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Shutdown takes toll on White House operations

08 October 2013, 15:04

Washington - Now in its second week, the partial government shutdown has taken its toll on the White House, where about 3 of 4 staffers have been furloughed, barred even from checking the BlackBerrys they usually clutch like worry beads.

Of the 1 701 advisers, assistants, number-crunchers, butlers, chefs and landscapers who work at the White House on a normal day, fewer than 450 are on duty, according to President Barack Obama's budget office. The rest fall under an unfortunate label that has kept hundreds of thousands of federal workers home: "non-essential".

At one entrance to the West Wing, a wall that normally displays clippings from the day's newspapers hasn't been updated in over a week.

"Congress slips toward shutdown," reads one outdated headline in a near-empty press office.

With a full array of official duties that must be carried out despite the impasse with Congress, Obama's aides have strived to maintain normalcy. But the logistical gymnastics of running the federal government's nerve centre with a skeletal staff have created a sense of mild disarray at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The staff of 90 that normally tends to the president's residence has been cut to 15. In the West Wing, only a scaled-back menu is available at the White House mess.

Trash cans are still being emptied and the bathrooms maintained, but the usual buzz of employees across the White House grounds has dipped to a quiet hum.

"The most evident impact is the lack of voices," said Josh Earnest, Obama's principle deputy press secretary. "There aren't a bunch of people yammering on the phone."

Want to share your ideas with Obama about resolving the shutdown? Don't bother calling. The White House switchboard has been set to roll over to a pre-recorded message.

"We apologise, but due to the lapse in federal funding, we are unable to take your call," the message says.

The few senior White House aides still working are performing duties generally reserved for low-level assistants, like planning Obama's off-campus events, scheduling meetings, sending announcements to the media and getting visitors cleared by the Secret Service.

Even Obama pitched in last week as he left the White House for a visit to a nearby sandwich shop without the usual entourage of staffers who shepherd the media accompanying him. With more senior staff filling in as "wranglers," journalists ended up trailing behind the president, only able to see his back.

"Let's go, wranglers!" the president teased his staff, pausing to tell reporters to get in front.

The White House "advance" office, which co-ordinates the president's travel, is just about shuttered. In a departure from normal procedure, Obama's schedule this week is being announced day by day.

That's also meant fewer outings for Obama and first lady Michelle Obama - a cutback that also reflects the touchy optics of pursuing leisurely activities while federal workers are furloughed.

Since the shutdown started, Obama hasn't played a round of golf, as he does almost every weekend. And there was no fancy night at a restaurant for the president and Mrs Obama, who marked their 21st wedding anniversary on Thursday.

- AP


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