Northwestern student-interns reflect on life inside Obama campaign

YouTube screenshot

Obama staffers applaud the president following his remarks at the campaign headquarters in Chicago on the morning after Election Night. Obama beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to win a second term in the White House.

Patrick Svitek, Online Managing Editor
November 9, 2012 •

About nine hours after President Barack Obama declared electoral victory before thousands of screaming supporters in Chicago, his campaign staff woke up to their Blackberries and iPhones buzzing with a hasty email calling for a mandatory meeting in the “usual spot.”

SESP junior Sharon Reshef, a campaign intern, was mostly unfazed. That “usual spot” was against a “Forward” poster-covered wall at the campaign’s headquarters off Michigan Avenue and the long-time site of triweekly summits with senior advisers, she said.

Nonetheless, Reshef hopped on the El in Evanston and arrived at the campaign hub with a half hour to spare before the all-staff assembly at 1:30 p.m. As that time neared, she said she quickly realized what other interns — some still fast asleep after a celebratory night on the town — would be missing out on.

“All of a sudden, all these Secret Service agents come in, and then President Obama comes in and it was exhilarating,” Reshef recalled. “There he was, newly elected.”

For many Northwestern students working for the Obama campaign, several months of dropped classes and mad dashes to catch the Intercampus Shuttle culminated Tuesday night when Obama easily defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to renew his four-year lease on the White House.

A misty-eyed Obama thanked his campaign faithful in person Wednesday morning, calling them a “source of hope” as he enters his second term.

“That’s why even before last night’s results, I feel like the work that I had done in running for office comes full circle because what you guys have done means that the work I’m doing is important,” Obama said, according to a YouTube video of the surprise visit circulated by his campaign. “And I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of all of you.”

The president’s voice then falters as tears stream down his face and he reaches to wipe them away. Campaign staff can be heard applauding Obama as he pauses to collect himself.

“And what you guys (have done) will go on in the annals of history and people will read about it and they’ll marvel about it, but the most important thing you need to know is your journey’s just beginning,” Obama continued.

At least two NU students were in the room as Obama wrapped up his brief remarks and then waded through a sea of desks to hug every staffer, according to several sources who heard the president’s emotional speech.

“I just said, ‘Thank you,’ and basically cried into his shoulder,” Reshef recalled. "It was pretty embarrassing."

Medill sophomore Jenny Starrs, another intern, said she could not name any staffer who was not choking up as Obama praised their work, calling them the “ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in the lake.”

“I think that that was what really made it sink it in,” Starrs said, briefly pausing. “Oh my God, we actually won. We did everything we were supposed to do and more.”

From the campaign’s speech-writing department to its multimedia shop, NU students were involved in a successful re-election effort that once again tapped into Obama’s grassroots prowess.

There’s Weinberg junior Janesh Rahlan, who spent 10 hours over three days dialing swing-state voters from a Skokie phone bank. His volunteer work landed him a coveted ticket to Obama’s Election Night  watch party at McCormick Place.

There’s Medill senior Ally Byers, who chipped in an hour a day on video production amid a full course load.

And there’s Weinberg senior Alexa Wong, who clocked 12-hour days in the final days of the election season — all while taking three classes in Evanston.

“My coworkers were like, ‘You should never put the campaign above school, even if you’re encouraged to,’” Wong recalled.

Inevitably, some interns’ academic commitments clashed with their campaign gigs.

Starrs skipped her first lecture for Introduction to Russian Literature and never looked back. Byers started working remotely five weeks into her internship, worried about finding reasonable time for four classes while jetting up and down the Red and Purple lines every week. Reshef participated in NU’s Chicago Field Studies  program but still found herself wanting to stick around the Obama headquarters as a mid-afternoon lecture awaited her back in Evanston.

The NU-based interns also found themselves grappling with the tumultuous fluctuations of any presidential race, not to mention one of the most bitter contests fought on the airwaves in swing states as near as Wisconsin and Iowa.

The fall’s high point arrived when Obama experienced an undisputed bounce in public polls after the Democratic National Convention, Wong said. She added that the president’s senior advisers were always candid with even low-level staffers about the state of play.

“What (Jim) Messina and (David) Axelrod were telling the media was the same kind of message they were telling us,” Wong said. “It was always kind of close. We never had a chance to sit back. They were completely spot-on.”

Some workers were watching from their desks last month when Obama fumbled his first debate against Romney, alarming even the president’s closest confidantes about his re-election prospects.

“The mood was very somber when that debate happened,” Reshef recalled. “A lot of us were still there doing work. It was quiet. We all knew the president — he didn’t perform as well as he could have. In the following days, it got a little more tense, but we remained as determined as ever.”

Several interns attributed the campaign’s driven atmosphere to that perceived competitiveness. As a result, staffer “dedication succeeded anything I’ve ever seen before,” Wong said.

For Starrs, that stress seemed to fade away Wednesday morning as a newly re-elected Obama embraced her.

“I just said, ‘Thank you, sir,’” Starrs recalled. “And he just said, ‘You’re the best. Thank you.’”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that Reshef is in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She is in the School of Education and Social Policy. The Daily regrets the error.

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