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On Friday, October 6, Tina Tchen and Neil Eggleston — alumni of Northwestern Law and the Obama Administration — shared candid reflections from their time in the White House at an Alumni Weekend and Reunion event moderated by Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez.
Working in the White House
Tchen (JD ’84), who now leads the Chicago office of Buckley Sandler LLP, had been involved in Illinois Democratic politics for many years and knew the Obamas long before Mr. Obama ran for president. Tchen joined the administration right away, serving as director of the White House Office of Public Engagement from 2009 until 2011, and later as Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama from 2011 to 2017 and as an assistant to President Obama. She was also Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls for all eight years.
In her first role, Tchen was responsible for running the White House office dedicated to creating a dialogue between the American public and the federal government.
“We were marshalling people to help pass the Affordable Care Act, help pass the Recovery Act, help pass the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” she said. “It was a really busy two years.”
As the First Lady’s Chief of Staff, Tchen was responsible for managing the entire East Wing staff, including the social secretary’s event-planning office, which was responsible for State dinners, the Easter Egg Roll, and the Thanksgiving turkey pardon. She also oversaw a policy team that ran four initiatives on behalf of the First Lady by the end of the administration: Let’s Move!, a campaign to reduce childhood obesity and encourage healthy lifestyles for children; Joining Forces, an initiative to support military families; Reach Higher, which encouraged all students to pursue some type of education beyond high school; and Let Girls Learn, a campaign for access to education for adolescent girls across the world.
“I’ll never have another job like that. I’ll never work in another place like that. I used to feel sorry for my younger staff, because I had a lot of staff for whom this was their first job — we hire a lot of people from the campaign, right out of college. I felt sorry for them because to have the best job I’ll ever have at the end of my career is one thing, to have the best job you’ll ever have at the start of your career is hard.”
Eggleston (JD ’78), currently a litigation partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, joined the Obama administration in 2014, when he was hired as White House counsel, advising the president on legal and constitutional issues across a broad spectrum of domestic and foreign policy matters.
“I was the principal legal adviser to the National Security Council, so things like drones and targeted killings, use of the AUMF. We had a policy staff that worked on things like the opening to Cuba, [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA)], the Clean Power Plan. Judges were under me, including the nomination of Merrick Garland, and the clemency initiative,” Eggleston said.
Eggleston had previously served as associate counsel to President Clinton, and was deputy chief counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee Investigating the Iran/Contra Affair.
“I think in some measure, the last two or three years of an administration is a time when administrations seriously go off the rails. If you think about the recent past, presidents have lost both the House and Senate by the midterms in the middle of the second term, and the opposing party has the power to investigate,” he said. Eggleston’s experience working with President Clinton during the Whitewater investigation made him a good candidate to work with President Obama toward the end of his term, he said.
Eggleston later added, “It’s almost unheard of not to have scandals in the last two years of the administration, and we had no scandals in the last two years. […] People would ask me, ‘Who was your client, the person or the presidency?’ In the Obama administration, there was no difference.”
On the Obamas
“The great thing about the two of them, they are the same people when the cameras are off that you see when the cameras are on, and I think that’s what the American public responded to, they are both entirely authentic,” Tchen said. “She is genuinely funny, he can genuinely sing.”
“He never yelled at anybody in my presence, and I saw him a lot,” Eggleston said. “He got frustrated from time to time when things weren’t going the way he’d like them to. I was not there when the ACA marketplace computers weren’t working, so I don’t know if someone got yelled at then, but as a general matter he was totally decent, wonderful to work for, and ungodly smart.”
“When we were rolling out DAPA, [the President] met with members of Congress and I was sitting there,” Eggleston added later. “And with no notes in front of him, he described this program which was unbelievably complicated. I was sitting next to the head of the Domestic Policy Council, Cecila Muñoz, and I leaned over to her and said ‘I’ve been working on this for three months and I couldn’t do that.’ His ability to assess information, put it together and then articulate it — I’ve never seen anybody quite like that.”
“He really is the smartest person I’ve ever met and I think I’ll ever meet,” Tchen said. “You can find pictures of him on Flickr, carrying his briefing book home every night. And more than once, I’d be in a meeting with him, we’d bring in top experts on the issues, and without fail he’d not only consumed the briefing material, he’d done outside reading.”
Tchen and Eggleston both candidly expressed concerns with respect to some of the institutions they saw up close.
“I think that it was unconscionable for the Senate not to consider Judge Garland, and I have this basic theme that I’m worried about our institutions, more so after [President Trump’s] inauguration than before, and I think it increased the view that the Supreme Court is just a political body and I think that’s unfortunate,” Eggleston, a former clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger.
Tchen pointed at President Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio as particularly worrisome for the rule of law.
“If the court issues you orders, then you follow them, unless you appeal them and then you litigate them through. So the idea that a president, without any review, without going through the typical pardon process, without any checks and balances — I was offended not just as someone who cares about the underlying issues of immigration and what Sheriff Arpaio has done, I cared about it as a lawyer. Every lawyer, regardless of party, should have been offended by that.”
However, Tchen says her worries go beyond any single action President Trump has taken.
“I think there’s great resilience in our institutions, but you also come away from the experience Neil and I had with a tremendous reverence for the position and for the institution and the building itself; it’s one of the reasons why many people from the Bush administration have become very dear friends, because you share a very unique experience,” Tchen said. “I don’t see that reverence and understanding for the historical power that the office holds being carried out or understood by the current occupants.”
Both Tchen and Eggleston expressed a need to combat the current charged political climate, and Tchen ended the event with a call — particularly to the young alumni in the crowd — to get involved.
“I am worried that the current corrosiveness of the conversation will scare people away. It’s a rough-and-tumble business. But on the other hand, it’s been the place I’ve had the most fun, I have made the best friends of my life, I’ve been able to act on the issues I care about,” she said. “It’s been an incredibly personally enriching experience, but it’s also really important for the country.”
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