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Obama aides talk about crisis, calm in the Waikiki West Wing

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 05:22 a.m. HST, Jan 03, 2011



In 2009, Air Force One had barely touched down in Honolulu before the traveling White House was thrust into crisis mode as President Barack Obama and his staff responded to the attempted bombing of a trans-Atlantic jet on Christmas Day.

So this year, you won't hear staffers complaining about a few days of rain.

From his first day in Hawaii on Dec. 23, the president has been enjoying what aides stress is a working vacation on the east shore of Oahu, one that comes to an end Monday night.

The same is true for the dozens of aides and support personnel stationed in a hotel across the island, eager to use fleeting downtime to recharge but always aware that events may end up conspiring against them.

Nick Shapiro, an assistant press secretary who made his second Christmas week trip to the Aloha State, came prepared. Before departing Washington, he purchased a waterproof BlackBerry case to use while surfing. Press aide Ben Finkenbinder had one as well, and the $30 accessory allowed him to e-mail a dispatch from the press pool to the White House press corps while on a surfboard off Waikiki.

Though the options for downtime are better here than in Washington, the workday for the Waikiki West Wing is still largely the same.

Before sun-up, press aides already have read through the morning news and begun reaching out to reporters. National security staff prepare an intelligence briefing for the president, often delivered in person by aides Nick Rasmussen and Ben Rhodes. Advance teams and Secret Service agents have fanned out across the island in preparation for any trips the president may take beyond his rental home in Kailua.

With a five-hour time gap between Honolulu and Washington, the day is sometimes even longer for officials who must tend to concerns in each city.

"It's not that hard to give the impression that you've really been working on vacation when the work keeps coming," said Bill Burton, deputy press secretary and the lead public spokesman for the White House in Hawaii.

Though the location is more exotic, the nature of a presidential vacation under Obama is similar to that of past White Houses. Aides to George W. Bush might escape to a local movie theater near the president's Texas ranch.

"You could tell we were all sitting together because our row would just illuminate every five minutes," said former press aide Pete Seat.

On this trip, no single event has consumed the attention of aides or the press corps as it did in 2009. Then, Obama delayed his Hawaiian vacation until Christmas Eve so he could lobby for votes in the House of Representatives on his health care reform effort.

But the bags were barely unpacked after the 5,000-mile journey when news came that a Nigerian-born man had allegedly attempted to ignite plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on a commercial flight over Detroit.

When Obama visited the island as president-elect in 2008, the obvious work of preparing for a new administration consumed all who made the trip. But this time, the podium staged in a third-floor ballroom for press briefings went unused.

The White House was careful, however, to parcel out nuggets throughout the 12-day trip, including the announcement of six recess appointments and a list of books the president was reading. On Sunday, for instance, the White House announced that Obama had signed legislation to provide financial assistance to workers who developed health problems after responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Even as aides tended to their responsibilities, there were opportunities to use the temporary environs to recharge for what will be a critical year for the administration as it gears up for a re-election campaign.

Much of the traveling party joined the president and first family on Thursday at a barbecue on the scenic North Shore. A handful of aides joined the president Tuesday when he went snorkeling at the renowned Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a day when it is usually closed to the public.

Shapiro admits to a slower pace from last year, when he often slept on the floor of a secure conference room so he could deal with the stream of intelligence coming in on the attempted Christmas Day attack. Even so, the surfboard purchased on this trip saw only limited action.

He plans to mount it on the wall in his West Wing office.

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