Meeting the Press

From the hallways of Greenwich High to the corridors of the White House, Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki takes D.C. by storm



Pete Souza

With her office located just off the lobby of the West Wing of the White House, Jennifer Psaki has seen plenty of prominent people trek through on their way to meet with President Barack Obama. But when Jen glanced out her window one day last spring and saw the world champion New York Yankees, who had come for a ceremony with the President, she admits that she got a little excited.

First thing she did was call her fiancé, Gregory Mecher, who’s now her husband and works on Capitol Hill. Pretty soon he was fired up as well and asking if perhaps she could score him an autograph from Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter. “Well, I don’t think I can just break into their event,” she told him with a laugh, “but I’ll keep that in mind.”

Not long afterward, she was on her way through the building, heading to a meeting at the Treasury Department next door, when she passed someone in the hallway who looked familiar. Oh, my God, she thought, it’s Derek Jeter. “I just had this moment where I was thinking, I will regret it if I don’t do this,” Jen remembers. “So I grabbed him by the shoulder and I said, ‘Mr. Jeter, would you mind signing this?’ I said, ‘My fiancé is a huge baseball fan. Would you mind signing this for him?’ I happened to have a note card that said ‘The White House’ across the top. And he said, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to. What’s his name?’”

Jen, who works as deputy communications director in the Obama administration, laughs when she recounts that incident, both for her turn at being an unabashed fan and the surreal quality of the people and situations that her job continually offers up. Because a big part of her responsibilities include explaining economic policy to the media and others, she sits in on the President’s regular briefings with his economics team. At other times, she might be calling the Republicans to task on the White House blog. Or informing the press that the President accepts the apologies of some pol who spoke before he thought. Or boarding a plane filled with reporters for one of Obama’s trips abroad.

Think it’s surreal to run into Derek Jeter at work? Well, Jen was on her way to show a group from Greenwich Country Day School around the White House one day last summer when she happened to pass Hillary Clinton, whom she’d often seen but never formally met. “Nice blouse,” said the Secretary of State. “Thank you so much,” said Jen. 

 

Still, it seems fitting that of all the folks that Jen has crossed paths with these past two years, the one she felt compelled to cadge an autograph from was Jeter, whom Sports Illustrated has called “the ultimate team player in a team sport.” In many ways, that’s an apt description of Jen, too, and the role she plays on Obama’s senior staff. “She’s a super teammate,” says Bill Burton, the President’s traveling press secretary. “That’s demonstrated by her reliability. She’s somebody you can always count on to be there, be it professionally or personally.”

At thirty-two, Jen Psaki (a Greek name, pronounced “socky”) is young but not the youngest of a staff that in large part is under age forty. Her main mission is to help promote the President and his agenda. And though Jen is often quoted in the press and has made her strategic contributions, hers is more of a behind-the-scenes role. (Early in Obama’s presidency, the Internet’s “Wonkette” website picked up one of her quotes and attributed it to “Jennifer Psaki, of whom we have never heard.”)

Standing five foot three, Jen’s probably also the shortest of the bunch. She’s further distinguished by her straight, simple-style auburn locks and freckles, no doubt the result of girlhood summers spent outdoors teaching swimming and competing in meets at clubs around Greenwich and Stamford.

In fact, many of the qualities that she brought to her career as a standout swimmer at Greenwich High School and at the College of William & Mary she brings to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “I don’t remember Jen to be our superstar,” says her college coach, Ned Skinner. “But I remember her to be a great teammate, a very spirited swimmer and a valuable member of the program.”

Such is the role she has assumed at the executive mansion, an ideal fit in an operation that like the President himself, prefers a low-key, steady approach. “I don’t equate a successful day with needing to be front and center of an issue or front and center of a meeting,” Jen says. “It’s about playing the part you can play and moving the ball forward.”

Everyone you talk to about her tells of Jen’s calm, and calming, demeanor. Before coming to the White House, she logged eleven straight months on the road as traveling press secretary for the Obama campaign. Reporters who flew with her on O Force One, as the campaign plane was dubbed, and dealt with her every day, say she never lost her composure, even as the stresses mounted.

“These relationships can get pretty heated and contentious,” says Maria Gavrilovic, who covered Obama’s campaign on a blog for CBS News and who is now a producer for 60 Minutes. “When that happens, it’s easy to start disrespecting each other and each other’s roles in this whole process. But that never happened with her. She was just incredibly respectful, and as a result we were respectful of her as well.”

