Former Obama staffers share administration experiences at panel


Alison Albeda / Daily Senior Staffer

Former Obama staffers spoke about their experiences in the White House at a panel promoting an anthology of true stories from the administration.

Joshua Irvine, Reporter

Former Obama Administration staffers gave students an inside look of what working in the White House is like at a panel hosted in the Norris University Center on Friday.

Michael Strautmanis, Heather Foster and Darienne Page, all formerly of the White House’s former Office of Public Engagement, answered questions from students and promote their book “West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House.”

The event was hosted by the Center for Civic Engagement in partnership with the Department of Political Science; Katrina Wiemholt, assistant director at the Center, introduced the staffers.

“West Wingers” features 18 stories from former Obama administration staffers, said Wiemholdt.

“The purpose of ‘West Wingers’ is to give people an up-close look at what it’s like to be a staffer,” Foster said.

The staffers described how they became involved in the Obama administration and shared anecdotes from their time in the White House.

Strautmanis was a member of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s staff and became chief of staff to one of the President’s senior advisers after the election. He later became Counselor for Strategic Engagement before leaving for a job with the Walt Disney Company in 2013.

Foster, a 2003 graduate of Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, said she first encountered Obama as an intern at the Appleseed Fund in 2003. She was sent to see the then-state senator give a speech at the Daley Center in November of that year.

She later volunteered for Obama’s presidential campaign and joined the Department of Education in 2009, Foster said. Strautmanis recruited her into the Office of Public Engagement in 2011, where she served as an associate director and then public engagement advisor.

Page, a veteran of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, also began working for Obama’s 2008 campaign while a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she said. She became a full-time staffer after the Iowa caucus, and was part of the President’s transition team before becoming White House receptionist and later director of Veterans, Wounded Warriors and Military Families Outreach.

Page’s military service was central to both her White House career and her stories, describing early her return to Iraq with then-Vice President Joe Biden as part of the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Returning to a fully functioning command post and turning that over to the Iraqis… there aren’t really words to describe how overwhelming that feeling is,” Page said.

Among the stories shared by the staffers were the trials of transitioning into the new White House — Page characterized it as “75 days of pure torture” — and Strautmanis’ method of motivating White House interns through a tour that ended with interns getting a “presidential pastry” (the pastry chef has his own chapter in the book, said Strautmanis).

The Obama administration was the most diverse presidential administration in history, said Weimholt, and the panel sought to emphasize this aspect of the administration.

“What I’m proud of about this book is you saw the intersection of policy and identity, and people who felt passionately about these issues because they lived them,” Strautmanis said.

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