Published February 06, 2009
WASHINGTON -- There's a new time zone in the nation's capital: Obama Time.
He's also reversed an unwritten but much-noticed Bush policy: Be on time, all the time.
Obama has been routinely late to events and news conferences, including the ones at which he reversed Bush's orders. This has led to an already familiar refrain from the Obama camp: "He's running late."
The president was 45 minutes late Friday for a ceremony in which he introduced a team of outside economic advisers. He was 10 minutes late Thursday to a memo signing at the Energy Department. He was nearly 30 minutes late Wednesday for the ceremony at which he signed a bill to expand children's health care.
Even before the inauguration, Obama wasn't a punctual sort; he arrived late to a Jan. 8 news conference on the economy that was aired live by broadcast and cable networks.
When it comes to following the clock, Obama closely resembles Bill Clinton, who was famously late to events when he was president. By contrast, Bush despised being late and was punctual to a fault. He set the tone early in his presidency -- he arrived at the Capitol five minutes early for his inauguration.
"To me, being tardy, it's got to be one of two things," said presidential historian Doug Wead, who advised both Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. "Bad organization that can be corrected, or it's arrogance. It sounds to me like this is arrogance."
Mark Lindsay, a Democratic consultant and former senior White House adviser to Bill Clinton, disagreed, explaining that Clinton was late sometimes because he was making accommodations for logistics or average citizens.
"I would make the opposite observation," Lindsay said. "I would say that taking time to accommodate your schedule to regular citizens is not an act of arrogance. It's an act of humility."
Lindsay, who was the assistant to Clinton for management and administration, said Bush was not known for having the same level of engagement with regular people.
Allan Lichtman, a political history professor at American University, had a different explanation for Clinton's tardiness.
"President Clinton was always late because he wasn't very disciplined in general," he said. "This was a man who marched to the beat of his own drummer, who liked to talk, liked intellectual discussions, had his finger in every pie."
There are two kinds of presidents, Lichtman said: "Foxes and hedgehogs."
"Foxes know a little about everything. They have their fingers in every pie. ... Hedgehogs only know a few things and know it well and leave the details to others. Clinton was a classic fox. Bush was a classic hedgehog."
And Obama? He appears to be a fox, too, Lichtman said.
Obama was habitually late to events on the campaign trail and to meetings as a U.S. senator. In fact, there's a montage on YouTube of him offering apologies for missing testimony and presentations because of his late arrivals to meetings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He even apologized in advance for asking questions that might be repetitive.
The president's tardiness already appears to have spread to others in his administration. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has been routinely late for daily news briefings, sometimes by more than an hour.
Wead warned that habitual tardiness can be misinterpreted, citing the Cingular dropped-call ads that show how communication breakdown can lead to awkward moments in a New York minute. And he said being late could cost Obama politically.
"When Obama's popularity slips, some people on Capitol Hill will not wait for him, and that will result in diminished political power," he said.