Working inside the White House is not as glamorous and eventful as some popular TV shows make it out to be, former Obama administration staff members said at a recent panel discussion in Chicago.
“The truth of the matter is that not every single day is incredibly action packed in the White House,” said Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean, former White House research director.
Although Jarvis-Shean worked on issues she said she had a special interest in, such as the Affordable Care Act of 2010 and repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," about 50 percent of her time consisted of “mundane” day-to-day assignments.
Some of her typical tasks included editing speeches or vetting somebody expected to stand on stage with the president, among other things, she said.
Also, White House staffers are not as witty as the characters on “The West Wing” TV show, said Chris Lu, former White House cabinet secretary.
“If you’ve seen ‘The West Wing’ TV show, you know the whole thing is walking and talking,” Lu said at the discussion, sponsored by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. “You can’t walk and talk in the West Wing ... it is tiny in the White House.”
Movies and TV shows often make the White House appear much more internally coordinated than it actually is, Lu pointed out.
“There are far too many times when we are literally making it up as we go along,” he said.
Kenneth Walsh, chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, moderated Thursday’s talk.
When Walsh began covering the White House in May of 1986, he said he was excited and had a range of expectations.
But he experienced “abrupt revelations” when he got there.
For one thing, the White House press corridors have limited seats and cubicles, Walsh explained.
He said about 80 percent of his time is spent waiting for people, such as the president, the White House press secretary and other government officials.
“But it’s that last 15 to 20 percent of the time when you’re covering the most important story in the world that you’re really waiting for, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
Walsh asked the panelists what surprised them when they first got to the White House.
Jon Favreau, former director of speechwriting for President Barack Obama, said it was the “backwards” technology.
Obama’s presidential campaign revolutionized the use of technology and communications, he said, but staffers hit a technological wall upon entering the White House.
“We get to the White House and there are a bunch of old Gateway computers sitting at all of our desks,” he said.
The staff members were told they could not use Gmail, Facebook or Twitter, among other means of communication, for security reasons. And he said there were no laptop computers at first.
It was a nightmare, Favreau said, and a culture shock.
“You were like chained to your desk, and a lot of time also even your phone wasn’t picking up a signal in the White House,” he explained.
But technological strides have been made over the past four years. There’s now wireless internet and laptops, he said.
He later added, “Air Force One is absolutely as cool as you think it is,” to which audience members erupted with laughter.
Lu said he really wanted a microwave upon working at the White House. He was told he could not have one, however, because nothing more could be plugged into the wall outlets.
He said people don't take into account the building's age.
Most of the White House building is about 200 years old, Lu said. And the West Wing building is about 100 years old.
Jarvis-Shean said many of the offices in the White House are “teeny tiny.” Staffers are typically in a small office to themselves or in larger shared offices that are often cornered off from others, she said.
“When you combine that with the technology, it just slowed communication down,” she said.
Campaign staffers were accustomed to a rapid pace of exchanging information and making decisions with each other and then “all of a sudden you were physically separated by a wall or a building.”
The staffers also had to adjust to not having access to Google Chat and AOL Instant Messenger, among others modes of electronic communication.
“For the first couple of weeks you’re just like what happened? I can’t talk to anybody,” she said.
For Katie McCormick Lelyveld, former press secretary for First Lady Michelle Obama, her biggest surprise was the number of operations happening in a given day in the East Wing. The East Wing serves as the First Family's home, but it also includes offices and a museum that sees thousands of visitors a day.
In order to go to a meeting on the other side of the building, McCormick Lelyveld said she would have to walk through the hundreds of guests.
“Then you have the girls coming home from school. You have Mrs. Obama coming home from an event,” she said. “That’s also all happening on top of tours, on top of guests on top of office space.”
The former Obama staffers also reflected on the president's first months in office.
The president was hit with a financial crisis and other pressing issues as soon as he came in the door, which took the administration off the domestic agenda the president campaigned on, Lu said.
“It was literally every single time we tried to do something, you got hit off stride by something else happening,” he said.
He cited the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, the BP oil spill, Hurricane Sandy, the Arab Spring, droughts and tornadoes as just some of the unplanned events.
And pirates, Favreau chimed in.
“The vast majority of the time that we were occupied, [it was with] all the other stuff that was coming up that you had never planned for,” Lu said.