Living in the White House: 30 Rules and Traditions the First Family Must Follow
As former First Lady Michelle Obama once said, “You really don’t know what you don’t know until you’re here.” Even if becoming the president of the free world means calling 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home and trotting around the world in Air Force One, it also means becoming one of the most important people in the world. And when you’re that important, you can expect tons of safety concerns, which means rules as far as the eye can see for you and your family. Of course, not all rules are set in stone, but you’re bound to make someone in the secret service very, very upset if you do break them. Still, it’s the White House, right? Nope. After getting through our list of rules the first family has to follow in the White House, you might be thanking your lucky stars you’re a simple commoner just reading about them.
Hire Your Own Movers
Being the president, you’d expect many things like moving into your new home to be free, but in reality, the first family is expected to handle the cost of moving into the White House. They’re expected to hire their own moving company, but when they get to the White House, these movers aren’t allowed inside.
For security, only residence staff are allowed in and out of the White House, so once the movers get to the grounds, the residence staff takes over moving property inside. The same process happens when the family moves out.
Move Exactly on January 20th
January 20th always becomes one of the busiest days in the year for the White House every other new term. When a new president is elected, this is the exact day they are allowed to move into the White House because up until January 19; the previous First Family is still living there.
While the old First Family moves out, the new First Family moves in. Since everything has to be tight for security purposes, they’re only given 12 hours to complete the task. In 2017, the Obamas reportedly only took a grand record of five hours to move out of the White House.
Hire Your Own Interior Designer
The White House doesn’t keep its own interior designer, so if the new First Family wants to change something about their new home, they’d have to hire their own. This responsibility usually falls on the First Lady and often occurs right after they move in.
Apart from a few rooms and a few historical artifacts, the designer can change as much as they please according to the family’s preferences. Melania Trump didn’t officially move into the White House until the summer after her husband’s election, but even then, she hired an interior designer beforehand to make sure the place was ready for her and her kids when they did move in.
Don’t Touch Up Certain Rooms
Although the White House is home to the new First Family, it’s more of a museum to the general public rather than a domestic establishment. And that means that there are certain things the First Family can’t change when redecorating.
Two rooms, particularly, can’t be changed: the Oval Office and the Lincoln bedroom. Only minor changes can be done, and if they do insist on a major change, it has to be approved by the historical committee overseeing the White House. Other than that, the second and third floors are free grounds for the family to redecorate to their heart’s desire.
Only Use the Presidential Car
Aside from a new house, the new president of the United States also gets a new car, and it is more often called with cooler names than just the presidential car. It has been called “First Car,” “Cadillac One,” and “the Beast.”
Out of those three, “The Beast” might be the most fitting because this ride is more tank than car. It has some of the strongest bulletproof glass in the world, and it’s also covered in enough armor to withstand a bomb. It also has its very own internal oxygen system and a top-notch sealing capacity that would allow it to withstand a chemical attack.
Offer Only American Wine
A little drink after a long day or an accompanying drink in a state dinner is always allowed in the White House. But whenever it is a wine that is being served, it always has to be American-grown.
Apparently, President Gerald Ford had something against imported wines, and in the 1970s, he banned these from the White House grounds. Since then, nobody has changed the policy. The wine that is often served there comes from either California, Idaho, or Virginia.
No Opening of Windows
As beautiful as the White House is, one luxury that the First Family can’t enjoy here is the simple act of opening their windows. They’re quite literally living in a huge beautiful box. In an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Michelle Obama said this was one thing she missed most during their stay in the White House.
In another interview with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle recalled one time when her daughter Sasha innocently broke the rule. Right after Sasha opener her window, there were immediate calls to shut the window, and since then, it never opened again. This rule also applies to car windows.
One other privilege that’s taken away from the First Family is driving. They’re not totally banned from doing it. It’s just that they can’t do it on public roads. They strictly have to keep their driving activities on private roads. The very last president who drove himself while in office on a public road was Lyndon B. Johnson.
In an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, former President Barack Obama recalled that he once drove an electric car around the White House’s south lawn without permission. That’s still within the rules, but nevertheless, the secret service was not happy. Obama can just hear them saying, “No matter what you do, do not let him out.” But well, the guy just enjoyed his ride.
Pick Up the Tab
If you think living in the White House is free for the First Family, you’re completely mistaken. While they have budgets for certain things, they’re expected to pick up the tab for all their personal items and services. This includes designer clothing, toiletries, dry cleaning, and even food. There are no free meals in the White House.
All these expenses add up over the course of a term. That’s why some presidents actually leave the place with a debt. When former President Bill Clinton ended his term, he and the family were $16 million in debt. First Lady Hillary Clinton also revealed to ABC News that during their stay, they struggled to piece together resources for mortgages on houses and even the education of their child.
No Keeping of Gifts
The President and his family often receive gifts from foreign dignitaries, and sometimes, these gifts can be pretty lush. While they can’t refuse them, of course, they can’t keep them either. They simply accept the gift “on behalf of the United States.”
