What’s it Like to Work in the White House?

This Friday, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.   Then the real work begins.

So what’s it like to be a presidential staff member working in the White House?  This week’s Time magazine (cover date Jan 23, 2017) has a twenty-page cover story entitled “Incoming: A Survival Guide to the White House from Team Obama for Team Trump”.  Since I’ve never worked in the White House (and never will), but have been in large organizations (military procurement), I’m interested in the mechanics of running a country. I found this a fascinating peek into what really goes on.  Here are a few of the nuggets of wisdom from that magazine section.


The First Days

Jen Psaki, Communications Director: None of us knew where the bathroom was. I still didn’t know there was one on the first floor until probably the second year I was here.

Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting: We had Compaqs running Windows 98 or 2000. No laptops. It was like we had gone back in time.

Macon Phillips, former Director of Digital Strategy: Close your eyes and imagine the physical space at the ­campaign—one giant room. Desks and people collaborating throughout the day. Fast-­forward to the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It is a series of compartments. It’s almost like a catacomb. What we ended up doing was actually taking our team, we started around 12 or 13, and jamming them all into large rooms, so we could kind of replicate the experience from the campaign.

Yohannes Abraham, Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Public Engagement and Inter­governmental Affairs: You’re literally frantically looking at the guy next to you, like, “Hey Gary, how the heck does the printer work? Does anyone have any idea how to order food? Does anyone have any idea?”

The Learning Curve

Mona Sutphen, former Deputy Chief of Staff: I used to be a big fan of to-do lists, but the to-do list actually took too much time. Because I very rarely was able to scratch things off of the to-do list when I did do the to-do list, I found it actually a very dissatisfying exercise. I kind of stopped doing it. … The sheer magnitude of the issue set means that you never have enough time in the day. My meetings were typically in 20-minute increments starting at 8 o’clock and going until 7:30 at night. At the beginning, I used to book myself very tightly during the day. But then I quickly realized, if you do have a crisis, it blows up your whole day.

Lisa Brown, former Staff Secretary: We sent senior staff clear templates for how a memo to the President should be written, how a briefing memo for an event that the President’s going to be doing the next day should be written. If you think about it, if you’re the President and you start getting stuff in a gazillion different formats, you can’t make head nor tail of it. Over time working with the President, I learned there are a bunch of routine things he didn’t actually have to sign. I could use the auto­pen, but I needed to work with him so that he knew I was never exercising my authority beyond my bounds. I never wanted to do anything without his consent. It turns out that there are a bunch of routine things that once you said, “O.K., here’s a bucket of things,” he can say, “That’s fine, you do that” or “Here are things that I never ever want to auto­pen.” I found it was actually common sense.

Abraham: Emotions can get high. It’s really important to remember to just be a good person, a nice person to the people around you, people you disagree with in debate, people you work with on a day-to-day basis. My personal belief is that the building functions best when there’s a real ethos of just being decent to the people who work around you.

Pacing Yourself

Katie Lillie, former Director of Press Advance: You need something to help you sleep. Ambien is not the way to go. It lasts eight hours. You will not get eight hours. Sonata—I feel like I am doing an ad for a drug company—Sonata was my lifesaver, because it only really lasts four hours and it’s out of your system, so it’s perfect for plane rides, for nights when you’re not getting more than four hours of sleep.

Jen Psaki, Communications Director: After I had a baby, I wanted the day care to always be able to reach me. I gave them my assistant’s phone number because I’m often in meetings where I can’t bring my phone. There are things like that that are not that complicated but you have to do in order to be accessible to your loved ones.

The Best Advice

Dan Pfeiffer, former Senior Adviser to the President: One of the most important things you will do is keep your eye on your BlackBerry at all times. Much of decision ­ making is done by email chain, and if you miss the beginning of the chain, it could go off in a horrible direction pretty quick. You spend the rest of the day trying to unwind all the decisions that were made.

Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff: Twice a day I would walk the halls and go put my head in somebody’s office. My rule as chief of staff was the door is always open. I might tell you something you don’t want me to say when you walk in, but the door is always open to come in and say something. You’ve got to have that attitude. You can’t close the door. You can’t exclude.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President: There is one thing I also do every single morning, and I’ve done it for almost eight years now, starting on January 20th of 2009. I met a guy on the campaign trail in Austin, Texas, back in the primary season, early in 2008. He was operating the elevator for us, and he asked the President if he could give him something, a patch from his military uniform. The gentleman said to the President, “I’ve carried this patch with me every day for 40 years, and it has kept me strong and been with me through some tough times.” And I thought it was such an incredible act of unselfish generosity that I made up my mind that I would think of him every morning when I drive through the gates of the White House, just for a few seconds, and that that would remind me why we’re here. It helps me deal with the toxicity of Washington.

To read the complete article on-line, go to  http://time.com/white-house-interviews/.  The photo came from the website.

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