“Her approach to whatever is going on is very calm and levelheaded,” offers Richard Wolffe, author of Renegade, which chronicles Obama’s rise to power, and who covered the campaign for Newsweek. “That’s probably why the candidate, now President, liked her so much. I saw many times when he was talking with her and they were very comfortable with each other. Maybe she shares some of that unflappability with him.”

Getting along might well be Jen’s strongest attribute. Throughout her still young career, she has worked in close quarters with some notoriously challenging, some might say fearsome, individuals without a hitch. During her stint at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, she became friendly with Rahm Emanuel, who went on to be Obama’s chief of staff before resigning last October. And Jen insists that she enjoyed working with former White House economics adviser Lawrence Summers, who walked her through administration policies.

“I don’t think she has much of an ego,” says Wolffe, now a political analyst for MSNBC. “That’s refreshing in a town full of people with gargantuan egos, in a building full of people with gargantuan egos. She plays down everything she does. But you don’t get to be deputy communications director without having real abilities and good relationships with people.”

Jen’s current position lacks the day-to-day intensity of the campaign trail. Yet the demands of governing breed new pressures. This administration, too, has had plenty on its plate, which translates into long hours for everyone down the line. “There are days when I’m upset or angry or irritated or all of those things, of course,” she says. “But there’s an enormous amount at stake with what we’re doing. And I also remember that every day I get to walk into the White House and most people don’t get to do that.”

Her New House

In February 2007, when Obama made the announcement that he was running for president, Jen was unable to attend because it was the same day that her father Jim was getting remarried. Newly hired by the campaign, she arrived in Chicago a few days later, braving the freezing cold in a parka, with a big suitcase in hand and an air mattress, and set about finding a place to live.

Since then, the better part of her waking hours has revolved around Obama and his political pursuits. Jen had previously worked for Senator John Kerry’s failed bid for the presidency, caught the bug for such madness, and wanted another go at it. A rising star in the Democratic party, Obama had the back story and principles that appealed to her. People she knew from her Kerry days, including Robert Gibbs, who would go on to become White House press secretary, and Burton, were now working for the senator from Illinois. They had some conversations, and she signed on.

One hard-fought campaign later, Jen finds herself with an office around the corner and down the hall from the President of the United States. Last year, she happened to be seated next to him at the White House Seder. She’s introduced him and other familiar administration faces to her parents and sisters. And when she got married last spring, the Obamas, who were not in attendance, gave the couple a handsome photo album as a wedding gift.

“His role is to govern the country,” Jen says of the president. “But he does have an amazing knowledge of who everybody is, what their roles are, what their backgrounds are, who they’re married to, and what sports teams they like. He does take a definite personal interest in the lives of his staff at many levels of the food chain.”

Originally, Jen was hired as deputy press secretary, working for Gibbs, a position that revolved around the daily press briefing. Her subsequent promotion to deputy communications director, under Daniel Pfeiffer, calls for a longer view of policies and announcements, though there’s never a shortage of needy reporters to be called back as well.

Jen’s usually up at 5 a.m., answering e-mails by 6, and at work by 7. She tries to plan, but outside events often shape her day. Economics-related matters generally fall to her, so much of her time goes to helping reporters working on stories, unfurling new programs, or prepping administration officials for interviews. “This past year and a half has been like drinking from a fire hose sometimes because there have been so many different policies that we’re addressing or trying to explain or roll out,” she says.

With midterm elections heating up last year, in an effort to fire up the Democratic base, Jen became something of a point man for attacks on the Republicans via the White House blog. In one post, she charged the GOP with having “out of whack priorities” for wanting to extend tax cuts for the wealthy. And when Jen complained in another entry that “opposition” in the Senate had been holding up approval of the President’s nominees to important administrative posts, one conservative website mocked her as “White House crybaby Jen Psaki.”

Jen, an unlikely attack dog, shrugs at the brickbats. Her mother, Eileen Medvey, for her part, strikes a diplomatic note. “Here’s how I look at it,” she says. “Isn’t it amazing that she’s in such a position that people are actually critiquing what she says? Wow.” But then the mom in her emerges: “And Jen being a crybaby is ridiculous.”

Path to Politics

Not long ago, Jen was talking with White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett about her upcoming appearance on The View, for which Jen would be on hand, in the wings. Barbara Walters, of course, is one of the hosts of the show, and it got Jen thinking back to when she was a youngster. Jen’s parents were strict about television, she remembers, but if she behaved, she could watch her favorite program, the news magazine 20/20, which for years was synonymous with Walters, whom Jen admired. In retrospect, she says, it seemed like an early indicator that she wanted to do something with her life that had to do with the news.

