Yohannes Abraham was a new college graduate driving a top member of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to visit churches on a snowy day in Des Moines when he got lost.
Abraham was too embarrassed to tell his passenger. But after they passed the same gas station a third time, she spoke up.
Maybe it was time to ask for directions, Valerie Jarrett politely suggested.
Abraham had no idea that day in 2007 how close Jarrett, now a constant presence in the Oval Office, was to the future president. But he and Jarrett formed a connection then that continues: Now, he is her chief of staff at the White House.
Abraham is one of dozens of Obama lifers – aides and advisors to the president inspired by an underdog quest for history who joined nearly nine years ago as Obama launched his candidacy and have been with him since.
Some of the stories they tell about how they came to work for the president could be rejected plot lines from an early episode of “The West Wing.” But together they see their durability as a tribute to how Obama inspires both loyalty and sacrifice from staff in a field where burnout is the norm, and where many people accept political appointments with an eye toward self-promotion and long-term financial benefit.
As one lifer put it: “We’re not political people. We’re Obama people.”
“Everyone hopes they’ll go on to be a bigger part of smaller things,” Abraham said. “But I think most of us have a sense that this is the biggest thing that we’ll ever get to be a small part of.”
Jarrett said Abraham was illustrative of many of the early staff, “passionate, hard-working, without ego or agenda, determined to help recapture the true honor of public service.”
“That is why so many of them continue to serve, and have formed a lifelong bond with one another,” she added.
Kori Schulman began stopping by the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago during college breaks in 2008 to volunteer on its fledgling new media desk – her job was to approve MySpace friend requests. Now she is deputy director of the White House’s digital strategy office.
Katie Waldo, a White House trip coordinator, remembers escorting senior staff from the Capitol to the White House on inauguration day in 2009 with a backpack full of blueprints. They arrived “and literally started turning the lights on,” she recalled.
Bess Evans remembers the three questions that changed her life in 2007: Do you have a car? When can you get here? Do you want to come to Iowa and help us change the world? She’s now a senior policy advisor after tours in other posts.
The lifers say their loyalty, and the institutional knowledge they’ve gained, serve the president well.
“That’s what makes this period of the presidency easier,” said Jen Psaki, the White House communications director. “The challenges are greater in some ways. But when you can build on the knowledge you have – whether it’s the president’s record, the history of what he’s said or done, or how he thinks about things – it helps make you better at your job.”
Psaki, who was one of the first staffers on Obama’s 2008 campaign and has served as a spokeswoman in the White House, for his reelection campaign and then at the State Department before returning to the White House in her current role, remembers her first interaction with Obama when staffing him on a trip to Ohio in October 2007. “You must be wondering who I am and why I am in your car,” she said, breaking the ice at a time when everyone was feeling their way through the early days of the campaign.
“A lot of us have grown up in these jobs,” she said. “It’s interesting looking around and realizing a lot of people are actually now seasoned government officials. That’s certainly not how we started when we walked into the campaign headquarters 10 years ago.”
This group, like the president, is feeling particularly nostalgic these days. Each anniversary of a major policy or political win takes on greater meaning. Many have been marking a series of “lasts” all year — the final State of the Union address, the last European trip, even the the last Martha’s Vineyard getaway this month for the Obamas’ annual vacation.
Some longtime staffers are using the slower pace of the presidential vacation to schedule time here to seriously consider, for the first time, their next steps. They have as a resource members of the Obama Alumni Assn., created after Obama’s 2012 reelection, which consists of former aides who have sought to continue work on the types of issues that drew them to the president from the private sector.
The association has looked for ways this year to organize on behalf of the president’s agenda. But ultimately the success of Obama’s final initiatives rests in the hands of the 50 or so staffers who have been with him since the beginning. Obama sees many every day, including his chief of staff, his top speechwriter, and the ultimate lifer, deputy chief of staff Anita Decker Breckenridge, who has worked for Obama since he was an Illinois state senator.
Abraham’s portfolio includes some of the biggest-ticket, if stalled, items left on the administration’s to-do list, including efforts to pass a major Pacific trade pact and confirm a new Supreme Court justice, as well as bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation. This week he attended a state legislators’ conference in Chicago to discuss policing reforms.
The common experience among many in the West Wing dating to Obama’s early campaign days has helped motivate them as they stare down the finish line.
“Everyone feels a sense of urgency around the fact that there’s limited time,” Abraham said.
As for what comes next, Abraham says he knows he’s not alone in making that a low priority.
“Personally, I’m going to be happy I put my head down and ran through the tape,” Abraham said.
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