In 2011, when I was 24, I was hired as a White House speechwriter. My first thought (after “holy crap!”) was that someone must have made a mistake.
It’s not that I thought I had no talent whatsoever. It’s just that I knew there were more than 300 million people in America. Sure, some of them were babies. But a lot of them were adults. It seemed unlikely that I was the best We, the People, could do.
In some ways, I clearly wasn’t. (In my new book, Thanks, Obama, I describe getting discovered, in my underwear, changing clothes in the coat closet of Air Force One. It’s the kind of predicament I suspect a slightly more mature human would be able to avoid.)
But that’s one reason I’m so grateful I got the chance to work in the Obama White House. For several years I was forced — often against my will, almost always against my instincts — to act like an adult.
My years in Obamaworld taught me the value of perseverance. As a 21-year-old, newly smitten with a candidate and his inspiring campaign, I assumed that doing good always felt good. Otherwise, why bother?
I now know better. Today when I think about what I admire most about President Barack Obama, it’s not his rhetorical style or his charisma. It’s his refusal to give up, even when changing the country felt deeply, painfully not fun. I’ll never forget the day after the 2014 midterms, a shellacking to end all shellackings. According to the traditional Washington script, POTUS was expected to apologize profusely, beg forgiveness, and radically scale back his goals.
Here’s what he said instead: “The principles that we’re fighting for, the things that motivate me every single day and motivate my staff every day — those things aren’t going to change.”
There were days when we knew we were on the right side of history and lost anyway. But President Obama was willing to keep fighting through them. And because he did, millions more Americans have health insurance, thousands of troops are home from war, and LGBTQ Americans across the country can marry the person they love — even in the age of Trump.
The unglamorous work of decision-making
Eight years in Obamaworld taught me the value of patience. In the Obama White House, we enjoyed keeping track of what the press referred to as POTUS’s “Katrina moments,” catastrophes from which he would supposedly never recover. A surge of undocumented minors at the border; the Ebola epidemic; the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov — time and again, reporters, Republicans, and often even our allies insisted the wheels were coming off the bus.
In those moments, it would have been easy for the president to do something, anything, as long as it was drastic. Impulsiveness can often pass for decisiveness, especially when the stakes are high. But President Obama remained calm and thoughtful. He made changes: After the Healthcare.gov launch, for instance, we began more often “red-teaming” initiatives, assigning a designated pessimist to figure out what could possibly go wrong. But he made those changes methodically, with an eye toward long-term outcomes rather than short-term perception. At a time when the news cycle has shrunk to mere minutes, that’s not easy to do.
It taught me the value of discipline. I came to believe that what President Obama did, better than anybody, was distill complicated issues to their essence. Whether he was reading a policy memo or a punchline, he could identify its most important element. And perhaps most crucially, he had the self-control to pay attention to that element while delegating other, less important pieces to staff. One secret to solving big problems, I discovered, is knowing which little problems to ignore.
The real meaning of “the adult in the room”
There are plenty of other things I learned while at the White House. For instance, that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.
But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in my 20s: There are no grown-ups, at least not in the way we imagined as kids. There’s no room full of all-knowing elders in charge.
True, people often referred to POTUS as “the adult in the room.” But it took me years before I fully understood what that meant. As much as I admire and respect him, President Obama wasn’t perfect. Not every decision he made was correct. What made Obama the adult in the room was the way he defined his priorities. Children strive only for pleasure; adults strive for fulfillment. Children demand adoration; adults earn respect. Children find worth in what they acquire; adults find worth in the responsibilities they bear.
And while it turns out the world has no all-powerful grown-ups, it has an overwhelming number of children. They come in all ages, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.
More than anything else, or perhaps at the root of everything else, this is what worries me about our current political moment. Yes, Donald Trump is the oldest person ever to become president. But he’s also our first child commander-in-chief.
In this scary political moment, when a 71-year-old kid is the most powerful person on Earth, we could be forgiven for dreaming of Obama’s return. Maybe he’ll come back and save us, the way our parents swooped in and picked us up when we were little, and lost, and afraid.
It’s a comforting fantasy. But if we want the sense of possibility and decency at the heart of the Obama movement to return, we will have to be our own grown-ups. We will have to save ourselves. That’s the idea at the heart of democracy. None of us is the best of We, the People. But we are all we’ve got — and if each of us does their part, we’re good enough.
I remain an optimist — in the long term, anyway — because of and not despite what I’ve learned about being an adult. If there are no perfect grown-ups, it means that generations before us had to figure things out too. Our heroes were human beings. In their own messy and imperfect way, they preserved government of, by, and for the people, and handed it down to us.
If we reject Trumpism not just as a political philosophy but as a way of life — if we define ourselves by our responsibilities instead of our possessions, if we seek fulfillment over fleeting pleasure, if we earn respect instead of demanding adoration — then I believe we too can protect the democracy we love.
David Litt is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir Thanks, Obama, from which this essay is adapted. He is also the head writer for Funny or Die DC.