WASHINGTON – Kenilworth native Anita Decker Breckenridge, a White House deputy chief of staff who has known President Barack Obama since he was an Illinois state senator, will be his chief of staff when he becomes a private citizen on Jan. 20, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
Breckenridge, 38, a graduate of the New Trier High School class of 1996, has also been leading the transition process — from making sure the Obama White House has been archived and packed up to working with President-elect Donald Trump’s team.
If all goes as planned, Breckenridge will be the last Obama staffer out the door on Jan. 20, completing the last items on her checklist and turning in her badge by 2 p.m.
The Obama family is moving to a rented a house in Washington, staying until Sasha, 15, a sophomore at the private Sidwell Friends School here, graduates from high school.
After that it’s not known what city they will call home. No matter, the Obamas will be spending time in Chicago on their Obama Presidential Center — a library, museum and meeting space in Jackson Park, to also be the headquarters for the Obama Foundation.
Breckenridge vaults from the White House to the taxpayer-funded office in downtown Washington that Obama will open as he starts his new post-presidential life.
The University of Arizona grad interned for Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill. in Springfield, a job leading to stints with former Rep. Lane Evans D-Ill., who is now deceased, and then former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, where she was part of his political field operation — years before the misdeeds that landed Blagojevich in prison.
She met Obama during her time in Springfield, ended up helping with his 2004 Senate campaign and when Obama was elected senator, became his downstate director. She helped organize Obama’s 2007 presidential campaign announcement in Springfield.
In the Obama administration, she was first chief of staff at the National Endowment for the Arts, later moving over to the White House.
Breckenridge said she has an allotment of $2 million in federal funds for the Obama start-up: for equipment, furniture, staffing, etc. Congress approves the spending to cover some costs of past presidents, based on the theory that they remain public figures with informal duties.
“We are taking this enormous infrastructure, you know, that comes along with being president and we are sort of rebuilding that,” Breckenridge told the Sun-Times. “… Coming up with systems, how are we going to schedule him, how do we come up with a process to move him from point A to point B? What are going to be the priorities that we are focused on?
“I think that will take a good chunk of time, I would say, for the first four or five months,” she said.
Obama has been telling interviewers his first order of business is to take First Lady Michelle Obama on a vacation, sleep, start on a book and sort of take stock.
“We haven’t even figured out where he needs to be, how he is going to spend his time,” Breckenridge said. “How much time he wants to spend down, when is he going to start to think about this book, is he going to be involved in other things, is he going to go speak, when?”
Breckenridge will oversee the office that will serve as the coordination center for Obama’s main post-presidential entities already in place:
The Obama Foundation
Headquartered in Hyde Park, Obama tapped White House senior adviser, David Simas, who presided over the White House political operation, to be the new Chicago-based CEO.
The Obamas will be starting massive fundraising for the center, with no direct asks made while in the White House. That’s not to say potential donors have not been cultivated — they have, through White House parties, a series of private dinners and with invitations to Obama’s farewell speech Tuesday night at McCormick Place.
At the same time, Obama, with input from a network of former staffers, some donors, private foundation development professionals and more, has been working on the programming of the center and the “story” of the museum. The library will be run by the National Archives and Records Administration. The NARA takes legal custody of all of Obama’s records [digital and on paper] and artifacts on Jan. 20.
“With respect to my priorities when I leave, it is to build that next generation of leadership: organizers, journalists, politicians. I see them in America, I see them around the world, 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds who are just full of talent, full of idealism,” Obama said in an interview last month with long-time friend and former White House senior adviser David Axelrod. Axelrod is the founder of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and a CNN commentator.
“And the question is how do we link them up? How do we give them the tools for them to bring about progressive change? And I want to use my presidential center as a mechanism for developing that next generation of talent,” Obama said.
Organizing for Action
Based in the West Loop, it is the legacy of the two Obama presidential campaigns that were based in Chicago. Its executive director is Katie Hogan.
Like Breckenridge, Hogan is one of the originals, joining Obama’s presidential campaign at the February, 2007 kick-off. Hogan is a native of Chicago’s Beverly community and a 2002 graduate of Saint Ignatius College Prep.
Trump’s election has served to put OFA’s post-presidential mission more in focus and give it a renewed reason to exist. As an IRS 501 (c)4, OFA can work for causes, not specific candidates.
It’s still to be decided if some of its functions — such as training would-be political professionals and community organizers — would end up, down the road, being taken over as a teaching institute run by the Obama center.
Facing a Trump presidency, with Trump and the GOP Congress vowing to obliterate key Obama achievements, OFA is gearing up to serve as a mobilized defender of the Obama legacy.
My Brother’s Keeper Alliance
The Washington-based organization is a spin-off of a program launched in 2014 by Obama at the White House to help boys and young men of color, its slogan says, “from cradle to career.”
The Alliance, created May 4, 2015, spawned with the assistance of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, has been doing corporate and non-profit fundraising to help the group grow and conduct nationwide programming.
Obama hosted his last My Brother’s Keeper event at the White House — a national summit — on Dec. 14.
“I look forward to continuing the journey with you,” Obama said. “…We’ve got to make sure that we’re out there showing what works. We’ve got to put our own time and energy and effort and money into the effort.”
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee
Obama will be involved with this group to a much lesser degree than the others. Created last August and based in Washington, the national chair is Obama’s first attorney general, Eric Holder.
This group, organized as an IRS 527, was born in the wake of Democratic losses in governorships, state legislatures and Congress during Obama’s two terms. The purpose of the group, as stated on its IRS filing, is to “build a comprehensive plan to favorably position Democrats for the redistricting process through 2022.”
In his Feb. 10, 2016, address to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield, Obama bemoaned the corrosive impact of gerrymandering and how it encourages political extremism.
“Now, this is something we have the power to fix,” Obama said.
Compared to the vast White House operation, Breckenridge will be overseeing a much smaller, leaner Obama enterprise.
“I am committed to transitioning him into whatever a normal life for a former president can be,” she said. “I feel an enormous amount of gratitude that I’ve got to experience all this because of him. But I also feel extremely loyal to him and I’ll see this through and get him set up,” Breckenridge said.
“. . . And then, maybe, I’ll start to think about what I do next.”
OBAMA’S LEGACY — Ahead in the series
Wednesday: Farewell speech
Thursday: What he leaves usTweets by @lynnsweet