“It ended up just being ordinary people. That was both reassuring, maybe a little not,” joked Michael Strautmanis, former Deputy Assistant to President Obama and former Counselor for Strategic Engagement to the Senior Advisor, as he discussed his expectations versus reality of working in the White House at an event Friday at Norris University Center.
The event featured a panel of three of the contributors to the newly published book “West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House.” The panelists, including former Public Engagement Advisor and Northwestern alumni Heather Foster (SESP ‘03), former Assistant Director of the Office of Public Engagement, Darienne M. Page, and current Chief Engagement Officer for the Obama Foundation, Michael Strautmanis, took part in a Q&A with students and Northwestern community members about their experiences while working in the White House.
The central message in the book, which came up throughout the panel, is that despite the disconnect most people see between the government and the general population, the central administration is really just made up of ordinary citizens. That is, ordinary citizens who handle a tremendous amount of responsibility, yet are susceptible to making mistakes just like anyone else.
“These are just people,” Strautmanis said of White House staffers, “We should be careful who we vote for.”
Looking back on some of the major tasks she was assigned during the brief transition between the Obama and Bush administrations, Page recalled the drastic growth in her responsibilities from being a campaign volunteer to an official staff member.
“It was shocking to me that they [senior administrators] allowed me to do that, ” she said.
Foster recalled that one of the most surprising things about working in the White House was the lack of glamour that is so often inaccurately portrayed in the media, and particularly in TV shows.
“The A/C would go out in the West Wing and it would be a hundred degrees,” Foster said, giving examples of some of the ‘real people problems’ that White House staffers had to deal with.
Strautmanis recalled his favorite day at the White House, when he was beating the President in the basketball game "Pig" moments after they found out he would have enough votes to pass the Affordable Care Act.
“I asked [President Obama] whether he would consider this day or election day to be more successful and Obama said ‘There’s no contest. Election day was only to be able to get to this day,'" Strautmanis said.
All three panelists agreed that the adrenaline rush is something that they definitely miss from working in the Obama White House.
“I would end up worrying about a problem as I was going to bed, dreaming about the problem, and I would wake up thinking about the problem,” Strautmanis reminisced.
Attendee Weinberg freshman Noah Scantlebury appreciated the new insight he got on things that happen behind the scenes at the White House.
“My biggest takeaway is that the Obama administration wasn’t just made up of typical, power-hungry politicians, but they are actually people,” he said.