Landing a West Wing job is a dream-come-true for most any political staffer, even with the long hours, cramped working conditions and around-the-clock pressure.
Doing it remotely, it turns out, is slightly less glamorous.
“I would love to have seen and been there for what it was like before Covid,” an administration official said wistfully on Thursday. “It looks so beautiful, but I hear it’s empty.”
Indeed, on President Joe Biden’s first full day in office, aides described the West Wing as anything but the hive of bustling and chaotic activity seen in previous administrations — or certainly as dramatized on NBC’s “The West Wing” or countless political films.
A small contingent of staff, including Biden’s senior-most aides and those needed to support the President and Oval Office operations, are in place. But the majority of staffers will work remotely, at least for now, as coronavirus rages and the new President looks to better model his government’s own recommendations.
The roster of those working inside the West Wing so far this week includes: Ron Klain, White House chief of staff; Jen Psaki, press secretary; Kate Bedingfield, communications director; Jeff Zients, Covid-19 coordinator; Jake Sullivan, national security adviser; Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council; and Cedric Richmond, director of the office of public engagement.
A White House official said aides who were working from home were utilizing “a variety of tools to stay in touch and carry out their work.”
That isn’t to say that all of Biden’s new staff is not busy. The President is entering office on a policymaking spree, dismantling the previous President’s agenda while instituting new plans to combat coronavirus, manage immigration and battle climate change. The amount of documents to write, bullet points to approve, language to vet and events to plan far exceeds other recent administrations, at least in the opening hours.
It’s just that many of the people executing the work are sitting at their kitchen tables, in their spare bedrooms or, if they are fortunate enough, in their home offices. Staffers are managing the administration’s intensive early days through conference calls, video meetings and over email.
The set-up has made for some Covid-era adjustments.
Before former President Donald Trump left office this week, the White House IT department installed cameras on computers throughout the West Wing the night before Biden was inaugurated to better facilitate video calls for the new administration.
Working clothes in times of coronavirus
Several members of the Biden administration’s new team dressed up for their virtual swearing-in session with the President on Wednesday. Word spread among the staffers beforehand that campaign attire like sweatshirts and fleece pullovers would not be appropriate. So even though they were only appearing on a tiny box in a monitor — rather than in person in the State Dining Room — suit jackets, shirts and ties were in order.
The concept of working remotely is hardly a new one, particularly for those who did so during the last eight months of the campaign after the Biden headquarters in Philadelphia shuttered in the early days of the pandemic. But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating, when the new office is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
While many officials worked in the Obama-Biden administration, others did not, making the remote working environment even more of a disappointment, considering the pandemic was unfathomable at the dawn of the 2020 campaign. Many will stop by the White House in some capacity over the coming days to pick up equipment and receive ID badges, but the work-from-home orders are in place for the foreseeable future.
That means, for now, no walking into one of the most famous buildings in the world for work or looking out the window to see Marine One lifting off from the South Lawn. No lunches picked up from the takeout window of the Navy mess or taco Wednesdays at Ike’s Eatery in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. And no after-hours tours of the West Wing to peek into the iconic Roosevelt or Cabinet rooms.
In a building where proximity equals power, work-from-home staffers are also deprived of the type of casual run-in or last-minute pull-aside with their superiors — or even the President — that could help spark policy or determine strategy.
By all accounts, Biden is not running his White House like Trump, where casual visitors or low-level staffers often found themselves in the Oval Office as Trump upended his meetings and briefings for arcane tangents. But as many Americans have learned during the pandemic, even the most buttoned-up offices lose something of the organic flow when workers are stuck at home.
Limited real estate
The virtual scenario has, however, eased one ritual of a new administration: fighting for remarkably limited real estate in West Wing offices or even in the more sprawling Eisenhower Executive Office Building just a stone’s throw from the White House.
For now, many of those offices are assigned but empty as staffers ride out the pandemic working from home.
Vice President Kamala Harris has moved into her West Wing office, although she maintains a far more spacious and ceremonial quarters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Officials said they received new government computers and phones that were activated at noon on Wednesday, allowing them to conduct official business from living rooms, kitchens and home offices.
National Security Council staff who arrived to work at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Thursday were largely sent home and told they will be teleworking for the foreseeable future due to stricter Covid-19 measures being imposed by the administration.
According to an administration official, only “continuity of operations” staff will be allowed to work inside the building, which includes the national security adviser and his top advisers, as well as the heads of a few key directorates and other key personnel.
Other staffers who need to access top secret information would be allowed in on an ad hoc basis, this official said. Many staffers who had been going in previously are being told that they’ll have to stay home.
But other mid-level and lower level staffers will work from home, a departure from Trump aides who mostly continued coming to work without wearing masks.
Psaki said during her press briefing on Wednesday that all staffers entering the complex will be required to undergo a Covid test, wear an N95 mask and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Plexiglass barriers were also mounted on desks in the West Wing, something Trump officials had resisted.
“The President has asked us to also be models to the American people, and that’s vitally important to us as well,” she said.
This story has been updated with more names of staffers working inside the White House.