New Team Settles In at 1600

Posted January 21, 2009 at 6:22pm

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was staring at his new TV on Wednesday, the first full day of the Obama presidency. The handsome flat-panel impressively spanned a large section of the wall opposite his desk. But the huge screen was devoid of any sign of life.

“This TV would be great if I could figure out how to turn it on,” Gibbs observed. “It was on this morning and it was really nice.”

Gibbs was settling in, good naturedly exploring the technology and the rest of the accouterments of his new job. He seemed more amused than frustrated, an outlook shared by others around the West Wing as they popped around their new digs in perhaps the world’s most prestigious office complex.

Aides cheerfully ignored locked computer screens, waiting for clearances to come through so they could log in. Small victories were noted with satisfaction.

“I’ve got a notebook,” remarked one aide when asked whether his logistical challenges had been mitigated.

A reporter was asked by a White House official where a journalist is allowed to go in the White House. The response, “everywhere but the Oval Office,” was quickly recognized as a joke. A staffer who works in the “lower” press area asked a reporter where the “upper” press office is.

At one point, the lower press office, which normally staffs six, had been completely abandoned by the press aides, with any state secrets that may have accumulated there so far left undefended against prying reporters. Such a sight was never to be seen during the Bush regime. A White House cleaning lady puttered about, the only official around.

“It feels great!” she said when asked how she felt to finally be in charge.

Reporters complained that there was a lack of communication. E-mail didn’t come up until mid-morning. “Daily guidance” for the day was released at noon. The sound system didn’t seem to be turned on.

“I think we’re getting some speaker action!” exclaimed one reporter when an announcement finally was broadcast in the press room.

Just in time to hear the wheels of power begin to creak into action, reporters were able to listen to a limited-access event at which President Barack Obama announced a new policy of openness and new rules for limiting the influence of lobbyists.

He informed senior staffers, most of whom were probably still hungry and trying to figure out how to get to the White House mess, that they would have to set an example when it comes to administration penny-pinching. Starting immediately, their salaries would be frozen.

“I appreciate your willingness to agree to it,” he said, without any reference to offers that can’t be refused.

And ready or not, there was more serious business than the fast-moving new president wanted to attend to. Obama met separately with his economic and national security advisers. He attended a prayer breakfast in the morning, spoke with the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and hosted 200 “average” citizens who nabbed first-come, first-served tickets to an open house in the Blue Room.

“Don’t break anything,” the new tenant jokingly cautioned a guest.

But if Obama wanted something done Wednesday, even under such challenging circumstances, he got it. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel by Tuesday afternoon had already issued an order to the agencies to stop work on Bush-era regulations.

Gibbs, whose debut press briefing is today, was having still more difficulty.

Asked about whether having a single great TV put him at a disadvantage compared with previous press secretaries who had several on the wall to monitor, Gibbs pointed with some delight to a screen that appeared to be displaying four different channels at once.

“Now see, if I just press this, it … well, wait a second.” Gibbs was having some difficulty un-muting the device. He pushed the touch-screen control button again, this time a little harder. Still just the sight of talking heads.

Gibbs didn’t seem too concerned. He and the others would get it worked out. And then they could start running the country.