White House Baby Boom Highlights Obama Policy Agenda

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

During a recent speech on his plans to get paid work leave for all new parents, President Obama veered off-script. “There have been a lot of babies in the White House lately,” he said. “See, we have another one coming right here, right in the front row.”

He was referring to director of the White House Office of Public Engagement Paulette Aniskoff, who is due in July. The others were not far out of sight. Director of Communications Jen Psaki is also due this summer, and Legislative Affairs Director Katie Fallon had twins in April and is currently on three months of maternity leave. Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s son was born several weeks before he took the helm in the White House briefing room in 2014, and at least three other senior officials, including Senior Advisor Brian Deese, have babies under age three at home.

It is a turnabout for a building better known as the wrecker of marriages and maker of absentee parents. Of the many perks of a job in the White House, a family-friendly workplace has never been one of them. The work day begins before dawn, and rarely ends until long after toddlers have gone to bed. The stress is relentless, the urgent emails come at all hours and childcare is not provided on premises. “No matter how much the president tries,” warned Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, “the White House is brutal on family life.”

But in recent months, Obama, who likes to joke with pregnant women by offering the services of his ever-present doctor, has made helping parents in the workplace a major policy focus, talking about the “gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.” He has called for a new federal standard that mandates up to a week of paid sick leave for employees of businesses with more than 15 employees, and offers unpaid of paid sick leave at smaller businesses. He also has pushed for state programs that would help compensate employees who take unpaid medical leave and expanded paid leave programs for federal employees.

Now as his once-youthful staff and their partners age to upper bounds of their childbearing years, the President and his team have been faced in real time with the question of whether they can offer their employees more than the painful choice of either doing their job or seeing their newborn children. For Earnest, whose predecessor Robert Gibbs left the White House saying he wanted to spend more time with his son, it is all about scheduling. Earnest tries to set aside one weeknight when he can get home to put to sleep his 8-month-old boy. “I’m spending time at night working on my BlackBerry while my wife is cooking dinner,” Earnest says. “Walker has gone a couple of times now to get shots. Both times I’ve taken an hour and a half off in the afternoon to go to the appointment.”

Other small allowances have been made. The White House campus has nursing rooms, and the Navy mess hall has learned to be responsive to the new demands of pregnancy. “I’ve been really wanting cinnamon toast all the time lately, which isn’t on the menu, but they make it every morning,” explains Aniskoff, who is due in July. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough moved Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings meetings to earlier in the day to give senior staffers more flexibility in their schedules.

The West Wing has also embraced the task of covering for their colleagues after birth. Just like Fallon, both Psaki and Aniskoff will get to take 12 weeks of paid leave after their births. When she was offered her new job earlier this year, Psaki warned the chief of staff that she had recently become pregnant, and worried that fact could hurt her chances. “He didn’t skip a beat,” Psaki recalls. “He said, ‘this is a family friendly White House.”

That’s a far cry from the environment Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s closest advisers, remembers in the 1980s, when she gave birth to her daughter while working at a law firm. “I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant until I was showing and then I tried to not ever talk about the fact I was pregnant,” Jarrett recalls. “Where as the women who are [in the White House] now, we talk about it all the time.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the timing of Earnest’s son’s birth. He was born several weeks after his father took the job as press secretary.

Photos: What Obama's Hugs Meant

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel embrace during a press conference to announce Hagel's departure at the White House on Nov. 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.
You can see it by Obama’s bowed head and Hagel’s sorrowful face – this is an “I’m sorry” hug, plain and simple.Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama gives White House press secretary Jay Carney a hug after announcing that Carney will step down later next month, during a surprise visit to the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Friday, May 30, 2014. The president announced Carney's departure in a surprise appearance at in the White House press briefing room Friday. He said principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest will take over the job. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
This hug between Obama and former Press Secretary Jay Carney may have been commemorating Carney’s departure, but all people will remember is its awkwardness.Susan Walsh—AP
Here’s where Obama’s hug game is the strongest: with Michelle. The peaceful smile on his face, the warm, full-body embrace – this is clearly an “I love you” hug. Consider it the antidote to the Carney debacle. Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: U.S. President Barack Obama gives a hug to Dallas nurse Nina Pham in the Oval Office of the White House October 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. Pham, a nurse who was infected with Ebola from treating patient Thomas Eric Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas and was first diagnosed on October 12, was declared free of the virus on Friday. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
Obama’s hug with nurse Nina Pham after her battle with Ebola was a way to signal to the public that the disease is not as scary as some had thought. This is the hug as public health awareness.Olivier Douliery-—Getty Images
Critics charged that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "hugged" the president, but the Republican claimed it was just a handshake.Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images
FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2012, file photo, President Barack Obama, left, embraces Donna Vanzant, right, during a tour of a neighborhood effected by Superstorm Sandy in Brigantine, N.J. Vanzant is a owner of North Point Marina, which was damaged by the storm. In the end, President Obama won re-election exactly the way his campaign had predicted: running up big margins with women and minorities, mobilizing a sophisticated registration and get-out-the-vote operation and focusing narrowly on the battleground states that would determine the election. Still, there were detours along the way. Superstorm Sandy upended the campaign in its closing days, though the political impact appears to have been positive for Obama, giving him a high-profile opportunity to show voters presidential leadership(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The photo of Obama hugging a victim of Hurricane Sandy went viral- his solemn face and her tear-stained one, his arms protectively around her shoulders – this is a presidential hug in its purest form.Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP
U.S. President Barack Obama kisses Aung San Suu Kyi following joint remarks at her residence in Yangon, November 19, 2012. President Obama became the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar on Monday, trying during a whirlwind six-hour trip to strike a balance between praising the government's progress in shaking off military rule and pressing for more reform. REUTERS/Jason Reed (MYANMAR - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3ALMW
Though Obama’s peck on Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s cheek was a pro-democracy smooch, her visible recoil from the kiss indicates that he may have been better off with a handshake.Jason Reed—Reuters
President Barack Obama, right, is picked-up and lifted off the ground by Scott Van Duzer, left, owner of Big Apple Pizza and Pasta Italian Restaurant during an unannounced stop, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, in Ft. Pierce, Fla. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Obama was literally swept off his feet by pizzeria owner Scott Van Duzer. The now-famous bear hug was a “celebrities are just like us” moment, when Obama showed he could still joke around in a regular ol’ pizza joint. Sept. 9, 2012.Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

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