Voices of Power: Chris Lu

By Lois Romano
Thursday, October 22, 2009 5:57 AM

Ms. Romano: Welcome, Christopher Lu, Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary at the White House.

You are among the most senior Asian-Americans in the administration and in the White House. What does that mean to you?

Mr. Lu: It means a lot to me. My parents were both born in China. They moved to Taiwan for grade school and high school. They both emigrated here in the late '50s for college.

There is not a day that goes by that, as I park my car by the West Wing and walk into my office in the West Wing, that I don't think about my parents and how fortunate I am and how this incredible opportunity that I have is not only the result of what I've accomplished, but all that they've accomplished, as well as all that other Asian-Americans before me.

Ms. Romano: What was it like when you walked into your West Wing office for the first time?

Mr. Lu: I remember this distinctly. It was right after inauguration. We had a bus that took us over from the Capitol to the White House.

We actually came down the parade route, the bus. And a lot of the folks on the side were waving to us because I think they thought we were important, and I think they also thought that we were starting the parade and [not] just a random bus coming down the street.

They let us off by the entrance to the White House. We filled out our paperwork; got our Blackberries, and then we were shown to our offices. And I remember getting to my office. There was no furniture there, because they were repainting at the time. And so, I basically just sat on the floor and just kind of soaked this all in.

And I remember calling my mother, and my mother was the first person I called, and said, "Mom, I'm sitting in my office in the White House." And she said "How come you're not at the parade?" And I said, "Mom, I'm sitting in my office in the White House." And I think it finally hit her at that time, and I think it hit me at that time that I'm now in the White House.

Ms. Romano: Now, I know your dad didn't live to see this moment, but have you brought your mother into the White House to see your office?

Mr. Lu: I have, and, you know, one of the funny things about the various jobs that I've had over the last couple years is that it seems like with each job I have, my office gets smaller and smaller, which is something that my mother perpetually comments on.

But she was--I think she was awed too that her son was here, and my mom and I are very close. We're not emotional people, but, you know, she said, "Your dad would have been very proud of you, if he could have seen that." And I think we kind of both teared up a little bit.

Ms. Romano: The first time you actually set foot on Chinese soil was last summer; is that correct?

Mr. Lu: That's right. This past summer.

Ms. Romano: As a representative of this administration. What was that like?

Mr. Lu: It was incredible. [My parents] had both gone back to China numerous times. For a variety of reasons, I had just never had the time to go back.

And to get to go to China on your first trip as part of an official delegation was just really--I mean it--I was speechless.

And the funny thing, with each meeting, Secretary [Gary] Locke or Secretary [Steven] Chu would always ask me to say something. And I remember being completely tongue-tied in a meeting with the Chinese Premier, where Secretary Locke turned to me and said, "Mr. Premier, I want to introduce to you Chris Lu. This is his first trip to China. Chris, would you like to say something to the Premier?"

And all that came out of my mouth was, "Thank you. Thank you for having us here."

Ms. Romano: And how did the Chinese react to you all?

Mr. Lu: I think they felt a--they felt a kinship to us. All three of us are Chinese-Americans. We all obviously represent the American government. That's obviously our first priority. But they felt a kinship.

The fact that to varying degrees we all understand some Chinese, we can all say some words of Chinese I think made the conversation and made the meetings a little bit more personal.

Ms. Romano: Do you think it mattered to them that the Administration sent over their top three Asian-Americans?

Mr. Lu: I do. Yeah, I do think it mattered. In Chinese culture, relationships are very important. And having Chinese-Americans come over as the representatives of the government I think was important.

Ms. Romano: How important are U.S.-China relations right now?

Mr. Lu: Well, look, I mean the U.S.-China relationship is one that's based on mutual interests, mutual respect. The United States is interested in having a positive relationship, a constructive relationship, a comprehensive relationship with the Chinese.

And that covers all areas, including economic areas, which is one of the reasons why the President is going to China next month.

Ms. Romano: Are you going with him?

Mr. Lu: I'm told I am going on the trip. I never want to get my hopes up until I'm actually on the plane, but I'm told that I'm going.

Ms. Romano: In some quarters, President Obama's decision to postpone a meeting with the Dalai Lama was viewed as the United States maybe taking a step back from holding, you know, China's feet to the fire on human rights.

What's your take on that?

