Christopher Lu is President Obama’s Cabinet Secretary, co-chair of the Executive Office of the President, and co-chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He previously served as executive director of the Obama-Biden Transition Project; a legislative director and chief of staff to then-Senator Obama; and deputy chief counsel to the Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Mr. Lu was a classmate of President Obama’s at Harvard Law School, and also worked as a clerk for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and a special advisor to the Kerry-Edwards campaign. Mr. Lu would like us to note that he appeared at the event on Thursday night as a private citizen and not in any official capacity.
Interview by Etan Raskas and Michael Soyfer
You once said of the President, “He’s like a Rorschach test; you see in him what you want.” Why do you think that so many people have come to believe that the President is a “Kenyan anti-colonialist,” “socialist,” or that Reverend Jeremiah Wright is a close advisor to him? Why do you think his opponents seem to see that in him? And, as a close advisor to the President, what is he actually like?
Having known the President for 20 years, I am always amused by the characterizations of the President, whether he is a Kenyan-imperialist, whether he is a socialist, whether he is a radical follower of whatever. If the President were here right now, he would come off to you every bit as kind and as decent and as thoughtful and as intelligent as he appears on TV. He is the most principled guy I have ever met. He has got the highest character of anyone I have ever met. He is a person of great integrity. He is also just an amazingly smart person. Knowing the real Barack Obama, it is a little amusing to read these characterizations of him.
Could you give us a sense of your day-to-day responsibilities, how hard it is to keep all the federal agencies on message, how often disagreements pop-up between the White House and the agencies, and what role you have in resolving these disputes?
I think I have the best job in the White House because I not only get to work with the President and get to work with the White House staff, I get to work with the Cabinet. And, uniformly, they are some of the most talented public servants I have ever met.
Look, there are disagreements between the White House and the agencies. There are disagreements amongst the agencies. And you would expect that among people who are bright and have opinions and have different policy experiences and different policy views. But you know I think that at bottom we all understand that we work for the President of the United States. I am pleased by the fact that we have virtually no turnover in the cabinet over the last four years—I mean, a historically low amount of turnover—and that we all get along well, we all understand our mission, and we all understand that the President’s views are the only views that really matter.
Related to that, the President appointed a Republican to head the Department of Transportation. I am just wondering if you could give us some insight into why he made the choice to appoint a Republican and how that works within the administration.
I am probably a little biased because my wife works for Secretary LaHood. I am always very careful not to say who my favorite cabinet member is because they are all my favorite cabinet members, but I have a special fondness for Secretary LaHood because my wife works for him. You know Congressman LaHood and [the President] have a very long relationship that goes back to really the first month that then-Senator Obama was in office. When we opened our district office that in Springfield, Illinois, that was actually in Congressman LaHood’s Congressional district and Congressman LaHood came to our office opening. And that was really kind of the beginning of a long relationship that the Senator and Congressman LaHood had.
Ray LaHood really embraces kind of a pragmatism—a moderation that transcends party definitions. As I said in my presentation, the President asked us to have an administration that reflected the diversity of this country and that included Republicans. And that included people like Ray LaHood, that included people like Bob Gates—our Defense Secretary. I am confident that we will have a Republican in our next term as well, and hopefully that will be Secretary LaHood, if he wants to stay.
You were the Executive Director of the Obama-Biden Transition team when President Obama was making some of these tough decisions. What were some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of that experience?
The transition is really one of the proudest moments of my career. We essentially had 77 days to put together an entire federal government. And it is really a remarkable testament to the stability of our government that you could turn over an entire federal government and have pretty radical change in terms of personnel and policies, yet also have amazing stability. I think that speaks to the strength of our democracy.
But I will tell you that there were days where it was a pretty terrifying experience, wondering, “Wow, we are going to occupy the White House; we are going to occupy the federal government.” There were personnel decisions you had to make. There were policy decisions you had to make. Obviously, we were benefitted by the fact that we had a lot of people who had worked in the Clinton Administration and knew how to run a government. But there is something significantly different from running a U.S. Senate office of 50, 60 people and representing a state like Illinois—even if it is a big state—and managing an entire Federal government. So that was challenging, but I am proud of the work we did.
To get back to the election, it looks like the most likely outcome at this point is that we get a Republican House, Democratic majority in the Senate, and Democratic president. If that ends up being the result, can Americans expect anything other than the gridlock they’ve seen for the past two years?
Well, first of all, I’m not willing to concede that we can’t take back the house. The President is fighting for Democratic candidates in both the Senate and the House, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to achieve that. If, however, we have divided government, I do think that Republicans will have to reassess and realize that their strategy of obstruction over that past four years has not worked. Frankly, the problems that we’re facing in our country are too significant to play partisan politics. As we’ve talked about, we’re facing a serious issue involving the fiscal cliff, and we need to address that.
We also need to continue our efforts to grow the economy. Last fall, the President introduced the American JOBS Act, and independent economists said it would have created a million-and-a-half jobs if it had been adopted. But it wasn’t. And what were the radical things that were in the American JOBS Act? Money to hire people to building roads and bridges, money to hire teachers and firefighters and police officers, money to hire veterans, money to make homes and commercial buildings more energy efficient. These aren’t partisan ideas. These are ideas that in any previous time would’ve been supported by people on both sides of the aisle. I’m hopeful, and the President is hopeful, that once we move past election season, there will be a period of time when we can address these serious issues, whether it’s the fiscal cliff or jobs.
What would you say is the President’s strongest leadership quality, and how, if at all, has he changed over the last four years?
I will tell you that I am amazed at how much the President is still the same guy I knew eight years ago when we were working in the Senate. He is, as I said, a remarkably kind, thoughtful, decent person. He obviously has so many things on his plate—more than any of us could ever imagine. Yet, he always keeps a cool head and a wonderful sense of humor.
In terms of the President’s strongest quality: he’s said, “I say what I mean, and I mean what I say.” There’s a consistency of character, there’s a strength in his leadership that is comforting to people. Even if you don’t agree with the President on a day-to-day basis, he’s genuine, he seems like the real deal, and he is the real deal. I think, fundamentally, that’s what people want in a president. They want somebody who’s a straight shooter, they want a person who has strong convictions and character, and that’s who the president is.
This has probably quieted down a bit lately, but many of the President’s critics on the left would probably say that, especially in the realms of national security and defense, a lot of his positions seem to have changed since his Senate days. Do you agree with that assessment at all? And, if you do, why do you think some of his positions have changed?
You know, I would disagree with that assessment. But I will qualify that by saying that I don’t really deal with national security issues. I will say that if you go back and look at what the President said on the campaign trail about engagement with other countries—he’s followed through with that. What the President has said in terms of the importance of controlling nuclear proliferation—that’s been a consistent theme throughout this administration. And if you look at what the President said during the first campaign, that if there were actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, he would go after him—he followed through on that. So, I think there’s been a consistency, and the President understands the importance of keeping the country safe. He also understands the importance of privacy and civil liberties, and he hasn’t wavered on that, either.