If ever there were a role model, it's the guy who's handing over the keys to the country today. Here, Tommy Vietor, co-founder of the new outlet Crooked Media with two other former Obama staffers, shares some of the secrets he learned along the way.
My first question is *kind of* a joke: How do you laugh when you want to cry?
[Laughs] Listen, when Obama first started running in 2007, sure, we got a bunch of press early, but things didn't go so well for a long time. There was a period when the joke on the bus as we traveled around was like, "Look, regardless of whether you win, sir, you're going to have a really great book—some really interesting stories to tell."
"In this country, things can change on a dime, so stay focused, stay engaged, do the work, and you're going to be all right."
Gallows humor has been an essential part of the Obama ethos for a long time, but I think the other key thing is: don't give up. We've been in dark periods before. I'm not very old—well, debatable, I'm 36—but I started working in politics in 2002. Things were dark for Democrats. We got our clocks cleaned in Senate and House races. We lost the White House in 2000 and 2004.
Things were really bleak, but in this country, things can change on a dime, so stay focused, stay engaged, do the work, and you're going to be all right. I think he embodies that more than anybody because he's not someone who came up preparing himself to run for president. He was on the streets of Chicago, organizing people in neighborhoods and churches and basements.
How do you think he convinced people on his team that a longshot was possible?
He was someone who embodied a truly fundamental change from what we were used to—both because of his race and because of what he stood for—at a time when people were hungering for that.
"[The Obamas] were real people who had just finished paying off their student loans."
The coolest thing, for me, having started working for him in 2004, was that I got to know his family. When I met them, they had a one-level condo with three rooms in it, and I staffed an interview there with them and Oprah [laughs]. They were real people who had a small house with little kids, who had just finished paying off their student loans, who got thrust into this scenario—but he was far closer to being a regular person during that period of time than being president of the United States. They just got it. They understood people's values and concerns and what people were looking for out of their government in a way that was different. I think that came through to us. That inspired us—the core decency of the family.
Campaigns are risks. I left a comfortable life in D.C. and moved to Iowa for a year with three days' notice. It felt worth it, and it turned out to be the greatest work experience of my life, because the person who I was doing it for inspired me to get to work every day.
Lots of us at Sweet are in awe of how he was able to carve out time for reading. How do you think he did it?
You know, it's a good question. I don't know how he did that. I think, more than anything, it's just discipline. He's a very disciplined person. When everything in the world is going on around you, you have to make it part of your job to find time to get the things that are important done. He was good at that, and managed to do it over and over again.
Did you witness any tricks for making an immediate connection with people when he met them?
I don't know if there were tricks—there were a couple things. One goes back to the point that we were talking about earlier, which is that he was a lot closer to being a broke college student than a president when he started this process. I think that just kind of came through. Two, the guy has a good sense of humor and he likes to joke around and laugh and meet people. He talks like a human being. I think a lot of politicians get robotic, and they seem programmed, and he was the opposite. He had an authenticity that came through in everything he did, and people saw that.
"The good news is he's not going anywhere. There's going to be a second act for this guy, and it's going to be fascinating to watch."
The other thing: He loves kids. Whenever there's a kid around, he gravitates toward them. If you're a parent and you see the president of the United States falling in love and playing with your kid, that is a life-changing experience. It's something you'll treasure forever. I guess those are some of the ways he managed to do that.
Is there any quality he had that you thought you wanted to take for yourself?
One thing he does that I really appreciate and I should try to do better is to not question people's motives when we disagree. He's really good at listening and hearing people out and not saying, "That guy must think that because he's an asshole." I think that's easy to do. It's kind of the go-to place in our culture.
"I think people should read his final speech. Focus on what he talks about when it comes to being engaged as a citizen your entire life."
He, for a variety of reasons—because he's a lawyer by training, because he worked in the Illinois State Senate and spent a lot of time with Republican colleagues—he has been able to try to find areas of agreement. I think that's something that would benefit all of us, certainly in a political context, but frankly in any argument you have with your boyfriend, girlfriend or parent.
What can a person do to keep learning from Obama after he leaves office today?
The good news is he's not going anywhere. There's going to be a second act for this guy, and it's going to be fascinating to watch. I think people should read his final speech. Read it with an eye that gets past the nostalgia and the accomplishments, and focus on what he talks about when it comes to being engaged as a citizen your entire life.
"If you do something to help people in your town or your neighborhood, the reward is so immediate and the impact so directly visible."
Then think about the things that he did before he got to the White House. He was a community organizer. He was an Illinois state senator. He was a U.S. senator. He was involved and active fighting for the things he cares about on every single level, and that just shows what a great impact you could have.
If you do something to help people in your town or your neighborhood, the reward is so immediate and the impact so directly visible that it's almost a more rewarding experience. I think that's what I would focus on, and then, look: he'll be back. He's going to be around, and he's going to be talking about ways to help people get engaged and be better citizens and stay focused. So, keep an eye out.
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