Glitz meets mud at the White House

In every presidential campaign, I wonder how the lofty goals and ideals of the candidates will actually fare in the real world of governing. A glimpse of this became glaringly apparent during the first day in the West Wing of the White House. The White House staffers felt they were in the technological dark ages, without laptops, facing arcane email procedures, no Instant Messaging or facebook, and six year old versions of Microsoft Windows. (The latter must have been particularly galling because I would bet most of Obama’s supporters and advisors are Mac users.)

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.

It’s tempting to blame this on the stodgy, backwards Bush Administration. That would certainly fit the campaign message. But, the truth, as usual, is much more mundane:

Senior advisers chafed at the new arrangements, which severely limit mobility — partly by tradition but also for security reasons and to ensure that all official work is preserved under the Presidential Records Act.

Indeed, the true audacity of Obama’s hope might be the naive belief that government’s aren’t bureaucracies, and that somehow the shear force of his leadership and enthusiasm will sweep away thousands of pages of regulations that bind even routine communications among staff and policy advisors.

“It is what it is,” said a White House staff member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Nobody is being a blockade right now. It’s just the system we need to go through.” The system has daunted past White House employees. David Almacy, who became President George W. Bush’s Internet director in 2005, recalled having a week-long delay between his arrival at the White House and getting set up with a computer and a BlackBerry. “The White House itself is an institution that transitions regardless of who the president is,” he said. “The White House is not starting from scratch. Processes are already in place.”