Obama After Dark: What the President Does in His Few Hours Alone

“Are you up?”

The emails arrive late, often after 1 a.m., tapped out on a secure BlackBerry from an email address known only to a few. The weary recipients know that once again, the boss has not yet gone to bed.

The late-night interruptions from President Obama might be sharply worded questions about memos he has read. Sometimes they are taunts because the recipient’s sports team just lost.

Last month it was a 12:30 a.m. email to Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, and Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, telling them he had finished reworking a speechwriter’s draft of presidential remarks for later that morning. Mr. Obama had spent three hours scrawling in longhand on a yellow legal pad an angry condemnation of Donald J. Trump’s response to the attack in Orlando, Fla., and told his aides they could pick up his rewrite at the White House usher’s office when they came in for work.

Mr. Obama calls himself a “night guy,” and as president, he has come to consider the long, solitary hours after dark as essential as his time in the Oval Office. Almost every night that he is in the White House, Mr. Obama has dinner at 6:30 with his wife and daughters and then withdraws to the Treaty Room, his private office down the hall from his bedroom on the second floor of the White House residence.

There, his closest aides say, he spends four or five hours largely by himself.

He works on speeches. He reads the stack of briefing papers delivered at 8 p.m. by the staff secretary. He reads 10 letters from Americans chosen each day by his staff. “How can we allow private citizens to buy automatic weapons? They are weapons of war,” Liz O’Connor, a Connecticut middle school teacher, wrote in a letter Mr. Obama read on the night of June 13.

The president also watches ESPN, reads novels or plays Words With Friends on his iPad.

Michelle Obama occasionally pops in, but she goes to bed before the president, who is up so late he barely gets five hours of sleep a night. For Mr. Obama, the time alone has become more important.

“Everybody carves out their time to get their thoughts together. There is no doubt that window is his window,” said Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s first chief of staff. “You can’t block out a half-hour and try to do it during the day. It’s too much incoming. That’s the place where it can all be put aside and you can focus.”

President George W. Bush, an early riser, was in bed by 10. President Bill Clinton was up late like Mr. Obama, but he spent the time in lengthy, freewheeling phone conversations with friends and political allies, forcing aides to scan the White House phone logs in the mornings to keep track of whom the president might have called the night before.

“A lot of times, for some of our presidential leaders, the energy they need comes from contact with other people,” said the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has had dinner with Mr. Obama several times in the past seven and a half years. “He seems to be somebody who is at home with himself.”

‘Insane Amount of Paper’
When Mr. Obama first arrived at the White House, his after-dinner routine started around 7:15 p.m. in the game room, on the third floor of the residence. There, on an old Brunswick pool table, Mr. Obama and Sam Kass, then the Obama family’s personal chef, would spend 45 minutes playing eight-ball.

Mr. Kass saw pool as a chance for Mr. Obama to decompress after intense days in the Oval Office, and the two kept a running score. “He’s a bit ahead,” said Mr. Kass, who left the White House at the end of 2014.

In those days, the president followed the billiards game with bedtime routines with his daughters. These days, now that both are teenagers, Mr. Obama heads directly to the Treaty Room, named for the many historical documents that have been signed in it, including the peace protocol that ended the Spanish-American War in 1898.

“The sports channel is on,” Mr. Emanuel said, recalling the ubiquitous images on the room’s large flat-screen television. “Sports in the background, with the volume down.”

By 8 p.m., the usher’s office delivers the president’s leather-bound daily briefing book — a large binder accompanied by a tall stack of folders with memos and documents from across the government, all demanding the president’s attention. “An insane amount of paper,” Mr. Kass said.

Mr. Obama often reads through it in a leather swivel chair at his tablelike desk, under a portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant. Windows on each side of Grant look out on the brightly lit Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.

Other nights, the president settles in on the sofa under the 1976 “Butterfly” by Susan Rothenberg, a 6-foot-by-7-foot canvas of burnt sienna and black slashes that evokes a galloping horse.

“He is thoroughly predictable in having gone through every piece of paper that he gets,” said Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. “You’ll come in in the morning, it will be there: questions, notes, decisions.”

Seven Almonds
To stay awake, the president does not turn to caffeine. He rarely drinks coffee or tea, and more often has a bottle of water next to him than a soda. His friends say his only snack at night is seven lightly salted almonds.

“Michelle and I would always joke: Not six. Not eight,” Mr. Kass said. “Always seven almonds.”

The demands of the president’s day job sometimes intrude. A photo taken in 2011 shows Mr. Obama in the Treaty Room with Mr. McDonough, at that time the deputy national security adviser, and John O. Brennan, then Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism chief and now the director of the C.I.A., after placing a call to Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan shortly after Japan was hit by a devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake. “The call was made near midnight,” the photo caption says.

But most often, Mr. Obama’s time in the Treaty Room is his own.

“I’ll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11:30 p.m., and then I usually have about a half-hour to read before I go to bed, about midnight, 12:30 a.m., sometimes a little later,” Mr. Obama told Jon Meacham, the editor in chief of Newsweek, in 2009.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Michael D. Shear

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