Video: Inside the real West Wing

NBC News
updated 6/3/2009 10:36:33 AM ET 2009-06-03T14:36:33

Barack Obama is waiting for his elevator. Upstairs is what remains of a normal life.

“Dinnertime is reserved, you know,” the president tells NBC News.

After dinner is when Obama gets to “goof off a little bit — play with Bo,” the new dog. Plus, “the girls have to go take their baths,” he says.

It’s a quick — and welcome — turnaround from world leader to husband and father.

Over the last 12 hours or so, Obama has done what modern presidents do. He has led meetings with some of the most knowledgeable people in the world to figure out how to address issues that could affect every living person: from the impending bankruptcy of General Motors to North Korea’s launch of another missile to the balance of power on the Supreme Court.

Last few moments of quiet
On any given day, work is humming at the White House long before the president awakens about 6:30 a.m.

Last Friday, NBC News was given rare access to record a documentary about life in the Obama administration — continuing a longtstanding NBC tradition of doing "day in the life" programs with new presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

As news crews arrive in the pre-dawn hours, young staffers are already buzzing around. Upstairs from all the activity, Obama makes sure to see his daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, off to school and get in a workout. Then it’s down to business.

“I’m spending probably 45 minutes to an hour both reading the national security briefing but also reading four or five newspapers and just getting a sense of the direction the various debates are moving in,” Obama says in an extended interview with Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News."

Katie Johnson, 28, the president’s secretary, arrives with more paperwork: typed versions ready for his signature of his replies to 10 letters chosen at random from the flood of Americans’ mail to the White House. He had read the letters the night before.

“This is a pretty typical letter,” Obama says, choosing one from a single mother of two kids, one of whom has a speech disability.

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“‘I’m writing in regards to the bailout for the banks. I believe this would help stimulate the economy,’” he says, reading aloud. “‘So far all I’ve seen is the banks holding onto the money or giving it to those who don’t really need it.’”

Reading and answering the letters is rewarding because it keeps him aware of the concerns of everyday Americans. But it can also be frustrating.

“One of the difficult things about this job is that some of these letters, you don’t have an immediate response that’s satisfactory, because there’s a process involved,” Obama says.

Reviewing the board
It will be one of the last times Obama will be essentially alone with his thoughts. Here comes the senior staff for meetings.

Video: Getting a read on 'Rahmbo' NBC’s cameras are shooed out of some of the more sensitive sessions with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, including a discussion with Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council, the daily national security briefing, an economic briefing and an update on the administration’s bailout of the auto industry.

At another meeting, Phil Schiliro, Obama’s liaison to Congress, and Gregory Craig, the White House legal counsel, brief the president on where important legislation is in the congressional process: a supplemental spending measure, a health care bill and a White House initiative to crack down on tobacco advertising to children, which Schiliro warns will be a tough one.

“This was a very difficult issue in years past,” he tells Obama. “It was somewhat partisan.”

But Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s kinetic chief of staff, sounds confident.

“When you look at the committee vote on the Senate [side], it tells you you’re going to have a good vote,” he says.

It is still midmorning. So far, things seem to be going according to schedule — hundreds of people work very hard to make it so. But that is about to change.

A Supreme change in plans
Obama says he doesn’t watch the cable news networks, because “it feels like WWF wrestling.”

“It’s not even necessarily that there’s not good reporting on it,” he says. “It’s just that everyone is having to accelerate to get the next story, the new story, and if there’s a story that people think is going to sell, then they overdo it.”

At the White House this day, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that that story is Obama’s nomination of federal appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to succeed David Souter on the Supreme Court.

Video: Out to lunch with Obama Shortly after 11 a.m., Obama switches gears to push his preferred messages of the day: first, a public function in the East Room to discuss protecting the nation’s computer networks from attack, then a trip across town to talk about hurricane preparedness. In between, he orders a side trip to a local hamburger joint for takeout and a useful “he’s still a normal guy” video moment.

But the media are on to something else. At his daily briefing for reporters, press secretary Robert Gibbs is peppered with questions about a controversial comment Sotomayor made in 2001 suggesting that a Latina like her might be able to make better judicial decisions than a white man.

Earlier in the day, Gibbs’ deputy, Bill Burton, had been confident that there would not “be a lot of Supreme Court stuff today.” But that was before the cable channels latched onto the story. All day, political talk shows chew over Sotomayor’s comments, with conservative commentators labeling Sotomayor a racist. It’s time to call an audible.

While the president spends time with his advisers and reassures the public about cybersecurity and hurricanes, a team led by David Axelrod — who bears the bland title “senior adviser” but who carries as much clout as anyone in the administration, if not the most — is drawing up the new game plan.

Trial balloons fail to take off
As Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina works the phone, taking the temperature of Congress and locking down Democratic support, Axelrod goes outside for a cable TV interview, testing one strategy: emphasizing Sotomayor’s experience on the federal bench, which he calls the most of “anybody in 100 years.”

Gibbs and the press team, meanwhile, decide to float another talking point at the afternoon briefing, quoting Justice Samuel Alito as having said something not too different from Sotomayor’s controversial remarks: “When a case comes before me involving someone who is an immigrant, I can’t help but think of my own ancestors.”

It’s a misfire. As one reporter points out, Obama voted against Alito’s confirmation in the Senate.

Gibbs reflects later that “some days are good and some days aren’t so good.”

“It can be tough sometimes, and you realize, look, some days the stories aren’t all good,” he says. Even so, “you’ve got to go out and talk about them.”

By midafternoon, it’s clear that more is needed. It’s time to throw a hail Mary pass.

The president weighs in
NBC’s day with the president is scheduled to end with a formal interview. The signals start going out from the White House: Obama’s got something to get off his chest.

For 10 minutes, Obama talks about nothing except Sotomayor and the “nonsense that is being spewed out.”

The performance is vintage Obama — a ringing defense of his nominee, seemingly off the cuff but delivered in complete paragraphs, with references to the judge’s eight-year-old speech, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, farmers in Iowa, corporate chieftains, the proper role of a justice and the Senate confirmation process.

Half an hour later, as the interview is wrapping up, Obama redirects the discussion back to Sotomayor, intent on delivering a strong message that she would “apply the law and be fair to everybody.”

NBC News puts the remarks on the air immediately. Within minutes, the presidential salvo is wall-to-wall on the wire services and TV news. Then the Internet. It will be on the front pages of America’s newspapers the next morning.

For a president who insists it’s a bad idea to get “caught up in the news cycle,” Obama has just shown a knack for controlling it.

‘What would you have me give up?’
In many respects, it’s just another day at the White House, where Obama and his team are trying to move quickly on what he calls a series of “challenge[s] for our generation.”

“I’m always puzzled when people say, ‘You’re taking on too much,’” the president says. “Well, what exactly would you have me give up?

“Should I not be worrying about Pakistan? Is me ignoring North Korea an option? Should I simply allow the U.S. auto industry to vanish into the ether? Should I not be worrying about the fact that we’ve lost millions of jobs and that we’ve got to retool in order to to compete?

“I would love to have come in at a time when we enjoyed large surpluses, when the economy was going gangbusters, when we weren’t in the middle of two wars,” he says. “But, you know, that’s not the hand that we were dealt.”

It is the 130th day of the Obama presidency.

Only 1,331 to go.

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