Sweet: Reflections from Obama’s Chicago team
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WASHINGTON — Throughout his two terms, President Barack Obama tapped trusted Chicagoans for key posts.
Here are the takeaways from Chicagoans who played roles in the Obama presidency:
DAVID AXELROD, White House senior adviser, Jan. 20, 2009, to February 2011
Axelrod already was a high-profile political consultant when he took on the 2004 U.S. Illinois Senate campaign for Obama, then a state senator, staying with him to map the strategy that led to Obama’s 2008 White House win and 2012 re-election.
A takeaway: “One of the images that I’ll remember [is] him walking off to the East Wing with a stack of paper under his arm. . . . I would hear from him at midnight, one in the morning, you knew that he would be up early, until the early hours, you know, making sure that he was prepared for the things that he was going to face the next day to the extent you can be.”
Almost every day brought a surprise: “The thing you learn, anybody who serves in the White House will tell you — it is the most intensive learning you can have. I don’t care if you have a Ph.D. or if you’re a high school graduate, there are things you’re going to be confronted with that you’ve never experienced before or thought about before, because the world is so complex and so dynamic and part of the art of being president is being nimble enough to mobilize to deal with the unexpected.”
And another: “I also remember the day [Sonia] Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and for some reason the White House was not that populated, it was late in the afternoon and the president . . . I heard him coming down the hallway and he was clearly exultant and he was stopping everyone in the hallway saying, ‘We just put the first Latina on the Supreme Court, pretty cool, huh?’ And he was giving people fist bumps, and it was like, and you realize again, how meaningful this stuff was.”
RAHM EMANUEL, White House chief of staff, Jan. 20, 2009, to Oct. 1, 2010
Emanuel is the Chicago mayor.
On a personal note: During final negotiations over the Affordable Care Act, Emanuel was at son Zach’s Bar Mitzvah “and after the prayers, I had to run back to the White House. And [Obama] was very nice to Zach because it was his bar mitzvah and everything, so he bought him a beautiful globe for his bar mitzvah. We still have it. I think he would have done it anyway. But the fact that I had to run back and negotiate with 13 Republicans . . . the president knew of the sacrifice I was making.”
WILLIAM DALEY, White House chief of staff, January 2011 to January 2012
Daley, a former Commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton, is the son and brother of Chicago mayors.
Key moment: “Obviously” in the White House Situation Room on May 1, 2011, during the raid against Osama bin Laden. An iconic photo shows Daley, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Obama’s national security team as the mission unfolds.
Key takeaway: “The ease in which we can go to war. Nobody asks for a declaration of war anymore.”
JONATHAN SAMUELS, special assistant to the president for legislative affairs; deputy assistant; House liaison, Jan. 21, 2009, to August 2014
Samuels, raised in Evanston, worked on Capitol Hill, Obama’s 2004 Senate race and the 2008 presidential campaign before heading to the White House.
A lasting memory: While flying on Air Force One with Obama en route to Chicago to boost passage of the Affordable Care Act, “the approach over the lake and skyline was a full circle moment and could have been a personal career highlight in and of itself. . . . It was an important early reminder to me that all of the perks of the presidency and working in the White House are meaningless if you don’t have a mission that is bigger than you.”
SHEILA NIX, chief of staff to Dr. Jill Biden, April 2013 to Jan. 20, 2017
Nix has been commuting between her home in Oak Park and the White House. In the 2012 re-election campaign based in Chicago, she was chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden.
A vivid memory: A trip with Dr. Biden to the Eastern Congo to visit a hospital and a doctor caring for women and girls who are victims of sexual violence. “I think that was the first time I’ve been in a conflict area. And to see the difference that [the doctor] made in the lives of these girls and women who had been sexually violated, raped, brutally raped. It really struck me, in the middle of this dangerous area, he created a place where they can come to be treated physically, but can also be supported and valued. And I think about it all the time. . . . Getting there was very difficult. It was not a place where they had ever really seen a senior government official like Dr. Biden and it’s really stuck with me.”
AUSTAN GOOLSBEE, member of the Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist of the President’s Economy Recovery Advisory board, later council chair, Jan. 20, 2009, to August 2011
Goolsbee, a professor at the University of Chicago business school, has long had ties to Obama.
A vivid memory about a Fourth of July with his family at the White House: At the 2011 barbecue, “with the First Family, they took us through the residence up on the roof where we sat and watched the fireworks in the dark.
“It was an amazing sight. It was also a strange juxtaposition. . . . It is the most patriotic unifying theme for the country that was taking place at one of the most partisan and dis-unifying times in our politics, which was the debt ceiling fight of 2011 and the ongoing train wreck of the budget negotiations. But for at least a few hours, on a hot night in Washington D.C., it was possible to forget the partisanship and just admire the view.”
KORI SCHULMAN, deputy chief digital officer and special assistant to the president, plus other related digital positions, May 5, 2009, to Jan. 20, 2017
The Chicago native worked as a graphic designer on Obama’s 2008 campaign in Chicago.
Significant project: In 2009, “one of the ideas that we had was whether” they could open up to the public the process for determining Presidential Citizens Medal winners. “And so we created an online forum and encouraged people to nominate their neighbors, their friends. . . . And so when the president bestowed this medal to about a dozen Americans, they were people who had been sourced through this online process. . . . And that sticks with me. I remember being in the East Room, watching the awards ceremony unfold and here are these everyday Americans . . . getting an award that began with a web form on WhiteHouse.gov.”
ARNE DUNCAN, Education secretary Jan. 20, 2009, to December 2015
Duncan is a former Chicago Public Schools chief.
Biggest takeaway: “Is how much kids impacted the president . . . dealing with the Sandy Hook massacre and seeing just how much that impacted him, both yes, as a president, but really as a father.”
TINA TCHEN, chief of staff to first lady, Jan. 5, 2011, to Jan. 20, 2017; before that deputy assistant to the president since 2009. Also executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Tchen was an attorney in Chicago before going to the White House.
On the first lady becoming a social media star: “There was no way to anticipate it coming. . . .Taking the enormity of [her] platform and adapting it to new social media was something she just turned out to be really good at, a natural. . . . We had the circumstance of history of being in the White House at the dawn of the social media age.”Tweets by @lynnsweet