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Family matters in the West Wing

Life in the Obama White House isn't about all work and no play, staffers say. But the balance is tough.

March 15, 2009|Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — On some afternoons in the West Wing, as he wonders how best to convey the White House's messages about an economic downturn, financial calamity, job loss and tough foreign policy challenges, Robert Gibbs finds himself thinking about a turtle named Yertle.

The press secretary to President Obama is trying to figure out whether he can get home for story time with his 5-year-old son, Ethan, whose book of choice is frequently the Dr. Seuss classic about the king of the pond.

"There are some times when you can actually pull it off," Gibbs said one late afternoon. His gaze darted from his computer screen to his caller ID to the television on his desk. "If you can just spot when you've stopped being productive."

This is life in the White House, where a frenetic pace is the norm and has been for generations. In the first 100 days of Obama's administration, the pressure to be at the office around the clock is powerful.

Yet that's not the vision of American life that Obama idealizes. He consistently calls on Americans to make family a priority. And he's managed his workload to do it himself, often rearranging his schedule to squeeze in time with his two young daughters.

That's harder for his youthful staff, many in their 30s and 40s, with young children and working spouses. Staffers must adjust to the president's schedule, not the other way around. Staff members describe a constant push and pull between the West Wing and the home front, and their efforts to hold it together.

"When it's Saturday and you have to go to work," said Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen, "the resentment factor can shoot pretty high."

When handing out official laptops to staffers, West Wing brass gave them first to those with families, along with instructions to work at home when possible. First Lady Michelle Obama sent a family-friendly message to the staff. The movie playing on the White House big screen the other night -- for employees and their children -- was "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa."

New on the lawn by the Rose Garden is a tribute to the first couple's top priorities: a wooden swing-and-slide set for daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. The Obamas inaugurated it with the first swing a few days ago, and staffers have been bringing in their children to try it out.

Regardless, the White House is hardly a family-friendly workplace.

Sutphen, who worked in the Clinton White House, knew she was signing up for a tough job. She had recently given birth and written a book in the same year, but she figured that was nothing like her new challenges. "The issues are more dramatic," she said. "It's zero sum."

Other administrations have struggled with similar issues. President Clinton promised a supportive environment for families, but his White House was famous as an extreme work zone. Although President George W. Bush adhered to a more normal schedule, staffers routinely racked up 16-hour days.

Nowadays, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel closes the senior staff meeting every morning by announcing it's time to call his wife and children, who are in Chicago for the remainder of the school year.

Michelle Obama, an attorney and former executive, is making work-life balance one of her themes. Her chief of staff thinks this White House may be different from the others because of the first couple's philosophy.

"We all recognize we are going to work incredibly hard," Jackie Norris said, "but we can't lose our way. We have to think about children and families every single day."

The Obamas appear willing to challenge the local culture when it conflicts with their views on family. Michelle Obama wants to spread newspaper across the floor of the East Room so the children can have a pizza party there. (The residence staff isn't convinced this is a proper use of the historic chamber.)

They're also thinking of skipping next Saturday's Gridiron dinner, the annual white-tie event of Washington's spring gala season, so they can start their family vacation as soon as the girls' spring break begins.

But the rules will bend only so far. The president acknowledged as much when the economic stimulus package passed after a grueling, round-the-clock effort by top aides to craft it, answer questions about it and sell it to Congress and the nation.

The next afternoon, as those staffers gathered in the Oval Office, Obama ordered them to make up some of the time they'd missed with their families. There was a budget to put together, though, and a housing plan and a rescue of the banking system.

"Take some time down," Gibbs recalls the president saying. "But don't take too much."

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cparsons@tribune.com

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