White House warms to Obama, loosens up after Bush


Washington : He has been on the job for just over two weeks, but US President Barack Obama has already had time not only to reverse some of the most controversial policies of George W. Bush but also his predecessor’s strict protocol at the White House.

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Some call it the “Obama Touch”, others talk of a “laid-back president” and some mention a “cultural shock”, but most just smile and observe – with both curiosity and understanding – how a 47-year-old man moves in and takes over the home of a 62-year-old.

There are plenty of changes, starting with the dress code.

On his first full day as president, the White House issued some photographs of Obama and his advisors in the Oval Office that were enough to shock protocol purists. The president, Vice President Joe Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were talking away, but none of them was wearing a jacket.

The scene would have been unthinkable under the previous administration, since Bush required a coat and tie in the Oval Office.

But more has changed in this respect than just the dress code: the first thing Obama did when he got to his new office was to set the thermostat higher.

“He’s from Hawaii, OK?” Obama’s chief advisor David Axelrod joked in The New York Times of the president who grew up in the tropical paradise but moved to chilly Chicago as an adult. “He likes it warm. You could grow orchids in there.”

The same newspaper explained that Obama has already authorized White House employees to wear business casual clothes on weekends in the office. On his first Saturday, some even wore jeans, which would have been unthinkable under Bush.

Former White House counsellor Dan Bartlett recalled how on one Saturday, wearing casual pants and no tie, a “mad” Bush summoned him to the presidential office.

“I had to stand by the door and get chewed out for about 15 minutes. He wouldn’t even let me cross the threshold,” Bartlett said.

The “new style” also affects hours. Obama arrives in the Oval Office just before 9 a.m., after a work-out at the gym and breakfast with his daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. Bush, renowned for being an early bird, was at work two hours earlier.

At night, Bush used to go to bed at 10 p.m., a time at which Obama is still working, even after dinner.

Moreover, the Obamas appear set to revive night-time fun at the White House which had its hey-day with the parties organised by Jacqueline Kennedy almost five decades ago.

Punctuality is no longer the be all and end all of presidential activity. Bush not only launched meetings at the pre-set time, but he also ended them as planned. With Obama you know when things start, but not when they finish.

Some Republicans who met with the new president at the Capitol last week had a taste of this.

“What are you going to say? It’s the president,” said Congressman Eric Cantor.

The changes are bringing water to the mills of comedians, who get a chance to parody two presidents in one blow.

“Our old, buttoned-up White House has become a thriving third-world Hawaiian slum where everybody wears floral muumuus and walks around with fat spliffs in their fists,” wrote the satirical political website Wonkette.com.

The “Obama Touch” also has a more literal aspect, because the new president likes to talk and to give orders using his hands. Almost whenever he shakes hands the gesture extends into a half-hug and a couple of pats in the back to reinforce closeness.

“We establish empathetic channels of communication through touch. Very good social people will often touch on the shoulder, touch on the arm,” Joe Navarro, a former federal agent specialising in non-verbal communication, explained in the Politico newspaper. “If you touch people, they perceive you as friendlier.”

While Bush often did not seem to know what to do with his hands in public, Obama uses them frequently.

The president recently carried out an informal visit to the White House press room. When one journalist tried to ask him a question, Obama stopped him short and made it clear that it was no time for business. But the president also put his hand on the man’s shoulder, as if to say that the blunder was not really that serious.

On a different occasion, Vice President Biden made fun of Chief Justice John Roberts, who made mistakes as he administered Obama’s oath. The president slightly touched Biden’s back, in a gesture which was taken to imply disapproval. Biden certainly understood it this way, and he looked down for the remainder of the event.

Changes in style are evident, and it looks like they are just starting.

One retired admiral who was with Obama in the Oval Office recounted an amusing anecdote. The president was said to have looked around to see all the decorative plates that Bush had left on the walls.

“I’ve got to do something about these plates. I’m not really a plates kind of guy,” Obama muttered.