One afternoon in November, President Barack Obama descended the steps that take him into the basement of the West Wing and took his seat in a room that is never seen on TV, but has become a fixture in his daily life: the Situation Room.
Arrayed in front of him--some in person and others beamed in from Afghanistan on six giant LG flat screens hooked up to a system that even the best hackers in the world are not supposed to be able to break into--were his national security advisers.
The topic that day was as serious as they come: Obama had to pick from four different plans for how the United States would proceed in Afghanistan.
His advisers were split into different camps, with several warning that his presidency was on the line. Obama probed, asked questions, and finally said he didn't like any of the options he'd been given. He sent them back to work, and headed up to the residence, on the top two floors of the White House. There, he had dinner with his daughters, Sasha and Malia, and his wife, Michelle, before flying to Asia to meet with the leaders of China, South Korea, Japan, and Myanmar.
Over the past 16 years, I've covered the administrations of three Presidents as a reporter for The New York Times: Bill Clinton (1993-2001), George W. Bush (2001-09), and now Barack Obama. It's a job that involves understanding and writing about the debates on the most important policy decisions a President makes--from going to war to keeping the economy afloat in the midst of a severe recession.
Each administration and the hundreds of people who work for a President bring a different feel to the White House, and that's certainly the case with President Obama.
Politics aside, the most notable difference between Obama and his recent predecessors is that there hasn't been more than one presidential child in the White House since 1963, when John E Kennedy was President, so these days the place is a lot noisier. This past Halloween, for example, it was jammed with the costumed children of White House staffers, and the First Lady wandered around dressed as Catwoman.
YOUNGER WEST WING
Of course, the White House is a lot more than the President's residence; the West Wing, for example, is the center of presidential policy and decision-making, where all the day-to-day work of the administration takes place. Several thousand people work in the West Wing--from the...