Inside Obama's work space -- the Oval Office

The Oval Office can be the perfect setting for presidential speeches and meetings with heads of state. But most presidents set up an office in the White House residence for at least some of the day-to-day work.

Pete Souza
President Barack Obama holds an Oval Office meeting with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on January 21, 2009, their first full day in office.

The Oval Office is a majestic room. The marble fireplace, the curved walls, the flags – they just say “power.” That’s why President Obama chose the Oval for his crucial June 15 speech to the nation on the BP oil spill.

But 18-foot ceilings and desks made from old frigates can be distracting when it comes to pushing through your phone calls. Most US presidents worked elsewhere part of the time. Some seldom used the Oval Office at all.

“The Oval Office is symbolically a pretty imposing place. Where do you put your feet up?” says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in governance studies.

IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House

The first Oval Office was built on the order of President William Howard Taft in 1909. The room as it looks today is the product of an FDR-era remodeling. At one end it has three big south-facing windows and the presidential desk. That’s where presidents usually sit to address the country on television. At the other end is the fireplace, flanked by two sofas. That’s where presidents sit to meet with visiting heads of state.

Most presidents set up an office in the White House residence and worked there at least part of the time. There’s also a study off the Oval Office itself where many spent part of their workday. Mr. Obama appears to be an Oval Office kind of guy, in the sense that the formality of the space does not appear to bother him. Ronald Reagan was the same way. Richard Nixon, by contrast, spent most of his office time holed up in an auxiliary room in the Executive Office Building next door, writing on legal pads and figuring out how to handle Henry Kissinger.

Mr. Hess, author of “What Do We Do Now?,” a kind of workbook for novice presidents, worked for Nixon and recalls a disastrous redecoration of the space carried out while the president was away. It was heavy on gold and featured chair seats decorated with presidential seals.

The chairs were removed in one day after it was pointed out that visiting members of Congress would be plopping their posteriors on the symbol of US executive branch power.

IN PICTURES: Inside President Obama's White House


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