These mementos are usually kept in the National Archives and then transferred to a Presidential Library after the president’s term. If the president or his family really wants to keep something, though, they’d have to buy it at market value. It’s a smart way to cast off any bribery allegations.
Stay Within Redecorating Budget or Pay
Although the First Family is given a redecorating budget to make the White House feel more like home, they can’t just go all out. They’re only given $100 000 for the project. Anything that goes over that will have to come out of their own pockets.
The Reagans reportedly refused to use the budget and completely used their own money. The Carter’s used up all the $50 000 budget of their time, and the Clintons and Obamas spent almost the same amount as them. No one beats the Kennedys, though, who spent a whopping $16.4 million on a full restoration of the White House.
Have Tea Time with the First Ladies
It’s not only presidents who have to have one on ones with each other. It’s a tradition that their wives also have a talk over a cup of tea after an election. While their husbands have their one on ones, the ladies also have their private time together.
Most recently, this happened between Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. The topic of conversation was reportedly raising kids in the White House. Michelle then took Melania on a private tour around the Whtie House before meeting up with their husbands in the Oval Office.
Don’t Move the Grand Piano
Aside from rooms, there are also certain things that the First Family can’t move when redecorating. This includes the famous and beautiful grand piano of the White House. While anyone can play it, it simply has to stay where it is.
There are also plenty of other smaller objects that have to stay put where they are. To ensure that these are taken care of and well preserved, there is a White House curator on staff. Unfortunately, their jobs can become a little bit more difficult if young kids are living there. First Families must have quite strict “no touch” rules for their young kids.
Never Go Anywhere Alone
When you become a member of the First Family, your safety becomes a top concern. That means being under constant surveillance from the secret service and losing the privilege of being able to go and do wherever and whatever you want anytime.
Aside from the First Family, the secret service is also keeping an eye on the vice-president and his/her family. Surprisingly, some family members can refuse the protection of the secret service. In 2017, Donald Trump Jr. gave up his secret service protection.
No Sudden Schedule Changes
One other thing that the secret service does is to plan for every minute of the president’s day. Even if you’re the president, the secret service usually won’t allow you to squeeze in or to skip any appointment unless you warn them four hours ahead of time.
Former President Barack Obama reportedly once tried to squeeze in an impromptu basketball game, and though he might have had time on his hands, his secret service detail sadly simply couldn’t allow it. After all, every minute counts when you’re protecting the life of someone so important.
Aside from the no driving on public roads rule, presidents aren’t also allowed to drive certain vehicles. One of the biggest no-nos are convertibles, and for very good reason. As swanky as they may be, they’re far too dangerous for any president to be sitting in.
No one can also forget the horrific assassination of the late President John F. Kennedy. Although so many measures were taken to ensure that his caravan would be safe, it’s the openness of the convertible they were in that ultimately allowed his death.
Host the Annual Easter Egg Roll
While some White House rules and traditions can be quite a pain, some are absolutely fun, including the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. Since 1878, the White House has hosted this event every Easter Sunday, where kids would roll Easter eggs with a spoon in a race across the lawn.
After the event, it’s customary for the participants to receive a wooden Easter egg as commemoration, a practice started by First Lady Nancy Reagan. The only times this event was put off was in wartime and when the White House underwent a major reconstruction.
The Football has to Stay Close at All Times
Whenever the president goes somewhere, you surely won’t miss “The Football” trailing close behind him. The Football, the atomic football, the button, the black box, or the president’s emergency satchel is all the same thing, a briefcase that follows wherever the president goes.
It’s reportedly a defense system mobile hub that allows the president to launch a nuclear attack if he’s away from fixed command centers. According to Bill Gulley, a former White House Military Office director, the football contains four things: a card with authentication codes, the Black Book listing retaliatory options, a book containing classified site locations, and a manila folder containing procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System.
A Christmas Tree Theme Should Be Selected Every Year
The White House loves decorating. Back in 1961, First Lady Jackie Kennedy added another decoration tradition to the place in the form of Christmas tree themes. For her first year, she decorated their Christmas tree based on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
Since then, the tradition stuck, and every year, the First Lady has the honor of picking out a theme for the Christmas tree. Some past themes include “Antique Toy,” “Mother Goose,” Holiday in the National Parks,” and “American Flower Tree.” In 2010, Michelle Obama had the theme “Simple Gifts” which used prize ribbons from each state to honor the state and county fairs.
Attend the Correspondents’ Dinner
There’s no rule saying that the president should attend the Correspondents’ Dinner, but they’re generally expected to, especially for the roasting part. After all, there are only so few times a president can be roasted in public like that.
One of the most iconic moments of this event was former President Obama’s anger management translator. It was all cold hard truths, but it was also funny as hell. Aside from the roasting part, though, scholarships and awards are also given out. Guests often include journalists, athletes, pop culture icons, and comedians.
