As President Obama heads to Springfield, Ill., on Wednesday to mark the ninth anniversary of his first White House bid, it raises a question: How many men and women involved in that campaign are still working for him?
The short answer: more than you might think. At least 60 aides currently on the White House payroll, or nearly 13 percent of its total staff, were involved in the 2008 campaign in some capacity. While a couple of them have served in senior positions from the outset — including White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Obama's chief of staff Denis McDonough — many of them started as volunteers or junior aides and have steadily risen through the ranks.
It is impossible to compare whether previous administrations have boasted that many long-time aides in their final year, since this is not formally tracked. But the numbers suggest that the following Obama first developed nearly a decade ago still resonates with many of his earliest political adherents.
Bruce Reed, who served as a top domestic policy aide on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and throughout his entire presidency, said in an email that it speaks to how a politician's less-heralded ground troops often play a key role in driving an administration's agenda.
"In most administrations, including this one, most of the people you covered on the campaign have moved on," said Reed, who also served as Vice President Biden's chief of staff for three years. "In the Clinton administration, as I suspect with this one, a number of the people still around at the end never made the news but just showed up every day to do the work."
The roles these staffers play vary widely, from presidential videographer (Hope Hall) to chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (Jason Furman) and trip coordinator (Katie Waldo). White House deputy chief of staff for operations Anita Decker Breckenridge started with Obama 13 years ago, when he was a state senator, and managed the 2007 announcement of his presidential bid; director of broadcast media Rob O'Donnell joined Obama's campaign as a 19-year-old intern in Manchester, N.H., and dropped out of college the night Hillary Clinton won that state's primary.
Michelle Obama has managed to hold onto several staffers as well. Melissa Winter had been working for then-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) for a decade when her former colleague Alyssa Mastromonaco recruited her to join Michelle Obama's staff with a sushi dinner in Chicago. Winter signed on in February 2007 and has been the first lady's deputy chief of staff for the past nine years ("longer than the average marriage," she noted). Tina Tchen, a personal friend of the Obamas and the first lady's chief of staff since 2011, attended the first meeting of potential national finance committee members the day after Obama launched his bid in Springfield and has worked at the White House since the president took office.
While there are 2008 campaign alums in a range of departments — the White House press shop has several, including communications director Jen Psaki and press secretary Josh Earnest, while the counsel's office has several, too — perhaps no department is as dominated by longtime aides as White House speechwriting. Four of the president's eight speechwriters — a category that includes two senior National Security Council staffers who work on major foreign policy addresses — are what chief speechwriter Cody Keenan calls "’08 originals: Me, Ben Rhodes, Sarah Hurwitz and Tyler Lechtenberg."
Keenan started out as a 26-year-old intern working on Obama's campaign in the spring of 2007 under Jon Favreau; he briefly left the campaign to finish graduate school, and returned shortly after Obama secured his party's nomination in 2008.
In an email, Lechtenberg described himself as “a farm kid who worked as a sportswriter after college" and a political novice. "But I packed up my Dodge Neon and drove back to Iowa, my home state, for a job as a field organizer," and learned "less about what this country could be, and more about who we already are."
In some cases, driving in Iowa was exactly the problem. Yohannes Abraham joined the 2008 campaign as a field organizer in the state two weeks after graduating from college. One Sunday, he was assigned the task of driving Jarrett in the snow to visit a couple of churches early in the morning: Abraham got them hopelessly lost, and tried repeatedly to rouse his sleeping roommate to figure out where they were headed. Jarrett eventually suggested they ask for directions at a local gas station, and they stayed in touch as he performed different jobs on the campaign and in the White House. Abraham now works under Jarrett, as chief of staff for the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.
Younger staffers often serve a president longer than older ones, since the second term offers them their best chance of career advancement. And other factors can also contribute to staffers staying longer than expected. Joe Hagin, who served as a deputy chief of staff under President George W. Bush and is now a partner at Command Consulting Group, noted that most top presidential aides serve an average of 18 months.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, Hagin recalled, many Bush aides decided to remain at the White House given the national crisis the United States was facing at the time. "There were a lot of people who just felt duty-bound to stick around," he said.
Keenan said three main factors account for the cohesiveness of the speechwriting staff: their commitment to the president's goals, their attachment to each other and the feedback they receive from Americans who write Obama letters.
"When Favs told me back in 2008 that he was taking me to the White House with him, I told him I’d turn off the lights at the end, and I meant it," Keenan recalled. "When will we have a more powerful opportunity to make a difference than while working for the president of the United States?"