Dan Pfeiffer began to feel dizzy over dinner one night a couple of years ago as he tried to convince a group of reporters that his boss, President Obama, was pursuing the right strategy in dealing with Congress.
It was the first of stroke-like symptoms. But he finished his argument before excusing himself to go to a hospital. Eventually diagnosed with hypertension, he was back at work as a top White House aide the next day.
Known for his devotion to the president through thick and thin and even medical emergencies, Pfeiffer is finally departing the Obama team that he helped knit together eight years ago. He has not announced what his next move will be.
He leaves as the longest-serving staffer and the final remaining White House official from the senior ranks of the 2008 presidential campaign. His departure was a hard choice, say friends, given his loyalty and influence.
He has risen from traveling press secretary on the campaign to serve as White House communications director and now as a senior advisor to Obama.
Pfeiffer finally told the president the day after the State of the Union address that he was ready to leave. Fittingly, the two were aboard Air Force One, headed toward the kind of campaign-style event that Pfeiffer has always insisted he be part of.
When Congress gave the White House fits, Pfeiffer raised a consistent refrain: Obama needed to get out into the country and talk to Americans. He has been a key architect of the Obama strategy of going around the traditional filters in Washington and delivering his message directly to voters.
"Dan has been beside me on every step of this incredible journey, starting with those earliest days of the campaign in 2007," Obama said Wednesday in an emailed statement. "And through it all, he's been smart, steady, tireless and true to the values we started with."
As word of Pfeiffer’s departure filtered through the White House, newer generations of Obama staffers asked what the place would be like without Pfeiffer and his hard-charging work ethic.
His day often begins with early morning basketball games with colleagues. During work, he paces around West Wing offices, especially when calls with journalists get contentious.
“He would always walk around reading his BlackBerry in his hands in front of him, not necessarily being able to see where he was headed,” recalled Ben LaBolt, another early Obama aide who has since left the White House. “He is intently focused.”
When he strolls into the chief speech writer’s office with his hands in his pockets, the writers pick up their pens. They know they’re either adding a speech to the schedule or he wants to help revamp the one they’re working on.
“The guy's a machine,” said Cody Keenan, the president’s lead speechwriter. “He starts emailing at 4 a.m.”
Obama insisted that Pfeiffer start taking care of himself after his hypertension diagnosis in 2013. Pfeiffer promised he would and now says that he feels better than he ever has.
But that didn’t mean slowing down. He stepped up his practice of calling out media critics and tweaking the professional punditocracy, a favorite pastime.
“He shares the president’s ability to see around the corner in the short term, and the big picture in the long run,” Keenan said. “That’s something I wander into his office for constantly.”
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