Will President Obama have a computer in the Oval Office?

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Jan. 22 2009 6:35 PM

Microsoft Oval Office

Will President Obama have a personal computer?

Barack Obama drops his BlackBerry. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama looks down after dropping his BlackBerry

Barack Obama completed his first full day as president on Wednesday. Pictures of the historic occasion showed Obama sitting at a gleaming Oval Office desk. Will all that empty space eventually be filled by a personal computer?

Probably not, if recent history is a guide—neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush had a dedicated office computer. On Thursday afternoon, the White House did confirm that Obama will keep a BlackBerry to communicate with a small group of friends and senior staff. Before Obama, presidents had gone without e-mail, both to keep their messages secure from hackers as well as to sidestep the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which requires that all correspondence be archived and eventually made available to the public. (Plus, it helps keep them focused on the job at hand; all documents that arrive at the office, from bills to birthday cards, get filtered by the staff secretary.) Ultimately, it's the president's decision whether he wants a computer, one he makes under advisement from the White House counsel and, most likely, the White House Communication Agency, the Department of Defense office that handles his classified correspondence.

Even if he doesn't have a desktop computer, Obama will still be able to go online now and again while he's on the job. The president has a fleet of computer-equipped staffers sitting directly outside his office doors. President Bush sometimes used the computers of these personal aides to check news reports or sports scores. (He also had a personal computer at his Crawford ranch, which he used for limited personal surfing.)

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Obama might bring a laptop into the Oval Office, as Bill Clinton did on occasion, and plug it into the office's Internet connection. (You can see a picture of Clinton ordering his Christmas ham online on a White House computer—complete with a big, clunky mouse—at the 1:21 mark in this video.) There is no Wi-Fi in the White House, but you can get online in Air Force One, as Bush did when he hosted an "Ask the White House"  Q&A while returning from a trip to the Middle East.

Clinton famously sent only two e-mails while he was president, one to test whether he could push the "send" button and one to John Glenn, sent while the former Ohio senator was aboard the space shuttle. Glenn's response—titled "Senator Glenn's message from space"—was sent to the generic president@whitehouse.gov e-mail address before getting routed through staff secretary Phillip Caplan and then, presumably, printed out and delivered to the president.

During his presidency, George W. Bush didn't have a personal log-in to the White House Internet server, nor did he have a personal whitehouse.gov e-mail address. (He gave up his private e-mail account, G94B@aol.com, just before his first inauguration.) When he did go online, there were some things he couldn't access. During Bush's tenure, the White House's IT department blocked sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and most of MySpace. The ability to comment on blogs was blocked, as was certain content that was deemed offensive. According to David Almacy, who served as Bush's director for Internet and e-communications from 2005-07, only two people had access to the iTunes store during that period: Almacy, who had to upload speeches to the site, and the president's personal aide, so that he could download songs for Bush's iPod.

In 2003, the Executive Office of the President approved a policy prohibiting, among other things, the use of nonofficial e-mail programs and instant messaging systems on official White House computers. (See page 11 of this PDF.) This could potentially change under the Obama administration, but as the Washington Post reports today, it will probably be a few days before the Explainer can get someone from the administration to comment, as staffers are currently having trouble getting their phone lines and e-mail accounts properly connected.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David Almacy of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, Ben Bain of Federal Computer Week, Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive, former National Economic Council staffer Jon Lieber, tech journalist Evan Ratliff, and former Bush personal aide Jared Weinstein.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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