In a city where work can border on obsession, the Obama staffers stand out. They are not quite the walking dead, but their eyes are frequently ringed with the bags that accompany exhaustion.
"This is a place, because of the stress, the schedule and the sheer hours, that just chews people up and spits them out," said press secretary Robert Gibbs, whose alarm clock is set to 4:30 a.m., though he ignores the early ring more often these days.
All West Wings face fatigue at some point, but the Obama team has had a particularly frenetic start, the result of inheriting the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression and the team's own seemingly chaotic drive to push an agenda that includes the creation of a new health insurance system, auto bailouts, Middle East peace, nuclear nonproliferation, two wars and education reform.
Political Washington has long fostered a workaholic culture, the expectation that the rewards of service on the big stage of national government come with 18-hour, on-call days. But even the most hardy of Obama's staff members are beginning to recognize the toll that the pace is taking.
"I felt like a heavyweight boxer lying on the mat," Gibbs said last week, describing his mood before leaving with the president for an eight-day trip across 10 time zones.
Air Force One landed early yesterday at Andrews Air Force Base, carrying a presidential team that caught just a few hours of sleep each night in Russia, Italy and Ghana. All plan to return to work before sunrise today.
The grueling schedule has forced most of the presidential aides to abandon physical exercise, and the few who persist -- often because of incessant goading from their fitness-fixated commander in chief -- have planned their workouts at times that stretch their schedules even further.
Obama is now testing the limits of his staffers' endurance. So far, there is a palpable sense of pride in the West Wing that treaties are negotiated, complex legislation is crafted and banks are bailed out -- all on very little sleep.
Martin Moore-Ede, a former Harvard University professor, calls it the "iron man" syndrome and says the American political workplace is one of the few that still resists a mechanism for ensuring people get rest.
One study conducted for the British Parliament found that "mental fatigue affects cognitive performance, leading to errors of judgement, microsleeps (lasting for seconds or minutes), mood swings and poor motivation." The effect, it found, is equal to a blood alcohol level of .10 percent -- above the legal limit to drive in the United States.
Obama administration officials, and their predecessors, shrug off such warnings, citing the adrenaline rush. They insist that their bodies have grown strangely accustomed to the rhythms of the job. But they acknowledge that the routine in the White House is more grueling than most had anticipated.