozes after work at Washington hot spots, and emails late into the night.
Bush and his top aides prided themselves on promoting a family-friendly White House, as much as 12-hour days and a Blackberry-wired existence can count as healthy. The first White House chief of staff, Andy Card, initially started the senior staff meetings at 6:30 a.m. But when several of the working moms told Bush the time was too early, Card moved it to 7 a.m.
Parents could cut out for family events. The work day ends between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., although they were expected to be available by Blackberry. And staff even made time for afternoon workouts at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building three days a week, a break in the work day that Bush “highly endorsed,” said Mary Matalin, a former counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
“The working culture was mature,” Matalin, a mother of two daughters, said in an email. “The culture of staying late just to stay late was discouraged, even frowned upon. The operating principle was to pace yourself to be able to provide peak performance.”
"Both the president and vice president insisted we try to have integrated family lives," Matalin said.
"Balance is not possible in a White House job, but if you had a family deal, you went and were never remotely made to feel awkward about it."
Karen Hughes, a longtime adviser and close confidant to Bush, established what she called a “Midweek Moment.” She would try to leave the office early – at 5:30 p.m. – once a week so she could spend time with her teenage son, who was usually sleeping when she left in the morning and in bed when she got home.
“I made it half the time,” Hughes said of her “Midweek Moment.”
Even with the family-friendly mantra, both Matalin and Hughes stayed in the White House for less than two years. Like the Obama team, they arrived in Washington after an extended and grueling presidential campaign that makes burnout all the more likely.
“It is very difficult to meet your responsibilities to both your family and job,” Hughes said.
The Clinton White House, on the other hand, offered no pretense of normalcy.
“I fully admit that we may have overdone it,” said Michael Feldman, a partner at The Glover Park Group who served in the White House for eight years as an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. “We took the campaign mentality directly into the White House. … It was a direct extension of the campaign. People worked literally around the clock and slept in their offices. There never seemed to be enough hours.”
Clinton set the tone, staying in the Oval Office until 10 p.m. That meant others felt like they couldn’t leave until he did.
Hughes said the Obama White House might want to consider shift work – a day shift and a night shift – to lighten the load.
“You don’t want to burn people out,” Hughes said. “You don’t want them to become so busy that they can’t function to their maximum potential. After 12- or 14-hour days, I was mentally shot. It was hard to do anything effectively.”