Just as no war plan survives first contact with the enemy, even the smoothest sailing Presidential transition is destined to founder a bit in its first days at the White House. So while the new Obama Administration did jump out of the gate with major announcements on ethics guidelines, the planned closing of Gitmo, and a tightening of interrogation policies, it also endured its fair share of slip-ups. (See behind-the-scenes pictures of the Inauguration.)
Granted, it's mostly the small stuff that has gone wrong. As of Thursday, some smartly dressed press staffers were working without login access to their computers, without Blackberries and with only Gmail addresses to connect them to the world. Several names were misspelled on the signs that identified staff desks. It took the press office until about 10 a.m. on Wednesday to figure out how to send reporters an official White House press release. "That's great news," said deputy press secretary Bill Burton, when a reporter announced that the first e-mail had been received. "Ready on day one!"
Add to the logistical glitches the wide-eyed excitement of doing everything for the first time, and what you get are lots of unscripted moments. On Wednesday, when President Obama entered a briefing room at the Old Executive office building, his staff and the press instinctively stood up. Obama was taken off guard. "I'm still getting used to that," he said, after telling everyone to have a seat. Later in the same event, Obama struggled with the practice of using a different pen for every document he signed. "They are very nice pens," the President advised his aides. (See pictures of people around the world watching Obama's inauguration.)
Vice-President Biden stood to his right, apparently unsure if he or Lisa Brown, the staff secretary, should pick up the documents as Obama finished. Biden handled a couple, and then decided he'd better not. "Why don't you take the last one," he told Brown, with a smile. A few moments later, Biden was caught by surprise when Obama asked him to swear in the senior staff. "Am I doing this again?" he asked, confused, having just sworn in the members of the cabinet in a private ceremony. (See Who's Who in Barack Obama's White House.)
It was not the last confusion to circle Obama on day one. Some hours later, the President met Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in the map room for a do-over of the Oath of Office, having botched the order of the words at his inauguration. An aide said he has also been figuring out how to move around the building. "At the end of the first night he had to ask somebody where he was supposed to go next," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman. "It's a pretty big house." Obama, who has moved with his family three times in the last three weeks, eventually made his way to the residence that he will call home for the next four years.
On Thursday, the minor glitches continued. At a signing ceremony in the Oval Office, the press was told to leave before the event had ended, an order that the President and his staff quickly noticed and reversed. About an hour later, a senior Administration official gave a briefing to reporters about the new executive orders on torture and Guantanamo Bay. Despite their vocal protests, reporters were told they could not disclose the name of the official.
Then Gibbs took the stage for his first White House press briefing, and promptly disclosed the official's first name. "We had Greg help you guys understand a little bit of that," Gibbs said, in front of live television cameras. Later a reporter asked Gibbs if he realized he had just disclosed the first name of the undisclosed official. "I do," Gibbs said, keeping his composure. "I'm tempted to ask you to see if you can get one person's name into the papers so people will think he might be a Brazilian soccer star." Unhappily for Gibbs, White House officials, unlike Brazilian sports celebrities, do not go by just first names. And there is no surplus of senior officials in the Obama White House named "Greg."
Gibbs had to endure a few other sticky moments during his inaugural briefing with a White House press corps that seemed determined to shake the lap dog reputation reporters covering Obama during the campaign had acquired. He fended off repeated questions about the second swearing-in of the President, which had only been open to a few journalists and no photographers or video or audio equipment. And he did his best to defend the new Administration against charges of violating its own tough new ethics guidelines by appointing two former lobbyists as high-ranking agency deputies, one at the Pentagon and another at Health and Human Services.
But such awkward moments did little to overshadow a beginning for the Obama White House that has been mostly on track. From the Inaugural Address itself, Obama and his staff have worked to mark a sharp change in policy from the Bush Administration, with a tightening of rules on ethics, interrogation policy and detention policy. Obama also began holding daily economic briefings with his advisers, much like the national security briefings that every President receives at daybreak. "He felt it was important that each day he receive the most up-to-date information as it relates to the economy," Gibbs told reporters, "as we put together an economic reinvestment and recovery plan, as well as future financial stability packages, to ensure that our economy gets moving again." Those are the words of a White House on message, even if much of the e-mail is still not up and running.