Only Secure Lines
Nobody knows when something the president says can be used against him or the country. To prevent foreign intelligence services from tapping into any sensitive conversations, the president can only make calls from secure lines whether it’s a private or personal call.
It’s not just the president who has to go through this as well. Any high-level government official communications are limited to secure lines. The government also goes above and beyond to ensure that all government-issued smartphones are updated and equipped to address security vulnerabilities.
Limited Social Media
Sadly, for the kids of the First Family, social media access is very limited and is almost nonexistent, and understandably so. Social media is powerful and can affect them in plenty of negative ways. There are also security reasons of course.
Sasha and Malia Obama reportedly weren’t allowed Twitter accounts. They also very rarely had access to Facebook. “I still am not a big believer in Facebook for young people … particularly for them, because they’re in the public eye,” Michelle Obama said. Some of it is stuff they don’t need to see and be a part of … So we try to protect them from too much of the public voice.”
Host the Annual Hanukkah Party
The president may choose not to, but it’s a tradition for the White House to hold an annual Hanukkah party. Although the recognition of the Jewish festival goes way back to George Washington, it was President Jimmy Carter who first officially recognized it. He lit a menorah on the Eclipse to commemorate it.
The first White House Hanukkah Party was held under President George Bush. He was also the first president to light the menorah in the White House. Since then, each following president has continued the tradition.
No Earning Extra Money on the Side
Although the president of the United States is one of the most powerful men in the world, he is by far not one of the richest in the circle. A sitting president has a $400 000 yearly salary, and remember, living in the White House isn’t free. No matter what, he or she can’t also work for more income outside their government post. No president would be moonlighting any time soon.
If the president ran a business before they were elected, though, they’re expected to leave it in someone else’s hands and have a clean hands-off approach to how it is run. When it comes to their investments, these must be temporarily put in a blind trust in the course of their term.
It’s ironic, but although you have access to the world’s latest technology, if you’re the president, you can’t even have the latest phone model. Before President Barrack Obama, no other president owned a smartphone. Much like any other no-no rule, this is all for security purposes.
During his presidency, the government allowed Obama to keep a Blackberry. It must have taken so much convincing. The only hitch was that the secret service modified it to such an extent that it was barely recognizable as a smartphone. When asked about it, Obama compared it to three-year-old kids play phone. Yikes.
It’s a Tradition to Keep a Presidential Pet
Pets complete the happy family image. That’s why it’s a tradition for the First Family to keep a pet in the White House. This dates back to Thomas Jefferson, who had a mockingbird and a few bear cubs as pets during his term.
According to Ed Lengel, the White House Historical Association chief historian, pets soften the president’s image and make the White House seem more like an actual lived-in house rather than a museum. When President Donald Trump took over office, though, he broke tradition. Apparently, he’s not much of a pet lover.
Turkeys are Given Presidential Pardons
Many turkeys have sacrificed their lives for a heavenly Thanksgiving meal, but some actually manage to get off the hook with a presidential pardon. There are many stories on how all this started, but the earliest ones date back to President Lincoln, giving clemency to a turkey in 1863.
Since those early days, it has become a custom to gift the president a turkey. It was reportedly only in 1999 under President Bill Clinton that the first official turkey pardon was given to “Harry the Turkey.” It’s a very odd tradition, but who doesn’t love it?
The President Plans Their Funeral
One of the first tasks of an incoming president is a pretty morbid one. Within their first week, he or she has to plan out their own funeral. What a way to greet one of the world’s most coveted jobs, right? After all, with all the threats the president receives, anything can happen.
What makes it a little bit more morbid is that you won’t be planning for just one day of mourning. You’ll be planning every single detail of a week-long ordeal full of choreographed ceremonies. It might give peace to some to get the send-off they want, but it’s a pretty unnerving thing to do.
No Violating Any Laws
It may seem like common sense but since the president is the person who signs bills into law, they may seem above it. That’s not the case, though, and when it comes to breaking laws, they’re dealt with much like any other common citizen.
If a sitting president violates any laws, Congress is the one tasked to deal with it. Senate can have him or her taken to court while the House of Representatives can move to have him or her impeached. Although they’re dealt with like any other person, the repercussions, of course, are much more severe given the title and responsibilities they hold.
Presidents Design Their Own Plates
It’s such a tiny detail, but it’s a pretty cool tradition. Each new president and their family have to design their own dinnerware. This includes colors, styles, and, of course, the insignia found on the exterior of the dinnerware. The tradition started way back with President James Monroe.
This design detail isn’t only to fit their plates to their taste. It’s also to help other heads of state to distinguish their leadership from previous presidents. President Abraham Lincoln’s china featured the profile of an eagle with outstretched wings perched on a small shield on top of the American flag. President Obama’s featured a Kailua Blue band and was rimmed in gold as a commemoration of his home state of Hawaii.