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Sleep? Not for the Obama administration

The White House staff is famous for its long workdays. But the

July 19, 2009|Michael D. Shear | Shear writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — The White House mess -- the military-inspired term for the West Wing cafeteria -- opens at 7 a.m. 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 advisor 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 White House 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 worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and the team's 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 hearty 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, describing his mood before leaving with the president for an eight-day trip across 10 time zones, including visits to Russia, Italy and Ghana.

By 5:30 a.m., the White House Bulletin -- a compilation of political clippings from newspapers and websites -- appears in in-boxes 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 Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's office at 7:30 a.m. daily. Gibbs -- like his predecessor, Dana Perino -- arrives soon after 6 a.m. to get ready for the meeting.

"What was striking about the 24/7 was the 7," said Gene Sperling, a counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and a veteran of the Clinton White House. "Between every financial crisis response . . . weekends could be a nonstop conference call. Thankfully, it's gotten a bit better."

It has only been six months for Obama's team, but almost all of the president's top and mid-level aides took their posts straight out of the longest presidential campaign in history.

Obama is now testing the limits of his staffers' endurance. So far, there is a palpable sense of pride in the West Wing that treaties are negotiated, complex legislation is crafted and banks are bailed out -- all on very little sleep.

"We stay late every night, work weekends -- basically on 24/7," Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, wrote in an e-mail while on a recent trip abroad. "Not sure what example to give you but here I am at 12:30 a.m. in Islamabad with Gen. [James] Jones and answering your e-mail," he wrote, referring to the national security advisor.

During the first two months of the administration, White House and Treasury Department officials tried to deal with the worsening economy almost without a break. The image of senior economic advisor Lawrence H. Summers nodding off during a presidential meeting with credit card executives became the emblem of that period.

Behind the scenes, it was even worse. The night before Obama announced the administration's housing plan on Feb. 18 in Arizona, Sperling e-mailed the final documents at 3 a.m. and asked for comments. Five people responded immediately.

Martin Moore-Ede, a former Harvard University professor, calls it the "iron man" syndrome and says the American political workplace is one of the few that still resists a mechanism for ensuring that people get rest.

One study conducted for the British Parliament found that "mental fatigue affects cognitive performance, leading to errors of judgment, micro-sleeps (lasting for seconds or minutes), mood swings and poor motivation." The effect, it found, is equal to a blood alcohol level of 0.10% -- above the legal limit to drive in the United States.

Obama administration officials, and their predecessors, shrug off such warnings, citing the adrenaline rush. They insist that their bodies have grown strangely accustomed to the rhythms of the job. But they acknowledge that the routine in the White House is more grueling than most had anticipated.

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