“The Best Decision I Could Have Made”: Stories from 2008 Campaign Veterans

Yesterday, President Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, where he began his political career and launched his historic candidacy for President.

In his speech, the President talked about building on the vision he laid out for our country nine years ago, one where we reclaim the meaning of citizenship and restore our sense of common purpose:

“Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more — and it is time for our generation to answer that call. For that is our unyielding faith — that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.” — Barack Obama, February 9, 2007

Read the stories of some of the staffers who answered that call nine years ago — and still serve beside President Obama in the White House today.

Desiree Barnes, Press Assistant (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Desiree Barnes, Press Assistant

I grew up in Buffalo, New York and was raised by my mother, who worked as a Special Education Administrator, my grandparents, who grew up in the South during segregation, and my late uncle, who served in the Air Force. I became a third generation college student, but we were still struggling to pay for health care, quality education, and in many ways, still struggling to have a voice.

When I was in college during the 2008 financial crisis, my school was no longer affordable. But I didn’t just want to work to make ends meet, I wanted to work to change the system that was on the brink of failing me and my peers. It was a very personal choice to join the campaign.

I left school and became a field organizer in Western Pennsylvania through a blind application process. I started knocking doors and registering voters, and volunteered long hours and late nights. From that summer on, I was adopted by Special Projects and the First Lady’s staff to work as a full time intern to small yet mighty team.

This photo was taken of me in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in June 2008 as the Senator Obama spoke about the economy at Carnegie Mellon. This town was similar to mine, a former manufacturing hub that was hit hard as jobs had been outsourced and plants shut down. It was where I was assigned as a field organizer.

I was nervous because Pennsylvania wasn’t Chicago, New York, or Hawaii — these people didn’t know this man yet, and wanted immediate solutions for fear of needing to relocate for work. For a crowd that started off quiet and apprehensive, they sure did change their level of excitement by the end of the speech. At that moment, Senator Obama reminded them that at, every turn, getting America back to work was his priority.

Ellie Schafer, Director of the Visitor’s Office (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Ellie Schafer, Director of the Visitor’s Office

I wanted to work for then-Senator Obama because I believed so much that he was what this country needed. I remember telling my friends some of the things the he said he wanted to accomplish and they would laugh and say, “Well, that’s bold!” and I would say, “Exactly! And that is why I am working for him!”

On the night before he announced his candidacy in Springfield, Senator Obama, Michelle Obama, and I were getting ready to walk into the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel when I mentioned to him that there were quite a few folks in the lobby who were excited to see him. He laughed and reminded me that he worked in Springfield and knew a few folks and I said, yes but it’s A LOT of people.

We opened the doors to the hotel to walk in and the lobby was packed wall to wall with people who erupted in cheers and clapping when they saw him. I will never forget the look on his face. He had the biggest smile.

I still get choked up thinking about it and how special it was — it was the beginning of something that was so special. I spent 654 days on the road living out of a suitcase and a backpack traveling all around the world for his campaign, always inspired by his vision, his philosophies and his never-ending determination to make the world a better place. I wouldn’t trade these past 10 years for anything in the world.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet Melissa Winter in the Map Room of the White House, Dec. 18, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Melissa Winter, Senior Advisor to the First Lady

One of my proudest memories of the campaign was watching Michelle Obama walk onto the stage of the convention floor in Denver to give her speech.

When I started on the campaign in 2007, Michelle Obama was a mother, wife, and hospital executive. She was not a professional public speaker. But after months on the campaign trail, talking to small groups in people’s living rooms and back yards, she had come into her own. By the time we got to Denver in August of 2008, she was a powerful force and an incredible speaker. She gave a speech that night that brought me and countless others to tears — it made me realize that all the sacrifices and time away from friends and family had been worth it. We were really doing something that mattered.

Yohannes Abraham, Chief of Staff for Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Yohannes Abraham, Chief of Staff for Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs

Choosing a most memorable moment from the 2008 campaign is next to impossible, at least for me. It’s like asking someone to name their favorite song — there are just too many that mean too much. Of course, there are the big moments everyone knows about — the Iowa-Jefferson Jackson dinner, the President’s remarks in Philadelphia, the New Hampshire concession speech.

