I spent my twenties as an Obama speechwriter. Here’s what he taught me about growing up.

In 2011, when I was 24, I was hired as a Speechwriter in the White House. My first thought (after “shit!”) Was that someone must have made a mistake.

It’s not that I thought I had no talent. It’s just that I knew there were over 300 million people in America. Of course, some of them were babies. But many of them were adults. It seemed unlikely that I was the best that we the people could do.

In some ways, I clearly wasn’t. (In my new book, Thanks, Obama, I say I was discovered, in my underwear, changing clothes in the locker room of Air Force One. This is the kind of situation I suspect a slightly more mature human would be able to avoid.)

But that’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful that I got the chance to work in the Obama White House. For several years I was forced – often against my will, almost always against my instincts – to act like an adult.

My years at Obamaworld have taught me the value of perseverance. As a 21-year-old, newly infatuated with a candidate and his inspirational campaign, I assumed that doing good always felt good. Otherwise, why bother?

I now know better. Today, when I think about what I admire most about President Barack Obama, it is not his rhetorical style or his charisma. It’s his refusal to give up, even though changing countries was deeply felt, painfully not fun. I will never forget the day after the mid-sessions 2014, a bombing to put an end to all the bombings. According to the traditional Washington scenario, POTUS was to apologize profusely, beg forgiveness, and drastically reduce his goals.

Here is what he said instead: “The principles we fight for, the things that motivate me every day and motivate my staff every day – these things are not going to change. “

There were days when we knew we were on the right side of history and were lost anyway. But President Obama was ready to continue fighting through them. And because it did, millions more Americans have health insurance, thousands of soldiers come home from war, and LGBTQ Americans across the country can marry the person they love – even in the time of Trump.

The inglorious job of decision making

Eight years at Obamaworld taught me the value of patience. At the Obama White House, we enjoyed following what the press called POTUS ‘”Katrina moments”, disasters from which he would apparently never recover. A wave of undocumented minors at the border; the Ebola epidemic; the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov – time and time again journalists, Republicans, and often even our allies have insisted the wheels get off the bus.

In those times, it would have been easy for the president to do anything, anything, as long as it was drastic. Impulsiveness can often be mistaken for decision making, especially when the stakes are high. But President Obama has remained calm and thoughtful. He made some changes: after the launch of Healthcare.gov, for example, we started red-teaming initiatives more often, assigning a designated pessimist to determine what could go wrong. But he made these changes methodically, with an eye on long-term results rather than short-term perception. In an age when the news cycle has shrunk to a few minutes, this is not easy to do.

It taught me the value of discipline. I have come to believe that what President Obama has done, better than anyone, was to reduce complicated problems to their essence. Whether he was reading a policy note or a punchline, he could identify the most important part. And perhaps more importantly, he had the poise to pay attention to this element while delegating other less important elements to the staff. A secret to solving big problems I have discovered is knowing which little problems to ignore.

The real meaning of “the adult in the room”

There are a lot of other things I learned in the White House. For example, that decisions are as good as the decision-making process. This generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look clumsy with chewing gum.

But here is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most valuable lesson I have learned in my 20s: There are no adults, at least not in the way we imagined as than children. There is no room full of former omniscients in charge.

Of course, people often referred to POTUS as “the adult in the room”. But it took me years to fully understand what that meant. As much as I admire and respect him, President Obama was not perfect. Not all of the decisions he made were correct. What made Obama the adult in the room was the way he set his priorities. Children are only looking for fun; adults aspire to fulfillment. Children ask for worship; adults earn respect. Children find value in what they acquire; adults find value in the responsibilities they carry.

And if it turns out that the world doesn’t have almighty adults, it has an overwhelming number of children. They come from all ages, from all walks of life and from all corners of the political map.

More than anything else, or perhaps at the root of everything else, this is what worries me in our current political moment. Yes, Donald Trump is the oldest person to ever be president. But he is also our first child commander-in-chief.

At this frightening political moment, when a 71-year-old is the most powerful person on Earth, we could be forgiven for dreaming of Obama’s return. Maybe he will come back and save us, as our parents came to get us when we were little, lost and scared.

It’s a heartwarming fantasy. But if we want the sense of possibility and decency at the heart of the Obama movement to return, we will have to be our own adults. We will have to save ourselves. This is the idea at the heart of democracy. None of us are the best of Us the People. But we’re all we have – and if each of us does our part, we’re good enough.

I remain optimistic – in the long term anyway – because of and not despite what I’ve learned about being an adult. If there are no perfect adults, that means generations before us must have figured things out too. Our heroes were human beings. In their messy and imperfect way, they have preserved the government of, by and for the people, and passed it on to us.

If we reject Trumpism not just as a political philosophy but as a way of life – if we define ourselves by our responsibilities rather than our possessions, if we seek fulfillment rather than fleeting pleasure, if we earn respect instead of requiring worship – then I believe we can also protect the democracy we love.

David Litt is the author of the best New York Timessales memory Thanks, Obama, from which this essay is adapted. He is also the chief screenwriter of Funny or Die DC.


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