WASHINGTON — When senior White House officials gather for their first meeting of the day, it’s a real scramble. Only 10 can attend in person in the Roosevelt Room because of coronavirus precautions. Those who don’t make it in time to grab one of the ornate, brown leather chairs — spaced out so only every third one is open — have to join the meeting from their offices, oftentimes next door to one another, on Zoom.
“You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Why did I even come downtown?’” one White House official joked.
While every White House has some common features — a constant buzz of people in the West Wing lobby, impromptu meetings in the chief of staff’s office — it’s the individual presidents who set the overall rhythms.
George W. Bush was an early riser. Barack Obama wanted to be home in time for family dinner and liked to call on quiet back-benchers in meetings. Donald Trump routinely reached out to a cadre of outside advisers at all hours of the night and often sent his staff scrambling with a tweet.
The tempo of President Joe Biden’s West Wing is decidedly complicated by the pandemic and the rigorous protocols in place to protect the president and his senior staff. But for a team that operated virtually for most of the campaign, the return to even a hybrid office environment has had a distinctly Biden flair — a self-described “tactile” president working the corridors of the West Wing at times like a Western Pennsylvania union hall, making surprise drop-ins or check-in calls that have put all White House staff on a constant state of alert.
As aides were ready to bring reporters into the Oval Office last week to capture Biden signing executive orders on health care, the president called a late audible — he asked to call Christen Young, a member of the Domestic Policy Council focused on health policy, to pepper her with last-minute questions.
“It was a surprise to Christen,” one official said, adding that she nonetheless had the answers Biden was looking for on the substance of the orders.
Biden arrives in the West Wing around 9 a.m. and is usually there until about 6 or 7 p.m. In a change from the previous occupant, the days of “executive time” and long respites for the president to head to the residence during the morning or afternoon are gone. Biden takes his briefing books home at night to read.
There is a set schedule to his day, but aides have been careful to build in buffers since meetings often run long, and Biden will also look for opportunities to spontaneously question aides about what they’re hearing, what members of Congress are saying, whether people understand what he’s doing and why.
“He’ll have somebody on his staff just come get you to kind of pulse what’s happening in the world,” another White House official said. “He looks for ways to keep in touch with the outside world through his staff. In a way that’s more than Obama did.”
One night this week Biden wandered unannounced into the suite of offices for his top communications staff — with one of his dogs, Major, to get a sense of what reporters were interested in.
“He has always been someone who wants details and wants to hear from everyone on his team directly — the Oval Office has not changed that about him,” said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director.
Simply having the president and Vice President Kamala Harris spending all their time at the White House has in some ways made more work for the staff members based there, requiring more time for in-person briefings and check-ins all week that would be pared back in a typical White House when the president, vice president or both might spend at least a day on the road. Staffers do their best, one official said, to schedule their own planning meetings for when they expect Biden to be in the Oval Office.
Weeks into the administration, though, most of those meetings are still held virtually to avoid people congregating in cramped West Wing spaces, including the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. Masked staffers attend meetings on a version of Zoom for government use — sometimes while in offices next door to one another. But more often, White House officials are logging on from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building or from home — at the start of the week as many as 350 of the roughly 500 White House staff were still primarily working from home.
“Nobody’s piling into the chief of staff’s office eight times a day for meetings,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who also worked in the Obama White House. “And that’s what it would have been like normally.”
Staff eat lunch at their desks only if they have an office with a door that closes — or if they can turn toward the wall while discreetly taking bites between pulling their masks up and down. The White House Mess is take-out only.
A stock of N95 masks are on hand for anyone who gets unexpectedly called to the Oval Office. Only a surgical mask is required if someone isn’t around the president or vice president. When there are multiple desks in open areas, they’re separated by plexiglass.
Remote working brings a whole other set of challenges to running a White House, like laptops that regularly install software updates that can last for hours. “It’s just not the same operation,” said one person close to the White House who has found it difficult to reach officials at times.
Unrelated to the pandemic, strict White House security measures and in some cases outdated technology have slowed efforts to conduct work online. Staff who during the campaign could track changes and updates to press releases, speeches and other documents through shared Google documents now must bombard one another with email attachments.
On Biden’s first day in office, just a handful of staff — mainly senior administration officials and members of the national security team — had access to the West Wing. They were also among the roughly three dozen staff who were part of the first wave of vaccinations. For those who also worked on Biden’s campaign, it was their first time being in any office environment in nearly a year after staff were dismissed last March from the Philadelphia campaign headquarters and never returned.
Now that Biden is a couple weeks out from his second vaccine shot, he has begun holding more in-person meetings with lawmakers and other outside White House allies. Even so, each lawmaker was tested at the White House for coronavirus and seated socially distanced.
Officials say they don’t expect Biden to barnstorm the country any time soon. But aides are counting down to at least a potential weekend break for a president who is still expected to return to his home in Wilmington, Delaware, on occasion.
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