Does Obama actually work in the Oval Office?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 10 2010 11:51 AM

Where Does Obama Work?

Not in the Oval Office.

Oval Office. Click image to expand.
President Obama's newly decorated Oval Office

After the White House released photos of the newly renovated Oval Office late last month, the Explainer noticed something a little bizarre: There was no computer on President Obama's desk, or any paperwork, either. Does Obama actually work in the Oval Office?

Not most of the time. The president conducts briefings and holds staff meetings in the Oval Office, but it's used primarily as a ceremonial space. Obama does much of his day-to-day work—such as editing speeches and reviewing papers—in the President's Study, located off the Oval Office, and in the Treaty Room, on the second floor of the White House. Many recent former presidents—including both Bushes, Carter, Ford, and Johnson—chiefly worked out of the study as well. The last president to use the Oval Office regularly for desk work may have been John F. Kennedy, who would go there after hours to record the day's events for what would, presumably, have become his memoirs.

Advertisement

The desk in Obama's Treaty Room, unlike the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, is piled high with paperwork. The room also contains a computer, a printer, and a television. Despite these office amenities, it's unlikely that Obama uses a computer regularly in the White House. As the Explainer noted last year, previous presidents, including Bush and Clinton, went without computers and e-mail in order to avoid the Presidential Records Acts of 1978, which requires commanders-in-chief to archive their correspondence and make it public. (The PRA does not include a section on e-mail, but the act's broad definition of a presidential record has been interpreted to include electronic communication.)

Bonus Explainer:  Why is the Oval Office oval? It's supposed to recall the elliptical salon in George Washington's temporary presidential house. Washington thought the oval design encouraged guests to stand around him in a circle. He could then bow to greet each guest in order and from about the same distance. 

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

Explainer thanks David Coleman of the Presidential Recording Program at the University of Virginia and Gleaves Whitney of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

Move Aside, Oxford Comma, the New Battle Is Over Single or Double Quotes

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Ben Bradlee’s Fascinating Relationship With JFK

Culturebox

The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here

I feel like a kid in some kind of store.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 11:06 AM The Right to Run If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
Outward
Oct. 22 2014 10:37 AM Judge Upholds Puerto Rico’s Gay Marriage Ban in a Comically Inane Opinion
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 22 2014 11:04 AM Do All U.S. Presidents Look the Same? What About Japan’s Prime Ministers?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 10:29 AM Apple TV Could Still Work Here’s how Apple can fix its living-room product.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 22 2014 10:30 AM Monster Sunspot Will Make Thursday’s Eclipse That Much Cooler
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.