At home, Jen was exposed to both sides of the political aisle. Her father, a real estate developer, had a conservative bent and was a staunch Republican. Her mother, a psychotherapist, embraced liberal causes and voted for the Democrats. Eileen figures it was good that Jen and her younger sisters, Stephanie and Kristen, saw both perspectives, to help them better make their own decisions about such matters when they were older.

Maggie Ball, a college friend, sees the reflection of both parents, now divorced, in the woman Jen became. “The hard work, drive, determination and whatever it is you’ve got to have to get where Jen is at her age, that’s from her dad,” she says. “What makes her a Democrat and care about social causes, the people in her life, and the causes that the Obama administration cares about, that’s her mom.”

Jen’s youngest years were spent in Stamford. When she was in seventh grade, the family moved to Cos Cob, then later to Old Greenwich. She went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Greenwich Country Day, then Greenwich High School.

She swam four years for the powerhouse Cardinals and was one of three captains her senior year. Then came two more years of swimming at William & Mary, in Virginia, before she set the sport aside to explore what else college had to offer. She would major in English and sociology.

After graduation, she headed to Washington, D.C., where she landed a job in admissions for an art school. Still, she was interested in politics as well. She’d had an internship for a Democratic fundraiser the summer before her senior year in college, and now started volunteering for the Arlington Democratic Party. It was there that someone told her she might enjoy working on a campaign, and that the best place for that was Iowa, where candidates for president, and young people willing to do their grunt work, flocked every four years for the caucuses.

Sounds good, Jen thought, and off she went. Living in ignoble conditions and putting in godless hours, she worked for the Iowa Democratic Party, then in the press office of the Kerry campaign, first in Des Moines, then Washington, D.C. Among other duties, she was spokeswoman for the adult children of Kerry, his wife, Theresa Heinz and John Edwards.

When Kerry lost, Jen was devastated. But the experience had a silver lining. There would be subsequent jobs, working for U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, of New York’s seventh district, followed by a year at the DCCC, where she handled media inquiries for Congressional candidates in the Northeast and Midwest, and where she met her future husband. By the time the Obama campaign began taking shape, she had developed a solid network of friendships and connections.

Hired as deputy press secretary, she worked at Obama’s Chicago headquarters, then it was on the bus with the candidate in Iowa and on the plane with him and dozens of reporters throughout the grueling Democratic primaries and general election versus John McCain. She would see forty-six states and five countries during that run, living out of a big pink suitcase.

Her enthusiasm for Obama and her job was contagious, to the point that her father even jumped parties and became an avid Obama supporter. Her sister Kristen, among other contributions, worked for Obama in Florida. And during the New Hampshire primary, all three sisters and their dad pitched in on the candidate’s behalf.

The culmination was Obama’s historic election. That night, Jen was in Chicago’s Grant Park, manning the press center tent, joined by Greg after many weeks apart. Even after California pushed the Democrat over the top, it took a awhile for Jen and Obama’s people to absorb what had happened. But when they did, it was an emotional scene. “That was an amazing feeling, being a part of it,” she remembers. “And when the family came out, everybody was just so excited. The entire staff was crying.”

Living in the Moment

These are good days for Jennifer Rene Psaki, and what makes her different from a lot of other hard chargers is that she knows it, appreciates and enjoys it.

Aware that her time at the White House is not forever, she takes each day as a blessing. When she can, she has tried to share her experience with family and friends, giving them tours of the place and having them to lunch at the White House mess. She’s also remembered her hometown, giving commencement addresses at Greenwich Country Day and Greenwich High School and speaking before the League of Women Voters of Greenwich.

She and Greg got married last spring, in Maryland, and if the folks at Wonkette.com were still unsure who she was, all they had to do was open the Washington Post and take in the big spread about her wedding. The White House press office was well represented at the affair, guests raved for weeks afterward about the band, and a good time was had by all. “It was funny in the sense that most of the attendees were on their BlackBerries in between dancing and drinks,” says Bill Burton.

What the future holds for Jen remains to be seen. Certainly the President is expected to seek a second term. Yet a number of White House staffers have already stepped down, some of them citing exhaustion. Jen, for her part, says she has no plans to do likewise. “I love what I do, and I feel lucky to be a part of this administration, and I feel very fortunate to work with the people I work with,” she says. “I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me.”

 

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