Mr. Lu: You know, one of the wonderful things, Lois, is that there are hundreds of people in this government that work on China policy, and I'm very fortunate to say that I'm not one of them.

So, I--it's an area that I don't know a lot about, to be honest with you.

Ms. Romano: Oh, come on? You're punting.

Mr. Lu: I obviously don't know.

Ms. Romano: Let's talk about President Obama.

You have known him now since law school. What are your earliest recollections of him?

Mr. Lu: We were only acquaintances in law school, but I have a distinct recollection of being in a class with him, and it's--you know, I'm probably dating myself, but there were those old E.F. Hutton commercials, when somebody speaks, everyone listens.

And when Barack Obama spoke in class, everybody listened. He was a thoughtful, an intelligent, a decent person.

And those same qualities are the ones that have carried over in the last four and a half years when I've worked with him as a U.S. Senator, as a presidential candidate, and as the President of the United States.

Ms. Romano: So he had a presence even in law school?

Mr. Lu: He absolutely had a presence.

Ms. Romano: Everyone knew who he was?

Mr. Lu: Everyone knew who he was. I mean when he was elected president of the Law Review--he was the first African-American that had ever been the president of the Harvard Law Review. So, that was a newsworthy thing.

But even before that, everybody knew who Barack Obama was.

You know, it's very funny. I think about those early days in the U.S. Senate when he was 99th in seniority, and we would go to the Senate floor, and he would be speaking about an amendment on a bill or some arcane issue, and he had a presence about him. And other, more senior Senators listened to him. And he's always had that presence.

Ms. Romano: You once referred to him as a human Rorschach test. What does that mean?

Mr. Lu: I think he really embodies a lot of the hopes of all kinds of people in this country. People who are liberal see liberal qualities of him. People who are conservative see conservative qualities of him. He's multi-racial, so he embodies the spirit of different ethnic and racial groups. He really is, in many ways, the embodiment of the American dream.

Ms ROMANO: How has your relationship evolved over the last decade or so?

Mr. Lu: I obviously see the President a lot less now than I did when we were in the Senate. I still see him several times a week. There tends to be a lot more Secret Service agents around now than when I used to talk to him.

But one of the benefits of having worked with him and having known him for so long is that we really have built a very close relationship.

And now, while the time I spend with him is less frequent and it's shorter, and while we're discussing weighty issues now, we always take a moment to ask about each other's families. We're always talking about the latest movies we've seen or the football game that happened this past weekend. There's always a time for a little bit of back-and-forth banter.

We have a very close relationship. It's a playful relationship. I'm very comfortable making fun of him. He's very comfortable making fun of me. I guess the only difference now is I can't call him Barack anymore.

Ms. Romano: A lot of people might not know what a Cabinet Secretary is. What do you do?

Mr. Lu: I'm the President's main liaison to the Cabinet. So, on a day-to-day basis it's ensuring that the White House and the federal agencies are all on the same page. The job extends beyond the 20 or so agencies that are in the Cabinet. We deal with all the Federal Government.

It's making sure that on a day-to-day basis that the White House is not surprised by anything the Cabinet does; the Cabinet is not surprised by anything the White House does. It's coordinating message. It's coordinating policy.

As much as we like to think of the White House as coordinated, the White House often speaks with many voices. And one of the important functions that our office performs is to say which of these voices--how do we reconcile all these different voices at the White House telling us to do different things.

Often times, it's helping to bring presidential attention to an issue. A good recent example was at the Department of Transportation. Secretary LaHood was convening a summit to talk about distracted driving--that's using the cell phone, text messaging while driving--and Secretary LaHood had a wonderful idea, which was he was going to issue a guidance that no DOT employees should text while driving DOT vehicles.

They sent it to me. I took a look at it, and I said, if it's good enough for DOT, why don't we do it for the rest of the federal government.

So, I, along with a lot of other folks here in the White House, worked to get that through the White House process such that when Secretary LaHood stood up at the conclusion of his summit, he was able to say the President just signed an Executive Order saying that no federal employees should be using their Blackberries [or] should be text messaging while driving. A lot of my function is getting that cleared by the different [offices] within the White House, talking to the communications people, talking to the policy people.

And one of the wonderful things about the West Wing is that there's probably only--I don't know--50 of us, 60 of us that have their offices there, or maybe it's a hundred. But you literally can just walk office by office and grab people and say, hey, let me run something by you and see what you think of that.

