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Life in the Waikiki West Wing

For Obama aides, Christmas in Hawaii was a far calmer affair than in 2009, when the attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound jet threw the holiday crew into crisis mode. But it still hasn't been much of a vacation.

January 02, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli, Washington Bureau
  • Security forces guard a canal as US President Barack Obama's motorcade drives past near his vacation home in Kailua, Hawaii on Dec. 31.
Security forces guard a canal as US President Barack Obama's motorcade… (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Honolulu — In 2009, Air Force One had barely touched down in Honolulu before the traveling White House was thrust into crisis mode as President Obama and his staff responded to the attempted bombing of a transatlantic jet on Christmas Day.

So this year, you won't hear staff members complaining about a few days of rain.

From his first day in Hawaii on Dec. 23, the president has been enjoying what aides emphasize is a working vacation on the east shore of Oahu, one that comes to an end Monday night.

The same is true for the dozens of aides and support personnel stationed in a hotel across the island, eager to use fleeting downtime to relax but always aware that events may end up conspiring against them.

Nick Shapiro, an assistant press secretary who made his second Christmas trip to the Aloha State, came prepared. Before departing Washington, he purchased a waterproof BlackBerry case to use while surfing. Press aide Ben Finkenbinder had one as well, and the $30 accessory allowed him to e-mail a dispatch from the press pool to the White House press corps while on a surfboard off Waikiki.

Though the options for downtime are better here than in Washington, the workday for the Waikiki West Wing is largely the same.

Before sunrise, press aides already have read through the morning news and started reaching out to reporters. National security staff members prepare an intelligence briefing for the president, often delivered in person by aides Nick Rasmussen and Ben Rhodes.

Advance teams and Secret Service agents have fanned out across the island in preparation for any trips the president may take beyond his rental home in Kailua.

With a five-hour time gap between Honolulu and Washington, the day is sometimes longer for officials who tend to concerns in each city.

"It's not that hard to give the impression that you've really been working on vacation when the work keeps coming," said Bill Burton, deputy press secretary and the lead public spokesman for the White House in Hawaii.

Though the location is more exotic, the nature of a presidential vacation under Obama is similar to that of past White Houses. Aides to George W. Bush might escape to a movie theater near the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch.

"You could tell we were all sitting together because our row would just illuminate every five minutes," said former press aide Pete Seat.

On this trip, no event has consumed the attention of aides or the media as it did in 2009. Then, Obama delayed his Hawaiian vacation until Christmas Eve so he could lobby for votes in the House on his healthcare reform effort.

But the bags were barely unpacked after the 5,000-mile journey when news came that a Nigerian-born man had allegedly attempted to ignite plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on a commercial flight arriving in Detroit.

When Obama visited the island as president-elect in 2008, the work of preparing for a new administration consumed all who made the trip. But this time, the podium staged in a hotel ballroom for news briefings went unused.

The White House was careful, however, to parcel out nuggets during the 12-day trip, including the announcement of six recess appointments and a list of books the president was reading. On Sunday, for instance, the White House announced that Obama had signed legislation to provide financial assistance to workers who developed health problems after responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Even as aides tended to their responsibilities, there were opportunities to unwind for what will be a crucial year for the administration as it gears up for a reelection campaign.

Much of the traveling party joined the president and first family Thursday at a barbecue on the scenic North Shore. A handful of aides accompanied the president Tuesday when he went snorkeling at the renowned Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a day when it is usually closed to the public.

Shapiro admits to a slower pace from last year, when he often slept on the floor of a secure conference room so he could deal with the stream of intelligence coming in on the attempted Christmas Day attack. Even so, the surfboard purchased on this trip — named Rosalita — saw only limited action.

He plans to mount it on the wall in his West Wing office.

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