That said, when I think back on the campaign, my mind immediately goes to people — my teammates and the volunteers we served. My favorite memories are all about them. In fact, if you ask any of the President’s early field staff for their favorite memories from the trail, I doubt many of them would cite some moment with the candidate. Do not get me wrong, we believed passionately in Senator Obama’s candidacy. And, on a human level, he was extremely generous to and appreciative of his organizers.

But he, more than anyone, taught us that what we were trying to do, and what we were trying to build, was about more than him. It was about the other folks, just like us, who believed completely in the importance of being a small part of something bigger than ourselves. So it’s those moments when we were engrossed in our mission — together — that still stick out. Overindulging in pizza at one in the morning while entering data with volunteers. Long car rides to towns none of us had heard of, in states we had never visited. The precinct captains who invited us to holiday dinners when we were away from our families, and once timid volunteers expertly leading canvass trainings.

I think those experiences are why so many of us are still involved today. It is hard to come out of the 2008 Iowa Caucus campaign, or the general election effort that followed, and ever again pay much mind to cynics.

Tyler Lechtenberg, Senior Presidential Speechwriter (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Tyler Lechtenberg, Senior Presidential Speechwriter

Nine years ago today, I was living in Portland, Oregon, sitting on my cousin’s futon watching a rerun on C-SPAN. Obviously, I’m a lot of fun at parties.

We were watching coverage of Senator Obama’s announcement speech, the one where he said: “In the face of a politics that’s shut you out, that’s told you to settle, that’s divided us for too long, you believe that we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building that more perfect union.”

That was me. That’s what I believed — that our politics can be better; that people who love their country can change it. And that’s why a few months later, I packed up my Dodge Neon and drove back to Iowa, my home state, for a job as a field organizer. I was a farm kid who’d worked as a sportswriter after college — I’d never been involved in a political campaign before. I’d never made a cold call. Never knocked on a stranger’s door. But something about this campaign felt bigger than just an election — so even though it was a longshot, I guess you could say I was fired up.

I worked out of Marshalltown, Iowa, a blue-collar town of about 25,000. On the surface, it wasn’t the kind of place you’d expect to be particularly fertile ground for Obama supporters. But as I spent my four or five hours on the phone or knocking doors every night, more often than not, folks were willing to listen, engage, and consider the issues — even with a random dude on their doorstep at dinner time. And gradually, the conversations shifted from “Obama? Who?” to “How can I help?”

We signed up a small army of local supporters — long-time activists and first-time volunteers; nurses and small business owners; high schoolers and third-shifters from the UAW. As caucus day approached, folks came in from across the country — college students, teachers, retirees, even an astrophysicist. They were all willing to pound the phones or head out into the snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures, hoping to move the country forward.

On caucus night, when the results started trickling in, and everybody began hooting and hollering and hugging, and my precinct captains began calling with stories of crowded sites — I’ll never be able to describe how all that felt. But what I can tell you is that my time in Iowa had taught me less about what this country could be, and more about who we already are — folks who don’t always wear our politics on our sleeves, but work hard and want what’s best for each other. And when we all work together, we can accomplish big things.

Of course, not every moment on the campaign was as pure as caucus night. I’ve left out a lot of sleepless nights, mind-numbing data entry, and gut-bomb meals that shall remain nameless. Nine years later, we’ve still got a lot of work to do to make our politics better reflect our people. But here’s the thing — I know it’s possible. Iowa showed me that. And if you ask Yohannes or anybody else who worked or volunteered back in 2007, they’ll tell you the same thing. That’s why so many of us are still here — at the White House, throughout the Administration, or pushing forward in states, nonprofits, or campaigns. We’re still reaching for what’s possible.

The morning after the caucuses, I was talking to one of our volunteers — a woman who’d been with us since the Senator’s first trip to Iowa. She asked me, “Are you going to work at the White House?”

It was a ridiculous question. I laughed her off, told her she was getting way ahead of herself — I mean, our inevitable victory in New Hampshire was still a few days away! Besides — me? A job at the White House? Impossible.