Ms. Romano: So, how often do you find the Chief of Staff on your phone yelling at you about something some Cabinet member said or did?

Mr. Lu: Well, the first thing about Rahm [Emanuel] is that Rahm, if Rahm is unhappy with something, he generally doesn't call me. He just . . . tells me [in person].

Rahm has his own relationships with the Cabinet, so often times whether it's something he's happy about or not happy about, he'll just call the Cabinet himself, just as the President will do himself.

But often times, you know, I'm being asked to convey a message to an agency about something we'd like them to do, something we'd rather them not do. It happens fairly frequently.

Ms. Romano: Do you see yourself as the Cabinet's advocate in the White House?

Mr. Lu: I like to think of myself as an honest broker. As I said, my job here is the same job I've had all along, which is to keep the trains running on time and to make sure that on any given day, the White House and the agencies are all moving down the same set of tracks.

And sometimes that means conveying a message from the White House to the agencies. Sometimes it's helping the agencies work through a problem with the White House, helping bring an issue that's important to an agency to the attention of the White House, helping the agencies solve their problems with the White House, helping the agencies understand what the White House wants.

Ms. Romano: Now all the requests that you get from Cabinet Secretaries, they're not all about serious matters. I mean what's the weirdest request or complaint that you ever got from a Cabinet Secretary?

Mr. Lu: Our issue--our office deals with--our office deals with all kinds of requests from agencies.

We deal with everything from weighty policy issues that [the agencies are] looking for clearance from the White House to ensuring that their kids get into the Easter Egg Roll or [trying] to help them get tours of the White House for their family members or getting a picture taken with the President.

We really deal with everything from very weighty to not as weighty, but they're all important to us.

Ms. Romano: So, do you have an ongoing dialogue with Desiree Rogers, the Social Secretary?

Mr. Lu: We do. The Social Secretary--Desiree and I have a wonderful relationship. When her office is planning events, a certain number of tickets are allocated for different White House offices. We get the ticket request for the Cabinet, and we get a certain number of slots; and then we make decisions about who gets to come in who doesn't get to come.

Ms. Romano: This administration is structured a little bit differently in that there are a number of so-called czars, 30-some, and how does that work with respect to what you do?

Mr. Lu: You know, there's been a lot of misinformation about these issues. A lot of the "czars" are positions that have always existed, positions that existed under Democratic administrations, Republican administrations.

One of the things I've learned over the last nine months is that as good as the federal government is, a lot of the work that happens not only in the agencies, but in the White House is very siloed. And we've always had people in all different types of administrations who have coordinated policy, who have coordinated message. I don't think our administration is any different in that respect.

Ms. Romano: In recent weeks, there have been some news accounts, some public opinion accounts and most recently Saturday Night Live suggesting that the President really hasn't done much yet. Can you comment on that?

Mr. Lu: I think people who think we haven't done much haven't been looking closely enough. You only need to go back to when we took over on January 20th, we were on the verge of a next Depression.

What we've done in the way of stabilizing our financial system, in the way of getting the economic stimulus package passed, starting to grow jobs again, get the economy back up and running--we're closer to getting health care passed than any president since Teddy Roosevelt. We've gotten some important legislation passed on children's health, on wage fairness for women.

So, we've done a lot. I think people who make those criticisms aren't looking close enough.

Ms. Romano: You've worked in politics about a dozen years. You worked on the Hill. It seems that more recently there's a certain amount of almost hateful discourse that's swirling around this president and this White House. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Mr. Lu: All I can tell you is that I think it's unfortunate. You know, throughout his entire career, Barack Obama has worked with people on both sides of the aisle, in the Illinois State Senate and the U.S. Senate and now as President.

One of the things we focused on in the U.S. Senate was forming close relationships with senators like Dick Lugar and Tom Coburn and Mel Martinez.

And so, it is distressing to me. It's distressing to a lot of people what is happening right now with political discourse.

Ms Romano: And do you get concerned when you see somebody like Glenn Beck announcing that he's going to start knocking off White House aides?

Mr. Lu: I know it is a D.C. parlor game to speculate about who's in, who's out of the administration. It's distressing to see your friends, your colleagues, being bandied about on the 24-hour cable news programs.

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