All Work and No Play

A president’s day is more than whatever appears on his public schedule.

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida after Osama Bin Laden, Annie Lowrey asks who might get the $25 million reward, and Jack Shafer says to follow the news skeptically. Dahlia Lithwick says it’s time to end the war on terror, Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan, and Dave Weigel looks at Congress’ reaction. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate’s complete coverage is rounded up here

President Barack Obama

Ever had something really important on your mind that you couldn’t shake no matter what you were doing? You put the butter in the kitchen drawer instead of the fridge because you were replaying the meeting you had with your boss that morning or stay stopped after the light turned green because you’re thinking about that presentation tomorrow. Imagine, then, what it would be like to be President Obama holding the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden in your head while trying to go about your day.

In the timeline of the Bin Laden operation, we see just how closely the secret life of a president bumps against his public life. Though this operation was a special case, it puts in high relief an oft-forgotten truth about the presidency: The president is occupied by a lot more than the public can see.

This would seem obvious, but it gets lost in the endless assessments of whether the president is “showing leadership” on any given topic. Much of that coverage assumes a president with more time than he actually has, buffeted only by the facts we know.

During the period of intense focus on Bin Laden, other problems and issues the president was dealing with included: a government shutdown, a big speech on the budget, the start of his presidential campaign, the birth-certificate follies, and the bombing of Libya. Oh, and trying to “win the future.”

The presidency distorts the brain like perhaps no other job on Earth. In the First Noggin, there must be many compartments locked double tight, so the president doesn’t show anything on his face. Sometimes he must keep secrets even from the people who work down the hall. But each box has to be accessible immediately if a decision needs to be made. Sometimes the contents of these boxes are difficult and profound questions about life and death. Other times, they concern merely a president’s political fortunes—which appeals to the ego, making them perhaps even more difficult to control. And all the while, there are legions of journalists and opponents trying to pry open these little boxes through force, shame, and flattery.

The most acute recent moments of compartmentalization for Obama had to have been Friday and Saturday. On Friday he gave the final order and then flew to Alabama to visit with families ravaged by the recent tornado. He ended the day in Florida visiting with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband. On Saturday he attended the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where he had to tell jokes and sit through a comedy routine during which everyone watched his every facial twitch for insights into his psyche.

A president criticized for playing golf or spending time in Brazil on the eve of the Libyan invasion would have been relentlessly skewered for engaging in banter with the press on the eve of a dangerous military operation. But it wasn’t just Saturday night that the president had to keep his serious brain cordoned off from his less serious brain. During the final phase of the multiyear operation, Obama chaired the National Security Council on five occasions to discuss progress. A look at those five days tells the story of not just how quickly a president must switch between his public and private duties but also how silly some of the public calls for his attention must have seemed to him at the time.

March 14: The president attends Kenmore Middle School in Washington’s Virginia suburbs and gives a speech about education policy. He meets with Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark. In the late afternoon, he chairs the meeting on Bin Laden. Shortly thereafter, he attends a Democratic Party fundraising dinner. The news of the day is that the president and Republican leaders have agreed to a second stopgap measure to keep the government open and avoid a shutdown.

March 19: The makeshift command center Obama used in Brazil is thought to be simply the place where he discusses Libya planning on the eve of U.S. operations. But it turns out Obama has been occupied with more than one military operation. The day’s activities also include a diplomatic arrival ceremony, a press conference, public remarks, and a few receptions.

April 12: The consuming story in Washington is the president’s coming budget speech. Liberals who had been angry that Obama had not been a public presence in the budget fight with Republicans over extending government operations for the rest of the year are skeptical that Obama will deliver a forceful rebuttal to the House budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan.

April 19: The president starts his day with an Easter Prayer Breakfast, then performs in a town hall with voters, followed by a meeting with various interested parties to discuss immigration. His official schedule ends with a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

April 28: The president announces his new national security team, meets with Hispanic leaders, and then meets with the president of Panama, with whom he delivers statements to the press.

Of all the secrets President Obama has had to carry, the details of the Bin Laden operation was probably one of the biggest. He may have had a special delight in bringing it to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where much of the audience lives to publish a president’s secrets before he can reveal them. A year earlier, as Obama spoke at the same dinner, the Times Square bomb plot was being foiled. Obama was informed of this shortly after he left the stage. The public wouldn’t know for a few hours. Unlike the dinner, such crises are not an annual event. For a president, though, they happen every day.

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