obama enters the oval office

This fascinating photo captures a unique moment of recent American history: President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office for his first full day of work, January 21, 2009. He’s carrying newspapers under his arm. Reggie Love, the President’s personal aide and “body man,” stands by with what appears to be a glass of orange juice. I’m not sure who the other man in the picture is. Note how clean and uncluttered the office is. There’s nothing except a ceremonial box of some sort on the big desk, which reminds me of a famous picture taken of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford the afternoon before Ford’s inauguration, with the totally empty top of the desk (which dates from the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes) gleaming in the afternoon sunlight from the window.

I’m not 100% certain this is really the first time Obama set foot in the Oval Office as President. I recall seeing on the web some photos of him sitting at the desk, his suit jacket off, making a phone call, which I think were published on Inauguration Day afternoon (January 20). This photo is probably more staged than real, but it certainly captures the importance of the moment. Imagine if you were President of the United States, your predecessor has vacated the premises, and you walk in for the first time with the awesome responsibility of running the free world now totally on your shoulders. Surely you would think something like, “How did I get here? Can I really handle this? What do I do first?”

One thing that many Presidents remark upon, often after leaving office, is how there is virtually no preparation for that first day on the job. In the modern presidency transition teams spend months coordinating details, but that’s mostly technical stuff involving staff. The outgoing President usually meets with the incoming one a few times (as Bush did with Obama), but the substance of these meetings, I’m told, is surprisingly thin. Bush II particularly, when he took over for Clinton in January 2001, was surprised by how the entire White House had to basically “start from scratch” all over again. This happens every time there’s a change in leadership. Imagine someone like Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman who have to do this whole “start from scratch” thing very suddenly, with no warning, and in a time of national crisis and/or mourning.

As I’m fond of saying on this blog, you can learn a lot about history by looking at a single picture!

This photo is in the public domain.