Videographer Hope Hall tapes President Barack Obama working on a document in the Chief of Staff’s office in the West Wing of the White House, June 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Hope Hall, Presidential Videographer

I was living in downtown Manhattan on September 11th, and like so many, my life has a before and an after that day. I had always had an activist bent, growing up keenly aware of and mobilized by staggering inequality and injustice around me. So when it came time to organize around and advocate for a compassionate response to the attacks, and to march for peace, I was all in.

I had become a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, and began working within the confusing landscape of the blended marriage of creative non-fiction with activism. I organized for the ’04 election cycle. I marched and marched, and documented those marches on 16mm film. I started a community garden, taught algebra, and shot feature docs and music videos. I was trying out projects on every front, with the through line of advocating for a society that works to alleviate suffering, inequality, and injustice — face first and head on.

Then came Barack Obama. Hope and change. In 2006, a dear friend started making a documentary on then-Senator Obama, with the idea that he might run in 2012. I came on as a second camera, every once in a while, and signed up as a field organizer in New York. You know the story well by now: Everything changed, he won Iowa. I was there and now filming every month or so, as things and events took off and the doc needed more coverage. Then came the call to join the campaign’s New Media team, and suddenly the most intense and magical five months of my life rolled out before me. It all felt like the strangest dream.

Simply put, that night at Grant Park was the best night of my life. The results were streaming in faster than we could process, and the park was a surging sea of kindness and hope, anxiety and energy. I was in the buffer, rolling on everything: faces, tears, shouts and details. Jesse Jackson was there, in front, standing next to Chelsea, a woman I’d come to know well. I had made a video with her just two months before, focusing on the story of the Violence Against Women Act. After surviving domestic abuse, and while raising her son alone, she had become an advocate, activist and organizer, and then was chosen as a delegate to the Denver Convention from her district in Texas. She inspired me then, and still inspires me daily.

So, as the president-elect was announced to the stage, I took a moment to turn the camera 180 degrees away from the focus of the entire world, and I filmed her beatific face, streaming with tears. Much later, after the crowd had begun to disperse and the night started to wind down, I found myself backstage congratulating President-Elect Barack Obama.

Photo by David Katz

I feel like the look on my face is particular to the experience of getting to work alongside such incredibly good humans like Chelsea, of having the honor and pleasure of telling their stories alongside them. Even more than four years into this job, I still get that grin, sometimes in the strangest, smallest, quietest, least obviously dramatic moments. The realization that this is actually my job, to be here, to document this presidency and tell its story and myriad stories within and around it, hits me just about every day. Be kind, and be useful. It’s possible.

Tom Reynolds, Strategic Communications Advisor (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Tom Reynolds, Strategic Communications Advisor

I spent the early part of the 2008 primary season working for another candidate. I initially thought there was no way a one-term senator had any chance of winning. But my candidate quickly dropped out. I then went on a long vacation, moved back to Washington DC, and took a private sector job. I effectively swore off politics for good.

But that summer, something started to happen. People had hope. People wanted change. And then, after a hard-fought primary campaign, longshot Senator Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee. In early June that year, a friend called. He was blunt and candid. He asked: “Why the hell aren’t you working for Barack Obama? We’re going to make history.”

He was right. I didn’t want to miss out.

I quickly quit my cushy job and in a matter of days was sitting in a folding chair at a folding table in the basement of an old church in Columbus, OH, as also known as the campaign’s state headquarters. When joining the campaign, I could have gone to any number of states to help. They actually wanted me to go to North Dakota. We were looking to expand that map after all. But for presidential politics, Ohio has few rivals. “As Ohio goes …”

It was the best decision I could have made.

The subsequent months were at the same time the longest and shortest I’ve ever experienced. I never have before or ever since worked longer hours. I’ve never experienced more stress. But I have never done anything as exciting, or important, or met as many people that cared more about taking the country in a new direction. Thankfully, I am lucky to still call many of those same folks my close friends.

