The first family settled into their new lives in the White House on Thursday as President Barack Obama won an important personal victory: He gets to keep his BlackBerry.
Obama will be the first sitting president to use e-mail, and he has been reluctant to part with his ever-present handheld device. Its use will be limited to keeping in touch with senior staff and personal friends, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
“I’ve won the fight, but I don’t think it’s up and running,” Obama said as he walked through the White House briefing room Thursday evening to meet reporters.
And though Gibbs said Obama had to ask at one point where to go next in his “pretty big house,” he also said the president was enjoying living above the store and had time for dinner with the family on Wednesday.
“I think that obviously means a lot to him as a father,” Gibbs said.
It was back to business for daughters Sasha and Malia, too, who returned to classes at the private Sidwell Friends School on Thursday.
The girls were allowed to play hooky Wednesday after a late-night scavenger hunt at the White House that ended when they opened a door and found their favorite band, the Jonas Brothers.
But two days of frivolity was, apparently, enough. Michelle Obama had no public schedule for the rest of the week as she helped the girls make themselves at home, said Mrs. Obama’s spokeswoman, Katie McCormick Lelyveld.
“Her primary focus this week is getting the kids settled. She is focused entirely on getting unpacked and getting the kids up and running,” McCormick Lelyveld said.
Both girls were excited to get their rooms set up, McCormick Lelyveld said. Mrs. Obama has worked hard throughout the transition to maintain a strong routine for Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10.
“I know the family’s moved now three times in only a few weeks. But if you know them and you know their family, they’ve had a routine for a long time,” Gibbs said. “This is a monumental testament to Michelle.”
The monumental testament to her husband? He won the BlackBerry battle.
Gibbs joked that the development was “almost as exciting as the presidential dog.” He poked fun at the White House press corps for stirring at the news during his briefing. “Let’s make sure the pen still works.”
But the BlackBerry victory is a big concession. Obama said earlier that he was working with the Secret Service, lawyers and White House staff to keep the device.
Gibbs said the president will limit its use, and security has been enhanced to ensure that Obama can communicate in a way that’s protected. Only a small number of senior staff members and personal friends would be given his e-mail address.
Previous presidents chose not to use e-mail because it can be subpoenaed by Congress and courts and may be subject to public records laws. And Gibbs said the presumption from the White House counsel’s office is that Obama’s e-mails will be subject to the Presidential Records Act, which requires the National Archives to preserve presidential records.
But he also said there are exceptions for “strictly personal communications.”
Obama has often been seen checking his e-mail on his handheld device, even when it meant getting his hands slapped by Michelle during his daughter’s soccer game.
Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton didn’t e-mail while in office, although Bush was an active e-mailer before becoming president.
That was before the era of the BlackBerry, a device now ubiquitous in Washington and precious to Obama. When asked by The Associated Press about his worst habit during the campaign, Obama responded, “Checking my BlackBerry.”
Gibbs said the president believes that using the device is an effective way to keep in touch with people without “getting stuck in a bubble.”
He said Obama’s e-mails to him personally have ranged “from something that’s very strictly business to, why did my football team perform so miserably on either any given Saturday or any given Sunday?”
Those who have access to the president’s e-mail will be briefed about appropriate communications, Gibbs said, without offering specifics.
So the president who gave up smoking – mostly – managed to avoid withdrawal from his other addiction – mostly.
All in all, Gibbs said, Obama looked comfortable in his new surroundings.
“They’re very much the same four people that I met five years ago when I went to work for them,” he said, before conceding, “Obviously, it’s a little different.”