By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Sutphen passed the foreign service exam right out of college, but ended up in Chicago working for the advertising agency Leo Burnett. After a few years, she decided that "if I'm going to be staying up until 3 a.m. it should be for world peace and not shampoo sales."
During George H.W. Bush's administration, the foreign service called her. She called Lake.
"I asked him, 'What should I do if I don't agree with policy in South Africa or El Salvador?' " she recalled. "He said, 'Well, don't bid on those posts.' "
She headed for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, where she managed the human rights portfolio for Burma, then on to an assignment helping implement the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia. After a hiatus to study at the London School of Economics, she went to work for then-U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, whom she met during her work on Burma.
When Richardson went to run the Energy Department, Sutphen moved to the White House to be Berger's special assistant. She shared a cubicle with Nina Hachigian, special assistant to Berger's deputy, Jim Steinberg. The two put in grueling hours, but in their small amount of spare time they worked on what Sutphen described as a "terrorism-thriller" screenplay that didn't find a market in a still-raw post-9/11 America.
A decade later, Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, effectively the administration's off-campus think tank, and Sutphen published "The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise." In a blurb on the back of the original 2008 edition, Anne-Marie Slaughter, then the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, describes it as "a wonderful corrective. . . . It recognizes that national security begins at home, with education, health care, infrastructure."
"We thought we were writing a foreign policy book, but what we learned in the end is that if the United States wants to strengthen its position in the world, it has a lot to do at home," Hachigian said. "Mona is extremely unsentimental. She doesn't cling to the way she'd like things to be. She sees them as they are."
Before she left the White House, Sutphen met her future husband in the Situation Room. Clyde Williams was helping plan the 1998 Israeli-Palestinian talks at Wye River, Md. The two met during a planning session and began dating soon after.
Williams accompanied Bill Clinton to Harlem in 2001 as a senior adviser to the Clinton Foundation. After a brief stint at an Internet start-up in Silicon Valley, Sutphen was pulled back to Washington by Berger, who had started the Stonebridge International business consulting firm. She and Williams married and began a family, juggling long-hour jobs and two cities.
Something had to give. Sutphen, then the company's chief operating officer, decided to move to New York City after the 2004 elections.
Sutphen and Williams, now the political director of the Democratic National Committee, met Obama at a private party in a Washington home before he had decided to run for president. Sutphen recalls Williams telling her, "I hope he doesn't run because then I'll have to choose between him and Hillary."
"Politics for me is about loyalty," Williams said. "The Clintons opened up my world."
Sutphen chose Obama, and had some explaining to do, less to her husband than to Berger.
"I told him you get what you put into this, and I always complain that there are no compelling people in public policy, and Obama is," Sutphen recalled. "And I didn't think he had much of a chance to win."
Lake and Susan Rice, now the U.N. ambassador, brought her onto the foreign policy "core group" of the campaign. She worked with Jeffrey Bader, now at the National Security Council, on China, Japan, the Koreas and other East Asian issues.
In her writing, she has identified two of those countries -- China and Japan -- as "pivotal powers" whose success should not be seen as a threat to the United States but as a benefit to its economic and security interests. Last year, a few months before the slowing economy blossomed into crisis, she wrote, with Hachigian, that a borderless "new world" is "shaped most by technology, not ideology."
"The ideology rivalry is a sideshow," the two wrote. "Pivotal powers want to get ahead. The almighty dollar -- or ruble or euro -- is their ideology."
As the global economy slows, Sutphen said recently, "we will be getting more ideological debate in the world, just as we are at home. . . . But the kind of Cold War-esque notion of should there or shouldn't there be private property, or should the state run everything, those ideological debates are not for this generation."
After Obama's election, Sutphen worked on the transition and was tapped for her current post, where she coordinates the various policy councils to make sure "what we believe a policy is, what we think its intention is, stays consistent as it moves through the process." She acknowledges being "something of a fresh face" among the group of senior advisers who have known the president for years, including through the highs and lows of an initially quixotic campaign.
But her previous White House experience gives her a better sense of executive-branch intangibles, such as the importance of setting the right pace for devising and pushing new policy and how to manage the complexities of interagency politics.
"They have the benefits of knowing him more intimately, and a collective history that I will never share," Sutphen said. "I don't feel I should be a part of it. But I think they have been very receptive to the other perspective I bring."
Her day begins at 7:15 a.m. and her week rarely ends.
The walls of her small office, a few doors down from the president's, are still bare. Photos of her kids -- 4-year-old Sydney and 20-month-old Davis -- perch on a nearby credenza. Felix Rohatyn's book "Bold Endeavors," on how public spending on infrastructure can generate economic activity, sits well-thumbed on her desk.
"We're in one of these really major moments, forks in the road, and we're deciding whether to do X or to do Y in ways with implications far into the future," Sutphen said. "I see now from where I am how clearly we are at one of these moments. I don't remember feeling that way when I was in government before."