For starters, they really are that young. Speechwriting prodigy Jon Favreau crafted the words that will remain etched in America’s collective memory of Obama’s campaign and inauguration–three years before he turned 30. His deputy, Adam Frankel, is 26. At 32, White House Director of Scheduling and Advance Alyssa Mastromonaco is the president’s official gatekeeper. Michael Strautmanis, Chief of Staff to the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison, 39, has already become a noted addition to the Washington social scene. And domestic policy whiz Heather Higginbottom arrived in a West Wing office before her 36th birthday. These are the kinds of accomplishments that would prove remarkable in any new administration. But, for one that catapulted to power on the backs of 23 million young people, it’s a reflection of a downright revolution.
Obama himself hinted at it during their coming out party in Washington, the Youth Ball on the night of his inauguration: “We know young people, everywhere, are in the process of imagining something different than what has come before,” he said. “A new generation inspired a previous generation – and that’s how change happens in America.”
The young team of left-leaning ‘community activists’ are also very lucky. They’re the public face of a well-liked administration that happens to follow one of the least popular in history. (Imagine you’re in a downtown bar, nursing a gin and tonic, and you casually mention to the attractive lady or gentleman to your right that you work in the White House – that you personally helped craft a proposal that’s sitting on the president’s desk right now. At least in this town, you’ll have a lot more luck with that line today than you would have 12 months ago.)
Of course, there’s the basic fascination with power that has everyone wondering about the new team Obama trusts to “begin again the work of remaking America,” as he put it in his inaugural address. But this is a group of people who mounted the most successful and efficient campaign in history. That alone warrants some extraordinary fascination. What’s more, the young people who worked feverishly to bring Obama to office are translating that efficiency to their new positions around town and around the country. Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, the firm that managed Obama’s online strategy, says the campaigning and outreach tactics these aides learned are infecting federal bureaucracies, as well as political campaigns everywhere. “It really was like a boot camp for a new way of doing politics, at least from the new media perspective,” Gensemer says. In other words, expect these young experts to influence our political system for a long, long time.
So, they have youth, luck, and great experience – could these new power players possibly have anything else working in their favor? As it turns out, they also have great timing.
Their rise dovetails with something much longer-term and, at the same time, much more local than a grand presidential transition. Those of us who have been living in the region for years know that the new Obama aides have arrived at the seat of power at a moment of intense change for the city as well. With a national economy in freefall, traditionally ‘hip’ urban areas like New York, Chicago, and Miami are seeing jobs for young people dry up. Lucky for us, though, government-led, ‘recession-proof’ D.C. is picking up the slack, expecting to add nearly 72,000 jobs in the next two years. (New York, by contrast, is expected to lose about 165,000 jobs in the private sector alone during that time.)
But you don’t need statistics to feel the energy of new ideas and optimism in the face of recession around our city. Penn Quarter is bustling with new restaurants and bars. Quirky new hotspots are popping up on H Street. Waterfronts in the District, Maryland, and Virginia are seeing major revivals. Enduring crime and poverty notwithstanding, it is an important urban shift. And it’s one led by mostly young entrepreneurs and innovators, like Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts, owners of the hot Logan Circle wine salon Cork; arts democratizer Philippa Hughes, who left her legal career to help foster a local arts scene; or 28-year-old wonderchef Johnny Monis, owner of Dupont Circle’s Komi restaurant and a Food and Wine ‘Best New Chef’ of 2007.
Focused on urban renewal, committed to change, and unwilling to accept the notions of power and success that was handed down to them. Sound familiar? When you think about it, the popular new celebrity staffers powering Obama’s team aren’t terribly different than many others in our area. Together, twenty- and thirty-something politicos and local industry leaders are rewriting what it means to be party to the power establishment in this city. And unlike the melee of a youth ball, this party is just beginning.
Kate Palmer lives in D.C.. From 2006 to 2009, she was deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.