Mika Rothman, Senior Legal Assistant (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Mika Rothman, Senior Legal Assistant

In the summer of 2007, I boarded a plane for Des Moines, Iowa to work as an intern for then-Senator Obama’s longshot campaign. I remember late nights at 323 East Locust Street — I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Des Moines campaign office’s address — hunched over laptops, typing voter contact data into Excel spreadsheets, and early mornings stacking packets of canvassing materials. Any campaign veteran can proudly tell stories of all-nighters and the pre-sunrise starts to their days. But I saw a special type of dedication in the campaign’s tireless field organizers and my fellow interns. We were committed to spending every waking hour working to elect Barack Obama, but we were also building a grassroots organization to empower Americans within their own communities.

That summer, polls across the state put Barack Obama well behind in the caucus race. Numbers from the revered Des Moines Register to the Iowa State Fair — in which fairgoers dropped one corn kernel in a jar for their favored candidate — indicated that our campaign was climbing an uphill battle. But instead of fretting over poll percentages, our campaign was focused on building teams of supporters, empowered to organize for Barack Obama in their own neighborhoods across Iowa. It was a model inspired by Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago.

The campaign’s foundation in community organizing is what makes this photo so special to me. I am standing outside 323 East Locust Street with my fellow interns on January 4th, 2008, the day after Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. We traded our summer t-shirts for winter parkas for a week and a half of “Get Out The Caucus.” The five of us spent long nights and early mornings together, alongside energized volunteers and heroic field organizers. We were just five out of hundreds of interns and staff across the state and country who had worked tirelessly over many months to get to that day. But the five of us felt an incredible bond amongst ourselves and with those throughout Iowa and across the country. We all shared a sense of community and purpose in our work to get Barack Obama to the White House.

President Barack Obama participates in a Twitter Q&A regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), at Taylor Stratton Elementary School Nashville, Tennessee, July 1, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Kori Schulman, Deputy Director of Digital Strategy

In 2008, I — like so many young people around the country — was inspired by then-Senator Obama’s message of hope and the promise of change for a better future. When I graduated from college, I started volunteering full-time at the Obama for America Headquarters in Chicago, just a few blocks from where I grew up. With some experience in graphic design, I found myself on a team that was called “new media.” I designed state-specific pamphlets about Senator Obama’s plan to make health care a reality for all Americans and hand-cut “Change We Can Believe In” podium signs for speeches around the country, I created graphics to engage constituents for the web and social media, and on and on. The days were long. The workload unending. But the mission was clear and shared.

I’ll never forget the moment at Obama HQ in Chicago when we learned that Senator Barack Obama would become the next President of the United States. As the last results came in, I searched for photo options of Obama and Biden for the website homepage (we didn’t want to jinx anything by setting up the victory homepage in advance). Here, gathered with members of the 2008 design team, I think my face says it all.

That night was just beginning. When I started as volunteer in 2008, I couldn’t have dreamed that I would be carrying on this mission at the White House eight years later.

Jeff Tiller, Associate Communications Director (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Jeff Tiller, Associate Communications Director

I was serving as a young press aide in Virginia Governor Tim Kaine’s communications shop in 2008 when he suggested I quit my job and “go work for the future president of the United States.”

Shortly thereafter, I left the governor’s office and traveled south to North Carolina for my first press advance gig on the Obama campaign. I was drawn to the campaign by Senator Obama’s message of hope and his rejection of cynicism. His opposition to the Iraq war provided the possibility of rebuilding our alliances around the world. And I was inspired by his promise of equality and inclusion for LGBT Americans and their families.

I joined the campaign in June 2008 as a national press advance volunteer traveling to different states organizing press logistics for the national press corps and local media at events and rallies. My proudest moments of the campaign came from simply being part of a dedicated, passionate team of advance staffers who answered the call to action and organized these massive rallies around the country. There was a common sense of purpose in our work that motivated us, and I remain close with many of the friends I was privileged to meet along the way.

After months of building press filing centers, writing press advisories, and hauling bike rack for miles, I ended up in Chicago on Election Night working alongside my new friends and colleagues. The next day after a long evening of celebration, a few of us were eating lunch at a downtown Chipotle. We shared our wildest stories from the road and looked forward to the weeks and months ahead. But slowly, the magnitude of the election began to sink in. We couldn’t really believe what we had accomplished together.