White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen Has a World of Experience
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The corridors of the West Wing are narrow enough that the entourages of visiting Cabinet officials cause the occasional bottleneck. On a recent afternoon, Mona Sutphen, the White House deputy chief of staff for policy, ran into an eddy swirling around Kathleen Sebelius, secretary-designate of the Department of Health and Human Services, who extended her hand with a smile.
"We've never met," the Kansas governor began, "but I've heard your name quite a bit."
Sutphen is perhaps the least well known of the Obama administration's senior advisers, but for years she has worked alongside the most influential members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. As a respected foreign policy thinker in a job coordinating President Obama's vast domestic policy agenda, she embodies the way this administration blurs the line between the two, believing that issues such as public education, regulatory reform and economic recovery no longer stop at the water's edge.
Within an inner circle comprising many veterans of Obama's presidential campaign, Sutphen is something of an outlier. She decided early in the election season to endorse Obama, and worked on East Asian foreign policy for the campaign -- a role, as she put it during a pair of recent interviews in her West Wing office, "on the fringe" of the experiences shared by most of the president's senior advisers.
Described by current and former colleagues as very smart, driven and matter of fact, Sutphen has previous White House experience absent from the résumés of most other senior staff. But this administration is taking office at a more desperate moment than the final years of the Clinton administration, when she worked as special assistant to then-national security adviser Sandy Berger.
Her more central role this time -- occupying one of the six or so offices on the Oval Office corridor, attending a daily morning meeting with the president -- makes this go-round a more challenging one for Sutphen both as a maker of public policy and as a 41-year-old mother of two young children who has tried before to escape the overtime grind of Washington's political culture.
"She's drinking out of one of the highest-pressure water hoses you can imagine, taking it in, distilling it and channeling it," said Melody Barnes, head of Obama's Domestic Policy Council. "She is also expected to speak for [Chief of Staff] Rahm [Emanuel] and to some degree the president. How she does all of that under this pressure is the challenge."
Sutphen is the daughter of a white Jewish mother and an African American father. When her parents were dating, in the early 1960s, they lived in Kansas City, Mo., where interracial marriage was illegal. During lunch hour one day, they drove across the river to Kansas City, Kan., for a clandestine wedding ceremony.
Later, they moved to Milwaukee, where Sutphen was reared. Her mother was a legal secretary at the state public defender's office, and her father worked for the National Labor Relations Board.
"It was a political household in that we talked about politics a lot," Sutphen said. "But it was more community organizer-y, politics with a small 'p.' "
Milwaukee then was a parochial place; only three members of Sutphen's high school class went out of state for college. She chose Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, and by her senior year she was working as a research assistant to Anthony Lake, a professor of international relations who later served as Bill Clinton's first national security adviser. Their mentor-protege relationship would carry through the Obama campaign.
"She's smart as hell, practical, idealistic, nice and tough, and how often do you hear those together?" Lake said. "And in the job she's in, if you're going to have to say no, those are good qualities to have."