Good God, this feels like a long time ago. Several African American staffers spoke to me on what it was like to work in the Obama White House.
When he was a teenager, Gregory Lorjuste didn’t dream of working in the White House someday. “Politics wasn’t discussed at our kitchen table when I was growing up,” he said in a recent interview. “We talked about work and putting food on the table.”
Until the latter years of high school, he didn’t have college on his agenda but had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps as an automobile mechanic. His father encouraged him to aim higher and he attended Rider College in New Jersey, graduating in 2004. He demonstrated a skill for time management and organization, which led him to work both for the Clinton Foundation and the Hope Fund, which had been started by Barack Obama during his time as a senator from Illinois. Lorjuste worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and the 2009 inauguration and then was offered a position as an associate director of scheduling for the president; he has received two promotions and is now deputy assistant to the president and White House director of scheduling.
Lorjuste’s rise is remarkable but is typical of the Obama White House staff. This president has employed the most demographically diverse administration in U.S. history. A majority of the top policy appointments in the executive branch are held by women and minorities. According to the Washington Post, Anne Joseph O’Connell of the University of California, Berkeley studied presidential appointments dating back to 1977 and concluded that Obama has placed women or minorities in 53.5 percent of all staff positions.
That’s in stark contrast with 25.6 percent during the tenure of George W. Bush and 37.5 percent during the presidency of Bill Clinton. This dramatic change led Democratic Party consultant and lobbyist Robert Raben to tell the Washington Post last September that “diversity is a permanent part of the federal government.”
In many ways, there is an Obama generation in black America, and it ranges from the children born after Obama’s election who have only known a black president to the 18-year-olds who are about to vote this November for the first time who assume that there will be someone who looks like them on the ballot, as well as the young adults who discovered that public service and the activist spirit can combine and lead to a job in the corridors of the White House, one of the most powerful buildings in the world.
The Root spoke to seven young African Americans who have worked in the White House under Obama. In addition to Lorjuste, four are still on duty: Kalisha Dessources, policy adviser to the Council on Women and Girls; Albert Sanders, associate counsel; Michael Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director of Cabinet affairs for the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force; and Stephanie Young, director of African-American outreach. In addition, Corey Ealons, the director of specialty media during the president’s first term, and Assemblyman Michael Blake, who now represents the 79th District in New York and was associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and deputy associate director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, offered wisdom from their time with the president.
The Road to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Everybody knows the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. For most of these staffers, the road to the White House involved working on the campaign. For instance, Blake was the deputy political director and constituency outreach director in Iowa in 2008; the Iowa caucus gave Obama his first big victory of that campaign. Several others worked for the Hope Fund. All sensed that working for Obama would give them a chance at making history.
“It was what President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama represented,” Young said. “I wanted to be part of history, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a personal goal of mine to be part of the movement.”
Sanders added, When that call comes [from the White House] asking you to join the team, it doesn’t take long to say, ‘Sign me up; I’ll be there right away.’”
At the White House
President Obama took office on a wave of optimism but with fires to put out immediately. The national economy was in a historically bad recession, and major sectors like the automobile industry and Wall Street were teetering from the financial crash of 2008. Ealons said that it was disheartening to meet with such staunch resistance from the Republican Party.
“It’s as if they didn’t realize that the president won the largest percentage of the popular votes since Reagan in 1984. We thought the spirit of ‘hope’ would take root in Washington,” said Ealons, who described working at the White House as a 26-hours-a-day, eight-day-a-week job to implement the president’s agenda. He cited the workload as a reason for his departure in 2010. “I wanted to introduce myself to my 3-year-old son.”
For many, just going through the White House gates on a daily basis was a pinch-me moment, but the glow quickly wore off because of the urgency of the situation. Smith said, “Nothing is quite like being on the inside. It’s every kid’s dream. My expectations may have been colored by The West Wing, but in some ways it is like that. It’s very fast paced.”
“Once you think you have it all figured out, something new happens,” Blake added. “We were implementing a new way of handling government. it took us several months to get our rhythm down.”
Although each current staffer spoke of racing to the finish line to effect as much change as possible and to narrow the opportunity gap by January 2017, when Obama leaves office, they also discussed lasting memories from their time at the White House.
Dessources’ father was a big fan of Martin Luther King Jr.; “he played recordings of the speeches in the car,” she recalled. So accompanying the president to the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march linked Obama to her dad and King.
Blake recalled a moment after he left the White House to run for an assembly seat in his home district in the Bronx, N.Y. “I was shaking a woman’s hand, and she held it for a minute, just a beat or two longer, then she looked up at me and said, ‘This is probably the closest I’ll get to shaking Obama’s hand.’”
Despite rigorous GOP opposition, the Obama administration’s feats are remarkable: The Affordable Care Act, Wall Street reform, an auto-industry bailout, re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, prison reform and other notable seismic changes have occurred. It is as if these accomplishments have put wind in the sails of these staffers as they move on into their post-White House careers.
“I’m amazed every day by the depth and scale of our work,” said Smith. “It will support our kids and communities for decades to come.”
Sanders noted, “I’ve had a hand in helping the arc of the universe bend toward justice.”
Lorjuste, who has worked with the president for all eight years, was measured when asked about the takeaways from his tenure. “Change takes time,” he said. “We have brought a new way of doing things.”
Then he added proudly, “I’ve been to 33 countries in eight years with the president. I’ve seen firsthand that big ideas actually happen. If you put your mind to it, you can change the world. During my upbringing, I never would have thought that.”