Changing of the young guard at the Obama White House
Tommy Vietor was the first youthful convert to pack his bags, leave home and sign on to the Barack Obama campaign, joining the Chicago operation before his boss, then running for the Senate, had even given the convention speech by which the rest of Democratic America would discover him.
He rose from driver of a press van across rural Illinois to fixture of the White House situation room. Now, the 32-year-old is contemplating something new -- a future not working for Obama.
Amid the high-level departures and appointments of Obama’s second term, a quieter changing of the guard is taking place farther down the food chain. Stalwarts of the Obama generation have begun to take their leave.
The March 1 departure of Vietor, the original Obama youth, marks the moment.
“It’s hard to imagine things without someone like Tommy here,” said Dan Pfeiffer, whose tenure with Obama dates back to the U.S. Senate office and who recently became a senior White House advisor. “It’s definitely a turning-of-the-page moment.”
Senior members of the original Obama team have cycled through the White House in grueling two-year shifts before handing off to other loyalists. There are still plenty of Obama long-timers in leadership positions around the West Wing.
But early enlistees, including Vietor; Jon Favreau, 31, who was in his early 20s when he became Obama’s lead speechwriter; and Joshua DuBois, 30, the Pentecostal minister who has led Obama’s faith-based outreach since the first campaign, have begun to go. And that has brought about a change in the personality of a White House defined in part by the unusual authority vested in the Obama youth who powered the 2008 campaign.
Such handoffs are the way of the West Wing. Political analyst David Gergen, veteran of four administrations, compares the presidency to a road race in which the president runs a marathon and a rotating team of staff runs alongside him in a relay. The work can be grueling.
Some of the key personalities who left earlier in the Obama administration have gone in pursuit of creative goals. Onetime media aide Reid Cherlin is a political contributor to GQ magazine. Former speechwriter Jon Lovett is co-creator of NBC’s White House-based comedy “1600 Penn.” DuBois hopes to publish a book based on the devotionals he has sent to the president over the years.
Vietor and Favreau have been cooking up an idea for a television series and hope to begin writing it this year. To pay the bills in the meantime, they plan to form a political consulting business. Vietor also hopes to appear on news shows to speak as a Democratic strategist.
The young administration alums have experience rare for their age group, owing to the responsibility Obama and campaign manager David Plouffe handed them in 2008.
“The deal was, they trusted us with a lot of information,” said Favreau. “They figured, ‘We have a lot of young kids out there, right out of college, but they’re smart, and we’re going to trust them with really big jobs.’”
That carried over to the White House. Vietor became chief spokesperson for the National Security Council, a job that entails access to classified information and regular visits to the media briefing room, including one the night that Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.
The job represented a long rise from the summer day in 2004 when Vietor, a Massachusetts native who had graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in philosophy, turned down an offer from the John Kerry presidential campaign to go work for a Illinois state senator making his first statewide run.
Chicago politicos David Axelrod and Pete Giangreco had told Vietor about Obama. Soon, he was on his way to Chicago.
There, Vietor learned to be a media person from Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. He sat in the back seat of Obama’s car as they crisscrossed Illinois, handing the cellphone to the candidate when reporters were on the line.
From Gibbs, he learned to yell at reporters when he disliked a story. Unlike Gibbs, he usually called back later to make up.
As the organization grew into a Senate office and then a presidential campaign, Vietor reached out to newcomers, especially the younger ones. Along with Favreau, he became the center of a crowd that worked all day, played basketball at the Des Moines YMCA and recovered at local dive bars.
In the White House, that impulse toward “connectivity” was infectious, said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.
“You could be close to the president and guard that jealously, or you can pull people in,” Rhodes said. “The stature of being an original means you can bring people in, if you want to, and he does.”
One person who took a liking to Vietor was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- no small matter, given that he was an Obama combatant in the contentious 2008 Democratic primary. When Vietor dislocated his arm a while back, Clinton sent him a sling like the one she happened to be wearing, complete with a State Department seal.
Another admirer was NSC Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a veteran of Obama’s Iowa caucus campaign. The two once shoveled snow from driveways so supporters could go vote. McDonough plucked Vietor from the ranks of the White House press secretary’s office to put him in the NSC job.
Vietor knew half the staff, McDonough said, and seemed intent on meeting everyone else too.
“He doesn’t just want to take the guidance and deliver it,” said McDonough, now the White House chief of staff. “He wants to go find the people who write the guidance and have a back and forth with them ... and then he wants to introduce them to the press.”
Whatever comes next for the young departees, none are ruling out a return to politics. The pull can be strong, said Paul Begala, who was 31 when he went to work in Bill Clinton’s White House.
“When you’re working in the White House, each day seems like a year,” he said. “You look back on it, and each year seems like a day.”